‘Behind closed doors’: OPDC discusses latest on Walnut Capital rezoning proposal


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OPDC hosted a “Let’s Talk”/Oakwatch Zoom community meeting Wednesday night to discuss a Walnut Capital proposal that would rezone 17 acres of Central Oakland.

By Kiera Ledermann, Staff Writer

Oakland community leaders encouraged attendees at Wednesday’s “Let’s Talk”/Oakwatch to contact their City Council representatives and voice their opinion on the recently amended and advanced Oakland Crossings plan.

“It’s really important that […] every City Council person receives a very clear message from each of their constituents,” Andrea Boykowycz, assistant director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corp., said. “Community centered and community driven planning processes are way more ethical and way more integral and are going to ultimately serve the neighborhood’s interests better than these kinds of private deals that are written behind closed doors.”

OPDC held its monthly “Let’s Talk”/Oakwatch community meeting Wednesday night to discuss Shadyside developer Walnut Capital’s plan to rezone parts of Oakland. About 50 attendees joined the meeting to learn more about the amendment and share their thoughts. Before opening the floor to discussion, OPDC leaders gave a presentation summarizing the process of Pittsburgh City Council amending the proposal and what changes the amendment made.

City Council voted on Oct. 13 to amend proposed legislation that would rezone 17 acres of Central and South Oakland. The bill has drawn opposition from community members for not only its content, but for what some say is not sufficient community input. 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.

Todd Reidbord, president and co-founder of Walnut Capital, told The Pitt News that 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. 

Reidbord added that 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.

Boykowycz said the rezoning would permit Walnut Capital to turn primarily residential McKee Place into commercial zoning. According to Boykowycz, parking structures, drive-thru fast food restaurants and utility generating plants could be built in the area. Also, rezoning of Boulevard of the Allies and Halket Street could allow hotels, university buildings, parking structures and research and development services to be built, Boykowycz said.

Boykowycz also examined the provision for “walk to work” housing, where an apartment’s rent will not exceed 30% of the tenant’s gross income. Boykowycz said the bill requires new multi-family housing to contain a minimum of 10% of units designated as “walk to work” housing. 

“Given how nonsensical it is that the basic requirement is simply that it be affordable to the people who are renting it, regardless of their income, it would seem silly that they would only apply that 10% of the units in their building,” Boykowycz said.“The implication being that for 90% of the people who are living there [it] is unaffordable, it’s really a little bit hard to understand.”

According to Wanda Wilson, OPDC’s executive director, the “walk to work” housing provision in the plan does not address the problem of affordable housing.

“It’s very sloppy, and it’s very deceptive, in terms of, you know, they talk about it as though it’s something that has any kind of relation to affordable housing and helping us meet the lack of affordable housing that’s a very real concern in Pittsburgh,” Wilson said.

One attendee said that they think the proposal “should be thrown out and go through the normal procedures of City Planning and Zoning.”

During the presentation, Boykowycz said the bill — which Mayor Bill Peduto submitted on Sept. 17 — arrived as a “surprise” to City Council.

“This bill is not a part of the Oakland Plan process and did not involve the Department of City Planning and arrived as something of a surprise on City Council’s desk,” Boykowycz said. 

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.

Boykowycz said after the hearing took place, Councilman Bruce Kraus failed to respond to requests from OPDC and several Oakland residents to meet and discuss the bill.

“Following the meeting, OPDC and several Oakland residents reached out to the councilmember Kraus’s office to request a meeting to discuss the matter further and no one received any acknowledgement from the councilor’s office during that time,” Boykowycz said.

Boykowycz said on Oct. 12, Kraus announced that he, his legislative aide and Walnut Capital’s lawyer had spent every day since the hearing “behind closed doors” working on a set of amendments which he introduced “at the same time he asked council to vote to approve them.”

After some brief discussion, the City Council voted 8-0 to send the amended bill to the Planning Commission for review. Councilwoman Deb Gross abstained from the vote.

OPDC leaders shared a clip from last week’s standing council meeting in which Kraus explained that he forgot to post the amended bill to the City Council website for public review before the vote. They also shared a clip in which Councilman Ricky Burgess stated his intent to vote to pass the bill, regardless of the Planning Commission’s findings.

“I will vote for it now, I will vote for it when it comes back,” Burgess said.

Janice Markowitz, who serves on the OPDC board of directors, denounced the project during the open discussion, calling it the “most egregious attack that I have witnessed in my life on this community and this neighborhood.”

“It’s not disingenuous to say that if this project goes forward, that there’ll be a lot of things that are injurious to not only the people right now on this call, but people throughout the city of Pittsburgh,” Markowitz said.

Markowitz also said including Oakland residents in the project’s process is necessary to ensure the project actually benefits them.

“The people that live here … on a daily basis for decades, understand what the needs are better than any possible developer with any renderings that comes along,” Markowitz said. “When people point to blight, they need to be reminded that a lot of the blight has been caused by leaving people out of the process.”

According to Wilson, OPDC plans to host a formal development activities meeting on Monday, Nov. 29 with City Planning to discuss the legislation before it goes to the Planning Commission.

After the discussion, community members made announcements about the residential parking program and upcoming events.

Elena Zaitsoff, an Oakland resident, announced that information about the residential permit parking program can be found on the ordinance on the EngagePGH website. Zaitsoff also requested extra police patrols for Halloween weekend, to which Pitt police officer Jeff Colello responded “we’ll be out in full force.”

To close the meeting, Lizabeth Gray, OPDC’s neighborhood quality consultant, reminded attendees about the annual “Stuffed with Love” project through which police deliver Thanksgiving dinners to people in need, and encouraged people to let her know if anyone needs help with their Thanksgiving dinner.