Opinion | Top-down redevelopment threatens Oakland residents, businesses

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John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer

Halket Street in Oakland.

By Andrea Pauliuc, For The Pitt News

Oakland Crossings, the development plan spearheaded by Walnut Capital, is not a project that Pitt students should ignore. The future of a large chunk of Oakland quite literally rests in this redevelopment plan, and educating ourselves as students about the potential consequences is more pressing than ever.

The proposal includes a new grocery store, new apartment complexes, a pedestrian bridge across the Boulevard of the Allies and more green spaces. The plan is supported by Mayor Bill Peduto and many Pittsburgh City Council members, as well as the Oakland Business Improvement District, a registered community organization. The Oakland Planning and Development Corp., another local organization, adamantly opposes the plan, arguing that it is not in line with the community’s vision for the neighborhood.

As somebody who only is living in Oakland temporarily, as many of us are, it’s important to understand our impact on the residents who have lived here before us. The truth of the matter is that students are everywhere, but permanent, vulnerable residents are being displaced.

The restoration of what used to be Schenley High School into luxury apartments is proof of this drastic demographic shift across the greater Oakland area. The neighborhood has changed and is changing in large part because of students. With this comes a responsibility to educate ourselves about this plan and the consequences that could emerge.

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Although the features of the Oakland Crossings proposal sound enticing, it is fundamentally flawed and ultimately would be a negative transformation for Oakland. Here’s why:

  1. Oakland needs help, but not from big developers

It is no secret that Oakland suffers from infrastructure issues, unaffordable “grocery” stores, unwalkable sidewalks, minimal green space and littered streets. While we might be eager to embrace any plan that claims to solve these issues, ultimately they should be solved at a community level. It has been proven across Pittsburgh that landlord-driven redevelopment —  which often lacks affordable housing mechanisms, such as inclusionary zoning and land trusts — do not serve deeper community needs.

Yes, Walnut Capital agreed to address community concerns such as limiting building heights, but only in City Council’s amendments to the original plan. And although Walnut Capital is participating in public meetings, this is no replacement for an organization made up of Oakland residents, such as OPDC, contributing to planning.

Given how multifaceted Oakland is, something like the Department of City Planning’s Oakland Plan — led by a steering committee composed directly of residents, politicians, businesses and institutions with a stake in the neighborhood — would be better suited to identifying and addressing Oakland’s needs.

  1. Rent would likely increase

It’s continually been proven that redevelopment plans often cause property values to rise, sometimes resulting in insurmountable rents for longtime residents. Community members who cannot keep up with rents are forced to relocate, and usually are pushed to the margins of a city.

Financially forced relocation itself is unjust, but especially to community members who have been living in Oakland for decades. Pittsburgh is already one of the most gentrified cities in the United States. Not only that, but future students would likely be paying higher rents. If Walnut Capital goes forth with this construction, it is possible rent will increase. This possibility alone should be incentive enough to caution against this plan.

  1. Small businesses could be affected

Oakland is filled with businesses we love, such as Groceria Mercante, Spice Island Tea House, Beta Bites, Antoon’s and more. With this plan, the businesses we have grown to love could suffer. Evidence proves that with large-scale redevelopment plans come higher rents and chain restaurants, both of which might ultimately force our beloved local businesses to close. The COVID-19 pandemic has been harsh enough on smaller businesses — the last thing they need is higher rents and potential competition from chain grocery stores and restaurants.

  1. The character of Oakland would drastically change

No, it is not fun to have leaking ceilings or deteriorating sidewalks. But we still shouldn’t have to settle for buildings that all seem to look sterile, as Walnut Capital has done in other Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as in East Liberty.

Given that Oakland Crossings would demolish existing buildings in favor of new ones, there’s a great deal of character that would be lost in this plan. This plan would change Oakland from a distinct, charming and historic neighborhood into a cookie-cutter, gentrified one.

Obviously, not every home in South Oakland can be preserved, but these homes are manifestations of people’s lived experiences. There’s a beauty to urban restoration. And we should try our hardest to restore first and renovate second. Taking an older building filled with years of history and transforming it to its original state preserves Oakland’s history and character, whereas redevelopment falls short of protecting that history. Restoration allows us to stay connected to our past.

So where do we go from here?

It is without a doubt that Oakland needs help. We lack affordable grocery stores, the housing infrastructure is crumbling and the Boulevard of the Allies is unwalkable for pedestrians. These neighborhood weaknesses provide an opening for companies such as Walnut Capital to tell us what we need. The way we approach these issues matters. Walnut Capital’s Oakland Crossings plan is a textbook top-down level approach, which doesn’t align with the character or needs of Oakland.

We need to care. And we need to voice that. Otherwise, the Oakland we have grown to love will soon become a distant memory. All that will be left will be a carbon copy of other redeveloped neighborhoods. Are we really going to settle for that?

Andrea Pauliuc writes primarily about urban issues, community empowerment and politics. Write to her at [email protected].