Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission approved a zoning change that will allow the owners of a Shadyside shopping center to replace existing stores with a dense, multi-story retail and housing project.
A Giant Eagle anchors the 5-acre plaza, which was planned and built in the 1970s; some of the stores have been vacant for years. The zoning change will allow owner Echo Realty to build a multi-story project and make better use of the land, said Phil Bishop, the company’s vice president.
“It’s not an urban development. It’s a suburban development with large parking fields out front,” he said. The current use does not meet the needs of the city “nor the investment that the city undertook with the upgrading of the busway.”
The East Liberty Transit Station was completely overhauled and opened in 2015 thanks to federal, state, and local money. Bishop cited a series of community plans and guidelines and said they envision exactly the kind of development his company wants to build.
Current plans include a smaller Giant Eagle, space for other retail, improved transit and pedestrian access, parking, and 252 units of housing. Bishop said 15 percent of those units would be affordable below market rate: 10 percent at 50 percent of area median income, and the rest at 80 percent of area median income.
Residents at the meeting said they’re concerned the development will worsen traffic congestion, doesn’t address pedestrian safety, and infringes on the residential feel of the land on three sides of the existing development.
Georgia Berner of Shadyside said she welcomes more neighborhood retail and affordable housing, but that the project in its current form doesn’t fit with its surroundings.
“We will have buildings looming over us,” she said.
Housing advocates urged Echo Realty and their partner Greystar to double the number of affordable units.
“We have been encouraged by the conversations we’ve been able to have” with the developers, said Celeste Scott, housing justice organizer for Pittsburgh UNITED. “We do think that this affordability target in a place like East Liberty, where there has been so much historical harm, is not asking too much.
Representatives from Pittsburghers for Public Transit proposed a way to pay for the increased affordability: reduce the planned amount of parking and use the savings to subsidize more units and provide transit passes.
“This is an opportunity to address several needs,” said Joshua Malloy, PPT’s community organizer. “Pittsburgh’s affordable housing crisis, congestion in East Liberty and Shadyside, underutilization of public transit in the area, and overbuilding of parking.”
Malloy cited a 2018 analysis by Jeanne Batog, a University of Pittsburgh graduate student, that found nearby parking lots experience 40 percent vacancy during peak hours.
Speaking after the meeting, Bishop said they have looked at affordability. They are not required to provide any housing below market-rate “so we feel with our current proposal at 15 percent we’re doing something that no one else in the city is doing.”
Councilor Erika Strassburger said the low-density plaza is outdated and runs counter to many of the city’s goals: to manage stormwater and encourage more people to use transit.
“If done well, this project could be a model development,” she said, and urged all parties to continue a robust, inclusive dialogue. “For us to be able to dig into all of these details, the question of rezoning must be decided upon first.”
The zoning change passed unanimously and now heads to Pittsburgh City Council.
Planning Commission also approved two projects from Walnut Capital: a final land development plan for a “refresh” of Bakery Square and a ten-story office tower in Oakland.
At Bakery Square, Walnut Capital will build a new food and beverage building on the edge of a redesigned public plaza. The new building will be connected to the former Nabisco Factory with a steel and glass frame “conservatory,” that will also be open to the public. The plan will first demolish the existing one-story building on-site, formerly a Coffee Tree Roasters but most recently a pop-up shop for Millie’s Ice Cream.
The company’s Oakland building will stand at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Halket Street, and is expected to provide office or lab space. As part of a community benefits agreement, Walnut Capital will provide retail space for small and local businesses along Fifth Avenue, to be leased to Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. Some Oakland residents are concerned about the building’s height and feel they have been cut out of the planning process.