September 17, 2021
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9/17/21: Legislation circulating in City Hall would allow denser, taller mix along Halket, McKee
A swath of Oakland now dominated by housing could eventually include classrooms, labs, medical offices and other buildings as high as 150 feet tall under legislation submitted by Mayor Bill Peduto to Pittsburgh City Council.
The legislation would create a so-called Oakland Crossings district including much of the property bounded by McKee Place, Forbes Avenue, Halket Street and Bates Street, minus most of the parcels along Coltart Avenue. It would also include a rough rectangle of office and parking space south of the Boulevard of the Allies.
The district is intended, according to the legislation, to encourage dense, high-quality, mixed-use development; improve conditions for pedestrians; create consistency in the scale of buildings and better connect the area with the rest of Oakland.
If approved, it could herald big changes for the area.
The portion of the proposed district north of the Boulevard of the Allies features houses and small apartment buildings.
The legislation would permit new housing, but also banks, classrooms, labs, libraries, medical offices, parking structures, stores, restaurants and other uses.
It would allow buildings no shorter than 30 feet and as tall as 150 feet high.
Oakland is already the subject of an ongoing comprehensive planning process. Oakland is also the scene of recent demolition, and in July a lawyer for Walnut Capital told the City Planning Commission that to expect a “25- or 30-step process” regarding some of the parcels there. Those parcels are within the proposed Oakland Crossings district.
Calls and emails to officials of Peduto’s administration, two City Council members, University of Pittsburgh Media Relations, Walnut Capital and their attorney were not immediately returned.
Before council can approve a zoning change, it must go before the City Planning Commission for a hearing and nonbinding vote.
9/15/21: Housing Authority leader vows that Northview residents won’t be without housing
Pittsburgh’s biggest public housing community, Northview Heights, would see demolition, construction and a net reduction of around 44 apartments under a plan that has cleared its first procedural hurdle.
The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh board voted without dissent to approve the transfer of around four acres of Northview to the agency’s nonprofit arm, for construction of a 43-unit mid-rise building. That would then replace a deteriorating 87-unit high rise.
Agency officials said they couldn’t get federal Department of Housing and Urban Development approval to replace all 87 units on site.
Authority Executive Director Caster Binion said the authority hasn’t yet decided whether to attempt to replace the lost units on one other site, or in different locations. “We’re still working through that process. But no resident will be without housing,” he said.
The financial closing on the planned mid-rise construction is expected to occur around June. Northview now has 449 units.
9/14/21: Landmark facade to return in new development
The University of Pittsburgh can proceed to demolish a Forbes Avenue building that had housed the Allegheny County Health Department and, before that, the Croatian Federal Union of America, following a pledge to carefully preserve and eventually rebuild its terra cotta facade.
The building at 3441 Forbes Avenue, which Pitt bought from the county in 2018, is slowly crumbling, according to Mary Beth McGrew, the university’s associate vice chancellor for planning, design and real estate. “Each snowstorm we were worried about things falling apart,” she told the City Planning Commission at a public hearing about the proposed demolition.
The building is not designated as historic. The university has the city’s approval to raze it, but also needed the commission’s nod.
Prior to seeking commission approval, Pitt met repeatedly with Preservation Pittsburgh and a representative of the Croatian Federal Union. The university agreed to carefully mark the pieces of the facade, dismantle it, store it in a climate-controlled place, and rebuild it within five years as part of the redevelopment of the site. The rest of the building will not be preserved.
McGrew said the university hasn’t yet finalized redevelopment plans for the site. One option would be to build a structure set back from the current facade. The university could then rebuild the facade at roughly its current spot, connecting it via a steel framework to the new building, and leaving a courtyard or outdoor anteroom between them.
“I do think it will be a delightful change to a lot of what we see on Forbes Avenue,” said McGrew. “We are looking forward to making it a vibrant part of the street.”
No members of the general public spoke at the hearing.
“It can’t be an easy project, but it’s an absolutely gorgeous facade and I like what you’re thinking about and how you’re going about it,” said Commissioner Becky Mingo. The commission approved the demolition without dissent.
9/14/21: Few new drive-throughs, but more porches could be result of Pittsburgh zoning proposals
It could become easier to get permission to build a fence, porch or parking pad in Pittsburgh, but harder to develop a drive-through restaurant, under proposed Zoning Code changes presented to the City Planning Commission.
The outgoing administration of Mayor Bill Peduto wants to simplify aspects of the complex code, in an effort to reduce the number of cases that have to go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The ZBA rarely disapproves of residential parking pads or porches, or certain kinds of fences. In recognition of that, the Department of City Planning would like to allow an administrator to approve more of those uses, rather than pushing those decisions to the ZBA.
The proposed changes would allow larger portions of backyards and side yards to be used for parking pads or garages, but would still not allow parking in front yards without ZBA approval.
The changes would also allow ornamental fencing around front yards and privacy fencing around backyards with just an administrator’s OK, rather than requiring a ZBA hearing and vote. Similarly, they would give property owners more flexibility regarding porches.
“We’re really opening it up, wide open, for porches,” said Zoning Administrator Corey Layman. He added that his office will want to see written confirmation that neighbors don’t have objections to proposed porches that come close to property boundaries.
Largely unwelcome, under proposed new rules, would be drive-through restaurants, which typically feature fast food. The administration wants to largely bar new drive-throughs, except in areas zoned for highway commercial uses and general industrial uses, because it believes they discourage foot traffic and compromise pedestrian safety.
Several commission members spoke approvingly of the proposed restrictions on drive-throughs.
The commission is scheduled to hold public hearings and votes on all of the measures on September 28, and if approved they would go before Pittsburgh City Council.
9/9/21: Bank lending practices leave minority neighborhoods reliant on public dollars
Fewer and smaller bank loans have flowed to Pittsburgh’s minority neighborhoods than to its largely white neighborhoods, and public sector investment isn’t enough to fill the gap, according to a report released by a coalition of neighborhood groups.
The 129-page report Inherited Inequality: The State of Financing for Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was completed by a team of researchers, including some from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. It looked at bank lending data and public investment documents for 2007 through 2019, gleaned from public and private sources. Key findings:
- More than 900 banks with transactions in the city made some 71,000 loans totaling $11.8 billion to borrowers within the City of Pittsburgh, but just 3.5% went to Black Pittsburghers.
- Just 6.8% of the bank loan dollars went to largely minority neighborhoods.
- While loans to white borrowers averaged $38,360, those to Black borrowers averaged just $5,888.
- Some $3.4 billion in public-sector housing investments skewed slightly toward minority neighborhoods, but that didn’t come close to counterbalancing the disparity in bank lending.
- In mostly white neighborhoods, 92% of investment came from bank loans and the balance from public sources, but in minority communities more than half of investment came from government programs.
- Just three banks – Dollar Bank, PNC Bank and Wells Fargo Bank – topped $25 million in loans to Black Pittsburghers during the study period.
The city and its authorities have invested vigorously in minority communities, said city Councilman Ricky Burgess, at a press conference in the City-County Building at which the report was unveiled.
“As much as we’ve done, the private market has done little or nothing in those same communities,” he said. Pittsburgh’s status as “the worst place for African Americans in the United States,” he said, is driven in large part by “greedy corporations and greedy financial institutions that are literally starving the African American community into death and destruction.”
Dan Holland, director of research for the Lower Marshall-Shadeland Development Initiative, talks about the failure of most banks to lend vigorously in Pittsburgh’s minority neighborhoods, at a press conference at the City-County Building on Sept. 9, 2021. Pittsburgh Councilman Daniel Lavelle stands behind him. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)
Shadyside got as much in loans as did all of the city’s minority neighborhoods, said Dan Holland, a community reinvestment researcher who led the study.
Why do most banks continue to fail to lend equitably?
“It’s not a matter of outright bigotry,” said Gregory Spires, a professor of sociology and public at George Washington University, who helped to guide the report and appeared at the press conference. Leadership in the banking industry has publicly supported equitable lending, he said. But loan officers are overwhelmingly white, and they may be willing to overlook a flaw in the credit history of a white borrower that they would not overlook in a Black borrower, he said.
On the neighborhood level, the report zoomed in on Marshall-Shadeland, a neighborhood with a slight Black majority. Just 22% of bank loans there went to Black residents. Absentee landlords, meanwhile, took ownership of more than half of properties in the neighborhood, the report found.
The report was led by Parents Against Violence and the Lower Marshall-Shadeland Development Initiative, and its research team included Ralph Bangs, former associate director of the University of Pittsburgh Center on Race and Social Problems, and data analyst Randy S. Weinberg of Carnegie Mellon University. It is being transmitted to the Pittsburgh Black Elected Officials Coalition and to state and federal regulatory agencies.
Among other recommendations, the report suggests that the city and related agencies should systematically deposit and invest their funds only in financial institutions that lend in minority neighborhoods.
“The City of Pittsburgh is also complicit because we allow them to get away with it,” said Councilman Daniel Lavelle. He said the city should adopt a rule that if a bank doesn’t lend in minority communities “you no longer get a dime of our money.”
9/9/21: Thick pile of public comments helped to shape deal on Skinny Building
Deluged with public pleas to save Downtown’s so-called Skinny Building, the Urban Redevelopment Authority voted to sell it to an arm of PNC Bank, with the condition that it be preserved.
The URA bought the building near the corner of Forbes Avenue and Wood Street, and its neighboring Roberts Building, in 2013 for $1.3 million, and will now sell them to PNC for the same price.
Just more than 5 feet wide and 80 feet long, the Skinny Building has been a Pittsburgh oddity for a century, and news of its impending sale to PNC drew some 50 people to write to the URA. According to URA board Chairman Sam Williamson, most of the letters had a simple message: Don’t let anybody tear it down.
Williamson said the URA bought the Skinny Building “specifically so it would be saved from the wrecking ball” at a time when it was in danger of demolition. “We all agree that the Skinny Building – and PNC believes that the Skinny Building – is an important piece of Pittsburgh’s history,” Williamson told the board. The public comments helped to shape the URA’s deal with PNC, he said.
That deal allows PNC to renovate the Roberts Building into flexible office space, and to run an art program and new business incubator space in the Skinny Building. But the URA and PNC will enter into a 99-year covenant to protect the facades and bar demolition, and preservationists will work with PNC to keep the spirit of the original design even as updates occur.
The redevelopment is expected to cost PNC $6.1 million.
The board voted 4-1 to approve the sale, with Jodi Hirsh dissenting because many community members were concerned about the transfer.
9/9/21: Uptown land sold for large, mixed development
Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority will sell 1.4 acres of city-owned land around the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Dinwiddie Street in Uptown to a developer for construction of housing and commercial space.
The URA board voted unanimously to sell the land for $2.4 million to Bridging the Gap Development, which plans development on both sides of Dinwiddie. The east side will be office space, while the west will become 171 apartments, of which 33 will be priced for households of modest income.
The site includes a former city Department of Public Works location, which will house much of the 20,000 square feet of commercial space. The complete development is expected to cost $66.6 million.
“We’re excited about this project, what it’s going to mean to the community, but really what it’s going to mean to the entire city,” Derrick Tillman, president and CEO of Bridging the Gap, told the board. He pledged that it will “redefine what it means to bring about comprehensive, equitable community development.”
9/9/21: Trees could make way for duplexes in Hazelwood
The Urban Redevelopment Authority will try to negotiate the sale of 48 parcels of wooded, publicly owned land in Hazelwood to a developer interested in constructing housing, following a URA board vote approving the talks.
Oak Moss Consulting LLC wants to build 62 duplexes – some market-rate, some affordable – on vacant land along Sylvan Avenue, Chatsworth Street, Chance Way, Monongahela Street and Berwick Street. North Shore-based Oak Moss drew public praise for consulting with community groups, though one resident told the URA board that the wooded properties should be maintained as greenspace. The parcels once held houses, which were demolished.
A representative of Oak Moss told the board that some land around Sylvan would remain wooded, and that at least six of the units would be priced for households earning at or below 80% of the area median income.
URA staff now has six months to negotiate exclusively with Oak Moss. URA board Chairman Sam Williamson said the agency should use that time to pound out a firm commitment on the inclusion of affordable units, and to help Oak Moss to connect with programs that could help area residents to work on the construction of the duplexes.
9/2/21: The public has until month’s end to comment on affordable housing plan
The City of Pittsburgh may allocate more deed transfer tax dollars to an affordable home purchasing program next year than this year, under a draft plan on which the public can soon comment.
The Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Board reviewed and discussed the draft allocation of the $10 million in city money that it expects to oversee next year. The HOFAB gets an annual share of the deed transfer tax, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority administers the programs it funds.
The most notable proposed changes from this year’s allocations:
- A $215,000 increase for the For-Sale Development Program, which helps developers and community groups to finance the construction or renovation of new houses to be sold to families with modest incomes
- A dip of nearly $1 million in new allocations to the Rental Gap Program, which aims to fill holes in the financing plans of apartment building developers – a program that this year got an extra $750,000 boost from a special infusion of funds from Pittsburgh City Council, and that remains flush with nearly $7 million in unallocated funds in its coffers
- Inclusion of $425,000 for a new Small Landlord Fund that aims to help mom-and-pop landlords to make improvements to rental homes
- A drop of $550,000 in new allocations to the Legal Assistance Program, which was created to pay for lawyers to help people facing eviction, but which has a leftover balance of $800,000 from this year’s allocation.
HOFAB members argued for keeping the flexible Demonstration Dollars allocation, which can be spent on novel programs or redirected as needed. Some cited the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision nixing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic-related curbs on evictions.
“It worries me that we’re going to have this dam breaking and we’re not going to be able to deal with that effectively,” said board member Mark Masterson.
Last month landlords filed 561 cases seeking to evict tenants in Allegheny County, the highest level since September, when previous restrictions briefly expired before the CDC stepped in.
The draft allocation plan was crafted by URA staff. The staff used results from a survey of 488 people, input from the Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Board members and data on the available dollars and demand trends for each program.
Staff expects to post the draft on the URA website in coming days, along with a form through which the public can submit feedback. The advisory board could vote on the plan Oct. 7, then send it to the URA board for its approval the following week.
9/1/21: Fee on deeds and mortgages to cover most of $3.2 million anti-blight package
Allegheny County will steer nearly $2 million raised through a new fee to 30 communities to fund the demolition of 100 derelict buildings.
The round of funding is the first under an ordinance passed last year, which placed a $15 fee on the filing of deeds and mortgages, strictly to pay for demolition of blighted buildings.
Getting the most buildings demolished under the program are McKeesport and Wilkinsburg, with 10 each, followed by the Steel Rivers Council of Governments (which serves 19 Mon Valley municipalities) with 8, Braddock with 7, and Brackenridge and Pittsburgh with 5 each.
“I’m delighted to see that we were able to provide funding to these municipalities and support the demolition of 100 structures,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, in a statement provided to PublicSource. He thanked County Councilman Bob Macey, of West Mifflin, who proposed the fee ordinance.
The county in March invited municipalities and councils of government (COGs) to apply for the funds. It got 60 applications to demolish some 375 buildings at a cost of nearly $7.7 million — far more than the fee has brought in so far.
“Not having seen the grant awards, my hope is that these dollars would be allocated in the places of need,” said An Lewis, executive director of the Steel Rivers COG, who was a key advocate for the fee. “Those communities can’t take care of these issues without support, period. They simply cannot.”
The $1,935,076 of deed-and-mortgage-fee revenue that the county will distribute amounts to 86% of the funds collected through the fee. The rest is available for emergency demolitions or the next round of funding.
The county is, however, going to pay for 87 more demolitions in 15 other municipalities using $1.2 million from other funding sources.
“There has been a tremendous need for blight remediation throughout the county, and this program has allowed us to support the work of our local municipalities and others to improve neighborhood conditions,” said Lance Chimka, the county’s development director, in the statement.
The county gave preference to applications that targeted clusters of unsound buildings, especially those that present a safety hazard, are slated for redevelopment or are part of planning efforts. The county is also requiring that the contractors conducting the demolitions repeatedly wet down the structures to reduce the drift of any dust containing lead.
The funded demolitions won’t come close to addressing all of the blighted buildings in the county.
“I think we have to have a larger conversation about what comes next,” said Lewis. “We have got to get these buildings down, because they are so detrimental in every way — psychologically, physiologically and economically.”
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @richelord.
This article was produced by PublicSource.org, a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. PublicSource tells stories for a better Pittsburgh. Sign up for their free email newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.