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Pittsburgh developer seeks forgiveness, not permission, from zoning board – gets neither

An blue, four story unfinished apartment building.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
An unfinished apartment building at the top of one of the main entrances to the Troy Hill neighborhood.

Joseph Serrao, an architect for TKA Architects, began his presentation to Pittsburgh’s zoning board in March by explaining why it should exempt the apartment building he had designed from local zoning regulations.

The building was in a commercial district in the Troy Hill neighborhood, and the zoning code allows only three-story buildings up to 45 feet tall in that area. Serrao asked for permission to build up one portion of the building to four stories and 49 feet high, with a penthouse on the top floor.

“What we are proposing to do is to add a partial fourth floor to the existing approved apartment building,” he said.

He later showed board members images of the structure: “That's what it would look like as you're driving up Troy Hill Road from basically halfway up,” he said.

On paper, Serrao and the building’s owner, Anthony Talotta, may not have been asking for much: an extra 4 feet of airspace, and a waiver that involved a few square feet of parking. But the board soon learned that the idea didn’t exist only on paper.

A dozen people had signed up to speak about the changes. The first was Brian Faull, who lives next door.

“Can I say one thing to start?” he said. “The fourth story is already there. They're talking like it hasn't been erected. They already built it, and now they're trying to after-the-fact get approval to build it.”

“The pictures he showed you are of the building,” Faull said. “It's already constructed.”

Later in the meeting, Serrao confirmed this was true. When the board issued its ruling a month later, the board wrote that the building owner was “seeking forgiveness instead of the required preconstruction permissions” to build the penthouse. The board denied the request for a variance, or exception. That’s left a shiny new building — where the plan had been to house 20 tenants by now — instead of just a hollow shell, its unfinished interior in limbo.

Still, the decision to build first and seek approval later has upset some residents. And it has raised questions about how to best encourage growth while observing a need for standards.

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A beacon on a hill gets a crown

Delays on new development projects can take on outsized importance in neighborhoods where continued growth is tenuous. And change is happening in Troy Hill more slowly than in booming neighborhoods visible just across the Allegheny River: the Strip District and Lawrenceville.

Troy Hill has seen far fewer development controversies, and much less development. Most of its homes are modest, two- and three-bedroom units built before the 1940s, many of them row houses originally occupied by German immigrants who worked in nearby factories and slaughterhouses.

But in recent years, homes that had once been passed down in the family have been sold to outsiders instead. New buyers began looking in once-overlooked areas that are near the city center but still affordable, according to Sabina Deitrick, a University of Pittsburgh professor of urban affairs and planning.

“A new generation of homebuyer is looking into communities that are in the city [and] that are attractive, that aren't expensive,” Deitrick said.

Signs posted in front of a blue four story apartment building with information about the request for permission to build the fourth story.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Signs were posted in front of the Troy Hill apartment building with information about the request for permission to build the fourth story being made to Pittsburgh's Zoning Board — just below the fourth story which had already been built.

During roughly the past decade, the number of residents in the Troy Hill-Spring Garden census area has increased by a third, according to an analysis at Pitt released last week, with by far the largest increase coming from adults aged 25 to 44. As the neighborhood grew crowded with young workers, the percentage with a college degree increased by two-thirds, while the percentage living in poverty fell by a third.

Prices have reflected the trend. A 2015 news story touted that Troy Hill’s real estate market, where the average home then sold for less than $50,000, was “hotter than ever.” Since then, the average home price in the neighborhood has more than tripled, increasing twice as fast as the city as a whole, according to real estate website Zillow. Homes in the neighborhood are still cheaper than those in other parts of town, but the gap has been closing quickly.

It was in the midst of those changes that Talotta began making plans for an apartment building with “spectacular views.” Some residents and community leaders hoped the new building, situated at the top of local thoroughfare Troy Hill Road, could be a sign for visitors that the area is thriving.

Talotta was no outside developer: His connection to the area stretches back decades. He and his wife, Diane, purchased the property in 1986 for $175,000 and ran a vending machine business there. By 2018, they realized, the property offered the potential for panoramic hillside views of Downtown to Lawrenceville, according to neighborhood officials who he approached and his own public statements about the building.

Talotta planned to build 20 single-bedroom apartments on two floors with a garage underneath, according to Talotta’s public statements and permit applications. He also debated adding a fourth floor with eight apartments, or maybe a single large penthouse, he told residents at public meetings. But he didn’t include those designs in the plan he eventually submitted. Two years later, the family formed an LLC and took out a $3.4 million mortgage.

And while Talotta wasn’t required to get the approval of the neighborhood group, Troy Hill Citizens president Abby Vanim said he began reaching out to its members around 2018. During those discussions, she said, Talotta promised to add trees and benches in the front of the building to help draw visitors into the neighborhood. The Troy Hill Citizens’ board wrote a letter of support for Talotta in 2020.

“It has been evident throughout this process that the developer has made a good-faith effort to listen to and adopt the concerns of neighbors,” the letter read.

Construction began in 2022, but neighbors said they noticed that it sometimes seemed to slow to a crawl. Vanim recalled that in October 2023, Serrao gave a tour of the building to her group’s board members while she was out of town. Board members told her afterward that Serrao had told them the building would require a variance to build a fourth floor, she said. The board members also told her that the additional floor had already been built.

A white pickup truck parked in a construction site.
Google Maps
Construction on the building was underway in November of 2022.

In November, Serrao emailed Vanim to discuss getting Troy Hill Citizens’ support for the variance. But in January the city issued a stop-work order on the building because of the unpermitted fourth floor. Two weeks later, Serrao filed a request with the zoning board for the required variances.

When Troy Hill Citizens shared news of the request by email and social media this past winter, two neighborhood Facebook groups received hundreds of comments about the fourth-floor proposal, and residents packed a February community meeting that turned contentious. Like many Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Troy Hill has residents who favor development and others who worry about the change it entails. But Talotta’s project raised a different concern held by some in both camps: the process by which it was built.

Brian Mathie, a Troy Hill resident, said at the meeting that he supported the building in principle.

"We need more housing. We need good housing. We need people with money. I would love to support commerce up here. And I hope that your building will bring that. No guarantees. You're taking a risk," he said.

But Mathie added that the criticisms from residents was due to how the developer handled the fourth-floor addition. "The thing that I'm hearing is people are saying, ’You're not being a good neighbor, and they're upset.’”

Some neighbors were worried about what the new penthouse would mean for the neighborhood, which they said was already being impacted by developers. As in other areas of the city, residents were concerned that owner-occupied homes were being bought up by LLCs with mysterious owners without ties to the neighborhood. They fretted that the new building would further a process already underway that was driving up rents and property values and could make it difficult for longtime residents to remain in their homes.

When Troy Hill residents asked Talotta at the February meeting if he would commit to not selling off the apartments as “luxury condos,” he said he couldn’t make any promises.

“When we started this project five years ago, my understanding was it was going to be done in a year, not five,” he said at the meeting. “And every month it goes by, I'm paying the interest on this loan. And I can only do that so long.”

Talotta owns a handful ofother properties in Allegheny County, including his home in Ross Township, but the mortgage on the Troy Hill property was worth more than all of the rest of his assets, he said. If the zoning board denied his variance, he would be forced to sell the building, he said.

“I would try to bail out and pay [the bank] off and that would be the end of it,” he said. “What else am I going to do?

Vanim said that when the neighborhood group polled its members who attended the February meeting, they split evenly between those who supported the new penthouse and those opposed to it. So instead of writing to the zoning board with a letter of support or opposition, the group did nothing.

Vanim said there is a good chance the neighborhood would’ve been more accommodating if the penthouse had been part of the original design.

“One of the core comments that we heard over and over again was, ‘If the rules are good enough for me, then they're good enough for you,’” she said.

'We’ve been able to coexist'

When the zoning board met March 21 to hear the request, three community members spoke in favor of the new penthouse, among them a local investor and a teacher who used to work in the school building across the street. Another supporter was Theresa Farin, who owned a nearby restaurant.

“I think it revitalizes the community, brings people in, and it's just a really beautiful-looking building,” Farin said.

Nine community members spoke against it, with several objecting that Talotta had broken the rules. Another complaint focused on the building’s impact on parking in the area — another challenge complicated by the penthouse. Under the zoning code, adding another unit requires adding another parking space, a rule the developer wanted the city to waive as well because he said there wasn’t room for another space.

“The houses on our street were built around 1900, before automobiles became like a big thing,” said Nicholas Kidd, who lives on nearby Hoff Street. “The way that we've been able to kind of coexist as a neighborhood is that … we work together and talk to each other, communicate our needs. And that way, we're not having parking-chair wars or anything like that.”

Serrao told the zoning board that the school across the street, Provident Charter School, had written a letter giving the building’s residents permission to park in the school lot after hours.

Serrao didn’t provide a copy of such a letter to the zoning board, however, and Provident CEO Maria Paluselli told WESA: “There was no letter written by myself or any staff member from Provident about this building. I have meant to call this gentleman to ask what he is talking about.”

A blue four story apartment building in the foreground with the skyline of Lawrenceville in the background.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
A view of the building from Provident Charter School across the street highlights some of the views from the building, which stretch from Bloomfield to Downtown.

Anthony Talotta Jr., the son of the lead developer, Anthony Talotta, initially agreed to a telephone interview with WESA but instead sent a three-sentence statement, saying “We are exploring our options and have been advised not to comment until we determine our next steps.”

When called by WESA, Serrao hung up after saying, "no comment.”

But at the zoning board hearing and in other public meetings, Serrao and Talotta have said they chose to build the fourth-floor penthouse before seeking variances because they were worried about labor shortages slowing the construction process.

Serrao said they had been in contact with the city’s planning department and decided to build a penthouse on just one side of the building rather than eight more apartments — in part because the latter approach would require more variances.

“We proceeded at our own risk,” Serrao said several times during public meetings.

Ultimately, the zoning board denied Talotta and Serrao’s variance request, concluding that their testimony about the need to build a fourth floor without approval was “not credible” and that they had failed to prove a variance was required.

While the city zoning code allows the board to grant variances in cases where applying the rules would create a hardship, the board ruled that any hardship in this case would “result from the Applicant’s decision to construct a fourth story without permission and is thus self-created.”

As a result, the board wrote, “no Certificate of Occupancy could be issued for any portion of the non-compliant structure.”

The ruling, and the withholding of an occupancy permit, could leave the building vacant until the matter is resolved — which could entail the removal of the fourth floor itself.

That possibility has already been raised, albeit briefly. During the February meeting about the building, Vanim said, “Either he would remove the fourth floor … ”

“You go to court,” interjected Serrao. “We’ve been in big projects where we’ve gone to court.”

Pittsburgh City Councilor Bobby Wilson, whose district includes Troy Hill, said he hasn’t seen many big developers come to the city who have built an addition without getting the necessary permits or variances ahead of time. But the city sees it “all the time” with individual homeowners who have a deck or carport without the proper permit, he said.

Julianne Hluska, a spokesperson for Wilson’s office, confirmed there are four options for the building: 1) remove the fourth floor; 2) appeal the zoning board decision; 3) sell the building without a certificate of occupancy; or 4) leave the building empty and continue to pay the mortgage. Hluska added that the city could also take steps on its own to bring the building into compliance.

‘This project has been very stressful’

Dave Vatz, a housing advocate for Pro-Housing Pittsburgh which advocates for changes to zoning and other policies to encourage the development of more housing, said the city’s parking and height restrictions make it more difficult and expensive to build housing across the city, not just in Troy Hill. Developers should follow the rules, he said, but those rules still need to change.

Pro-Housing Pittsburgh argues that the city’s zoning code too often “makes it illegal to build anything but the lowest-density housing.” The group cites limits on building heights, particularly in commercial areas, as a key stumbling block for housing developments.

The fourth story penthouse in dispute has 14 windows in the corner of a sunroom with more than 180 degrees of views across the Allegheny River. Now it's unclear if they top story will have to be removed in order for people to move into the building.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
The fourth story penthouse at dispute has 14 windows in a planned sunroom with more than 180 degrees of views across the Allegheny River. Now it's unclear if they top story will have to be removed in order for people to move into the building.

“New developments sometimes do create minor inconveniences,” Vatz said. “But ultimately if we want a more sustainable city and a more affordable city, we have to take the concerns of people over cars.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Ed Gainey referred WESA to a spokesperson for the city's Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections, who declined to comment about zoning regulations beyond what was in the zoning board’s ruling.

It’s unclear what the developer’s next move will be.

Talotta warned that, without a variance, he might have to pay off his mortgage by selling the building to a developer with deeper pockets.

“This project has been very stressful and has financially impacted us personally,” he said in his email to WESA.

The project has left the neighborhood in limbo as well, Vanim said: Troy Hill doesn’t have many vacant properties of such size or visibility. Serrao, the architect, hasn’t returned her emails since the zoning board decision, she said.

“What's going to happen to this building? It's half-done,” Vanim said. “Honestly, the whole thing, it's just a big disappointment.”

Corrected: June 20, 2024 at 3:25 PM EDT
The spelling of Provident Charter School was corrected.
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.