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After high-profile projects rejected, calls for zoning reform mount in Pittsburgh

Blue, red, orange, yellow and teal houses next to each other with cars in front.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh’s zoning code — which governs what can be built where, what the buildings look like, and what goes on inside them — isn’t generally the stuff of party chatter and barroom debates. But with the rejection of two high-profile development proposals within the last month, there is increased grumbling among community development officials that the city can’t change for the better without tackling a rewrite of its zoning code.

That may not happen anytime soon.

“And in the meantime, we have city residents … unable to shape their communities to fit their needs and desires,” said Christina Howell, who leads the Bloomfield Development Corporation.

Pittsburgh’s code is intended to “facilitate development of good quality” even as it seeks to “preserve the uniqueness of Pittsburgh,” and the fabric of the community around a given development. Two developers requested changes to that fabric, and in the last month Pittsburgh’s Zoning Board of Adjustment denied both.

At the old Irish Centre in Squirrel Hill, Toronto-based developer Craft General wanted to build condos in a park district – and because zoning rules don’t allow multi-unit housing in such areas, the developer sought a so-called “use change” for the site. At the former ShurSave site in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh-based Echo Realty wanted to build apartments on top of a grocery store. But Echo said the financing required a structure that would be six stories tall – twice what is allowed under zoning rules for the area.

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The Irish Centre was controversial, backed by some housing advocates but opposed by neighbors; the Bloomfield site was almost universally popular, with a consensus built by years of work by community members and pledges by the developer to make pedestrian improvements and accept housing vouchers.

But housing advocates raised the alarm when the Zoning Board gave the same answer to both proposals: no.

City Council must “reform our broken zoning ordinances [and] legalize abundant housing,” Christopher Beam, a member of Pro-Housing Pittsburgh, said during public comment last week. The recent zoning decisions “delayed and prevented hundreds of affordable and market-rate homes from being built in Pittsburgh.”

Another speaker, Andrew Bryk, noted that zoning rules allow drive-through banks to be built on Penn Avenue, but “we can’t build places for people to live and buy groceries. We have our priorities backward.”

Kyle Chintalapalli, the city’s chief economic development officer, doesn’t disagree. But he said that while the three-member Zoning Board interprets the code, “There is only but so far that the zoning board can go” in bending to a developer or a neighborhood’s will. “It’s law.”

Zoning Board members must make their decisions based on the code’s own provisions and by precedents set in previous court cases. And while the law sometimes makes room for special exceptions, even those are tightly prescribed.

In the case of ShurSave, for example, the board found that it didn’t have the power to alter restrictions on building heights, which in some applications are limited to protect the cohesive feel of a residential area, or to prevent nearby homes from being cast in a new structure’s shadow. Adjusting the building height restriction, the board determined, “is policy-making and for the governing body to decide.”

That governing body would be city council and the mayor’s office. And in fact, an effort to overhaul the code began under former Mayor Bill Peduto with an initiative called ForgingPGH. Current Department of City Planning officials say it was a solid start. But officials say that a thorough review and rewriting of the code should be part of an effort to draft a comprehensive plan – a roadmap to how the city should look within 25 years.

Such a plan includes a review of housing and other needs across the city, and it provides the goals a zoning code is meant to help reach. But the city is working to hire a consultant to oversee that process, which could take between three and five years. Officials say the comprehensive plan and zoning review can move in parallel.

The challenge, said city councilor Deb Gross, is “I’ve got some problems that can’t wait that long”: gentrification in some neighborhoods, deterioration in others.

Gross said the city could tweak some aspects of the zoning code before completing a wholesale review. She noted a recent council effort to make it easier for people to open small childcare businesses in all residential neighborhoods, without needing a variance from the zoning board, as well as an effort to create “temporary managed communities” to create safe places for people experiencing homelessness.

As executive director for Lawrenceville United, Dave Breingan spends a lot of time working to protect existing residents even as the neighborhood draws a deluge of new ones.

He said the city’s outdated code doesn’t make it easy for low-income households to find a place in amenity-rich neighborhoods like Bloomfield and Squirrel Hill. New regulations would make it easier for private developers to build more housing, he said.

“I’m not one to play the violin for developers very often, but if we want to create affordable housing, we’ve got to line up our incentives for the people who produce the housing to make it feasible for them to do so,” Breingan said.

He added that the city — and its state and federal partners — should commit to greater investment in housing needs.

The city has applied for $5 million to create a Pittsburgh Housing Innovation Lab, which officials say would focus on removing barriers to affordable housing – including zoning rules that provide an obstacle.

Chintalapalli said the city is committed to that work. But without federal aid to expedite matters, “It may just take us a little bit longer.”