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Developer of Bloomfield ShurSave appeals zoning board rejection

A few cars sit in a big parking lot in front of a low slung, brick grocery store building.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
The former Bloomfield ShurSave IGA, currently open as the Bloomfield Community Market, in July 2023.

Pittsburgh-based development company Echo Realty says rejection of its plan to build a new apartment building and grocery store at the former ShurSave site in Bloomfield should be reversed. That’s according to an appeal filed Monday with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

The city Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the company’s request for greater height in a decision that was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not supported by substantial evidence, and contrary to law,” lawyer Brittany Bloam argued in the filing. Bloam works for the firm of Meyer, Unkovic & Scott; Kevin McKeegan is also listed as a lawyer for the project. 

In their November decision, the members of the zoning board wrote that changing height limits “is policy-making and for the governing body to decide.” In addition, they wrote they were “not persuaded that the variances requested are the minimum that would afford relief.”

Bloam argued in the filing for Echo — working on the project as Bloomfield Bridge Associates LLC — that the developer presented “credible and unrefuted evidence” to support its argument that the 1.7-acre site’s topography and soil conditions create uniquely challenging and expensive limitations on what the company can build. Therefore, the company requires a variance to allow for greater height, according to the appeal.

In addition, the appeal argues that the company wants a “dimensional” variance versus a “use” variance, and it says the zoning board has greater latitude to approve one of those.

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Echo Realty, which purchased the roughly 2-acre site in 2020, proposed to build a new, slightly larger grocery store, a public plaza, and 248 apartments. Because Bloomfield is part of the city’s inclusionary zoning overlay, 10% of those units would have been rented at prices affordable to people who earn less than 50% of the area median income.

After long-running discussions with community groups, the company had also agreed to accept housing choice vouchers at the development — so that more people with lower incomes would be able to access the new housing — and to pay for pedestrian improvements at nearby intersections.

The company’s plan depends on building a six-story building in an area where just three stories are permitted. At a July community meeting, Echo officials said the height was necessary to cover the costs of the building, including the added costs that come with renting 10 percent of units below market rates.

The rejection of Echo’s request for variances in November threw the future of the site into uncertainty. Plans for the gateway site have evolved considerably since 2018, when Indianapolis-based Milhaus proposed building 237 apartments with no grocery store. The idea met with fierce community opposition, and Milhaus ultimately walked away from the deal.

Since then, neighborhood groups and residents worked to create a community-driven plan for the area, and Echo Realty embraced it.

Unlike many new developments proposed in Pittsburgh, plans for the ShurSave enjoyed broad support.

Bloomfield is a walkable, transit-rich neighborhood with a busy commercial district. During the last ten years, the rate at which new households move to Bloomfield is nearly double that at which new units are created, according to the Bloomfield Development Corporation. The proposed Echo Realty project would have added new homes, and new affordable homes, that are now in jeopardy, said director Christina Howell in a statement.

“As an organization, we envision a Bloomfield where everyone can build a home, a business, and a future. We are concerned that this decision makes that vision harder to accomplish,” she said.

In particular, Bloomfield residents have expressed a consistent desire to preserve a grocery store on the site. Howell said she is concerned that Echo Realty will no longer consider a full-service store “viable” without the built-in customer base provided by apartments above.

She said she wonders what a development that doesn’t require zoning variances would look like, adding that such a “by-right development” wouldn’t require community engagement, or allow for the addition of conditions such as the community-won promises that Echo made to accept housing choice vouchers and to improve intersection safety for pedestrians.

Corrected: December 7, 2023 at 12:34 PM EST
A previous version of this story misidentified the lawyer who wrote to appeal the zoning decision: It was Brittany Bloam of Meyer, Unkovic & Scott, and not Kevin McKeegan. McKeegan is also listed as a lawyer for the project.