City Council amends, advances Walnut Capital rezoning proposal

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By Natalie Frank and Millicent Watt

Pittsburgh City Council amended and advanced Shadyside developer Walnut Capital’s Oakland Crossings plan last Wednesday. The plan would rezone parts of Central Oakland to make way for a grocery store, high density “walk to work” housing and a pedestrian bridge across the Boulevard of the Allies.

City Council voted 8-0, with Councilwoman Deb Gross abstaining from the vote, to send the amended legislation to the City Planning Commission for a hearing and recommendation. The council’s changes to the proposal included requiring new multi-family housing in the rezoned area to include at least 10% walk-to-work housing, where rent will not exceed 30% of the tenant’s gross income.

Other changes to the proposal include limiting the heights of developed buildings to a maximum of 60 to 90 feet without bonuses for LEED certification and 108 to 160 feet with bonuses. Walnut Capital originally proposed heights ranging from 165 feet to 195 feet.

Around 25 Oakland residents and Pittsburgh community members spoke out against the developer’s proposal at a City Council hearing on Oct. 5. Community members argued that Walnut Capital did not seek proper community input while formulating its plan — invalidating work that community members already put into creating the Oakland Plan, an ongoing City-led initiative to re-envision the neighborhood.

The Oakland Planning and Development Corp., a registered community organization for Oakland, has adamantly opposed the proposal since its introduction. According to a Sept. 14 statement, the Oakland Crossings project would remove several blocks of homes and apartments. OPDC leaders argue the proposal also ignores the ongoing process to shape the Oakland Plan, which already sought community input about neighborhood priorities.

Todd Reidbord, president and co-founder of Walnut Capital, said the company participated in more than 40 workshops held by the Department of City Planning for the Oakland Plan over the last year. He said the group has also made other efforts to seek community input by briefing City planning officials on their proposed plan to request input as well as holding one formal meeting with OPDC and six community meetings. 

“We also presented to the OBID Board of Directors and have offered to present to OPDC members, but OPDC refused to schedule a meeting for us,” Reidbord said. “We met with Peoples Oakland in their offices. As the project moves forward we will have additional community meetings and publish expanded information on our website at www.oaklandcrossingspgh.com.

Reidbord said Walnut Capital will be involved with scheduling the planning commission hearing to move the rezoning legislation along.

“We will work with [the] Department of City Planning staff to schedule this hearing and incorporate any comments they may have,” Reidbord said.

According to Andrea Boykowycz, assistant director of the OPDC, the organization met with Walnut Capital to discuss the Oakland Crossings plan, and recommended that they include affordable housing in the plan and not pursue zoning changes outside of the Oakland Plan process. Boykowycz said after meeting with Walnut Capital for a second time, they ultimately did not include OPDC’s recommendations.

“Walnut Capital chose not to include or heed any of OPDC’s recommendations or advice in its proposed legislation,” Boykowycz said. “OPDC met a second time with Walnut Capital after the ‘Oakland Crossings’ design concept had been sketched out, and immediately saw that none of our previous recommendations had been taken into consideration.”

Reidbord said Walnut Capital plans to incorporate affordable and sustainable housing by creating LEED-certified buildings and with housing developments in partnership with Pitt.

“We have committed to LEEDs certification for the buildings in our project and will include sustainable features such as solar arrays, rain gardens and permeable pavement options,” Reidbord said. “We are working with Pitt on a ‘Walk to Work Housing Program’ that will provide affordable housing options in Oakland for Pitt employees, staff and faculty, based on their individual income levels.”

Pitt is currently involved with Walnut Capital with a few projects in Oakland, including the redevelopment of University property at 3401 Boulevard of the Allies. The University proposed bringing a grocery store and residential housing units to the property, which currently houses a Panera Bread and a former Quality Inn and Suites. Walnut Capital is also partnering with the University for the redevelopment of a series of now-demolished rowhouses, bounded by Bates Street, Boulevard of the Allies and Zulema Street. It is currently unknown what will take the place of the Bates rowhouses.

Mayor Bill Peduto, who introduced the zoning legislation, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he thinks the plan “checks all of the boxes” that community members have asked for over the past 15 years. Peduto also said he thinks community members’ arguments “fall short.”

“I’ve heard the criticisms. I heard the objections and they’re mostly on process. When you get to the point of process and you’re not arguing that the development is good for the neighborhood, I think that the arguments fall short,” Peduto said.

Peduto also told the Post-Gazette that he believes the “walk to work” housing part of Walnut Capital’s plan addresses affordable housing. 

Boykowycz said the OPDC is encouraging residents to provide public input on the plan.

“OPDC is planning to encourage residents, neighbors and other stakeholders to participate in the opportunities for public input and feedback that are part of the next stage in the review process for this bill,” Boykowycz said. 

Boykowycz said OPDC and dozens of community members asked the City Council to hold the bill, and were “disappointed” that the council voted to move the bill.

Bruce Kraus, a council member who represents part of Oakland, helped amend the legislation. According to the Post-Gazette, he said the amended proposal aligns with the goals of the Oakland Plan steering committee.

Reidbord said Walnut Capital supports the “strong statement” that council made by voting to refer the legislation to the planning commission. 

“We think the changes are appropriate and in conformance with the public statements we have made regarding our plans for the Oakland Crossings project,” Reidbord said.

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