Editorial | Residents don’t need told how to improve Oakland

The future development of Oakland is predicated on how a few facts of life are balanced.

First off, Pitt has a desire and need to expand, especially after taking on its largest ever first-year class. Second, private developers like Walnut Capital stand to make a fortune from this expansion. And the final fact, though often ignored, is perhaps the most important — the interests of Oakland residents do not often align with that of the former two parties.

The recent flurry of housing and community development proposals for the neighborhood, including Walnut Capital’s Oakland Crossings project and vague plans to redevelop a string of recently cleared lots on Bates Street, present a great opportunity for the community.

But these projects could also permanently solidify residential flight from Central Oakland and send a clear message — residents come second to the motives of Pitt, private developers or a combination of the two. These organizations need to take community input seriously, not just as a public relations formality, if Oakland is to remain a truly vibrant neighborhood and not just endless blocks of high-density housing.

For example, more resident housing — as opposed to student housing — has been consistently requested by community members. Yet, for all the land involved in the Oakland Crossings proposal, there’s little reason to believe it will do anything besides push non-students with lower incomes to even further margins of the neighborhood. The plan essentially turns swathes of land designated by the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. as “homeowner preservation priority” into mixed use zoning. What right does Walnut Capital have to impose their grand top-down planning, essentially throwing out years of work by OPDC?

Even worse, Walnut Capital’s plans for the area including McKee Place, Boulevard of the Allies and Halket Street do not include any sort of affordable housing mechanism, such as inclusionary zoning, that would help with resident retention.

Another longtime request by Oakland residents has been a proper grocery store. The Oakland Crossings project does meet this criteria by turning 3401 Boulevard of the Allies, which currently houses a Panera Bread and was formerly home to a Quality Inn and Suites, into a grocery store. But there’s no guarantee that it will be affordable or truly match the needs of the community — concerns never mentioned by Pitt.

It’s also worth noting just how much the Oakland Crossings project has been driven by the interests of a private developer. Not one elected official appears to have had a hand in the initial drafting of the proposal, though it did pass through Mayor Bill Peduto on its way to Pittsburgh City Council, where it’s awaiting approval.

This isn’t to say that Oakland should remain frozen in time — blighted buildings and the lack of a real grocery store are things that should be remedied. The neighborhood could also stand to become more walkable, which the Oakland Crossings plan addresses with a pedestrian bridge over the boulevard and an increase in green spaces.

But when residents speak up about how major housing and community development projects will negatively affect them, perhaps we should listen. Pitt and Walnut Capital are not Oakland — rather, they’re just parts of it.

A previous version of this story said Oakland Crossings would add student housing to the neighborhood. It would add walk-to-work housing for professionals. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Pitt News regrets this error.