Pittsburgh City Council pauses on major Oakland zoning changes

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A decision to revise zoning rules and reshape future development in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood was widely criticized by residents and other stakeholders — including the University of Pittsburgh — in a public hearing this week. And the council, one of whose members admitted to being “overwhelmed” by the reaction, said it would take time to assess the impact of the changes.

A bill being considered by the Pittsburgh City Council would establish three new zoning districts in Oakland. It would also expand the city’s inclusive zoning rules, which require developers to price some of their residential units at rates low-income people can afford.

The new zoning proposal – which affects the Fifth and Forbes Avenue corridor, Allies Boulevard and downtown Oakland between Louisa and Dawson streets – and the affordable housing component are part of the larger plan to ‘Oakland. The city’s planning commission adopted that vision for the neighborhood earlier this summer, but zoning proposals that embody those goals must be approved by city council.

The changes were discussed in a public hearing on Wednesday and met with a decidedly optimistic response.

Many speakers favored expanding inclusive zoning to areas including North Oakland and part of Allied Boulevard. The rule was first established in Lawrenceville before spreading to Bloomfield and Polish Hill as a tool to make more housing available for low-income residents. Community advocates champion it as a way to prevent Oakland’s development from excluding people of modest means.

But almost all speakers opposed the three new zoning districts, which define building sizes and usage requirements for central and south Oakland in three categories:

  • Mixed-use urban centre: applies to an area near Boulevard des Alliés. It would allow for wide commercial use, affordable housing, and housing for the workforce.
  • Urban Core – Employment: Applies to the Fifth and Forbes Avenue corridors. It would prioritize workspace use over multi-unit residential use. Residential use is permitted only if less than half of the property is designated as residential or all units are designated as affordable housing for low-income residents.
  • Residential Mixed Use: Applies to Central Oakland from Louisa Streets to Dawson. It would prioritize affordable rental units in multi-family housing with an exception for small-scale commercial use.

Courtesy of the City of Pittsburgh

A map of the three proposed new zoning districts.

Among those opposing the new districts was the University of Pittsburgh, which urged the council to refer the legislation to the city’s planning commission. The school hopes to redefine development requirements along Fifth and Forbes.

“This is not a request the University makes lightly,” said Chuck Alcorn, a planner in the University of Pittsburgh’s office of planning, design and real estate. “However, as currently drafted, the ordinance could significantly impede the development goals of the University.”

Those goals include building new student housing and classrooms along Fifth and Forbes avenues, a spokesperson for Pitt told WESA. In the new area, Pitt could not designate an entire building for student housing. Developments in the area must be used primarily for employment, and residential units must qualify as affordable housing.

It is also unclear whether the University could develop classrooms or laboratories in the area under the proposed rules.

“The University would like to ensure that zoning allows for the development of University-owned student housing closer to campus,” Pitt said in a statement. “Furthermore, the proposed legislation appears to limit the ability to develop academic and/or classroom spaces along the Fifth and Forbes Avenue corridors.”

Oakland’s three major community groups have spoken out against the new zoning rules. The Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, Oakcliffe Community Organization and Oakland Business Improvement District have all asked the council to slow down the process to allow for more community input.

“Your decisions will not only impact thousands of people now and in the future, but five years from now you will affect millions,” warned Georgia Petropoulos, CEO of the Oakland Business Improvement District. OBID played a key role in developing Oakland’s plan, which was compiled after numerous public meetings and community feedback.

Designing a set of zoning rules that appeals to everyone in Oakland could be nearly impossible, warned Andrew Dash, the city’s deputy planning director.

“Obviously in Oakland there are a lot of competing interests,” Dash said. Residents “want to make sure the effects of density are… mitigated near them and they want to see additional open space.” But on the other hand, “companies and institutions … want to see more opportunities for development and density.”

Dash argued that the new zoning rules are designed to balance the competing goals of everyone who lives and works in the neighborhood.

Resident groups have long opposed a future where tall buildings dominate single-family homes. Elena Zaitsoff, vice president of community organizing for Oakcliffe, demanded that the city protect Oakcliffe from being overshadowed by tall buildings permitted in the Urban Center-Employment district across the street.

“The character of our neighborhoods will be destroyed” if apartment buildings spring up above single-family homes, she said Wednesday.

Along nearby Coltart and Halket streets, other residents fear being sandwiched between an employment town center area and a mixed-use town center area. This concern was illustrated in a rendering featured in the city’s presentation on zoning changes.

Halket St_city planning commission_zoning height impact.png

Courtesy of the City of Pittsburgh

This rendering from the Pittsburgh City Planning Commission illustrates what this residential neighborhood could look like with the new zoning rules in place.

Andrea Boykowycz, deputy director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, argued in testimony Wednesday that the result of the zoning changes would be even more drastic than the drawing suggested. She said the rendering did not take into account the steepness of the neighborhood, which includes Halket Place, Coltart Avenue, Paper Way and McKee Place.

After about 30 speakers spoke about the new zoning districts, Councilman Bruce Kraus, who represents part of Oakland, called on council to discuss those concerns with the Planning Commission.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” Kraus said. “I’m overwhelmed by what I was presented with today.”

The hearing was adjourned to allow for this meeting and the possibility of another public hearing into the matter before council votes.

The break was welcomed by the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. Boykowycz said renderings and maps from the planning commission were not widely shared before the public hearing. She said the thirty-minute presentation on the new areas may not have been enough for anyone to form an informed opinion.

“If you need more time and information to be able to make a reasoned decision,” Boykowycz said. “So please consider that the people of Oakland might need the same consideration.”

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