Gainey hears mixed feelings on Oakland Crossings at town hall

By Jack Troy, Senior Staff Writer

Few community members denied the need for some form of redevelopment in Oakland at a recent town hall, due to the lack of affordable housing and a proper grocery store, but a mix of support and criticism for Walnut Capital’s controversial Oakland Crossings plan persists.

Mayor Ed Gainey held a virtual town hall to discuss the Shadyside developer’s Oakland Crossings proposal on Wednesday. The project would rezone 17 acres of South and Central Oakland, paving the way for a grocery store, “walk to work” housing and a pedestrian bridge over the Boulevard of the Allies. As part of his 30-day pause on the proposal, Gainey listened to comments from students and residents at the town hall. 

No representative from Walnut Capital spoke at the meeting, and Gainey limited his comments to thanking those in attendance.

Former Mayor Bill Peduto introduced the zoning legislation and Pittsburgh City Council voted to advance an amended proposal to the City Planning Commission in October. The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on Tuesday about the ordinance.

Many in the community, including Oakland Planning and Development Corp., denounced the proposal, arguing that Walnut Capital did not properly consider the community’s input and needs. Gainey also attended a public meeting last week to discuss the project with Oakland residents.

Some permanent residents said they were skeptical about the practicality of Walnut Capital’s plan, including Oakcliffe resident Joan Dickerson, who said the proposed redevelopment is “just some pipe dream of wanting, say, some major park in the middle of a highway, the Boulevard of the Allies.”

Some community members criticize the Oakland Crossings project because they say it interferes with the existing redevelopment project, the Oakland Plan, a 10-year vision for the neighborhood crafted by the City and neighborhood stakeholders.

Mayor Ed Gainey hosts a virtual town hall to discuss Walnut Capital’s Oakland Crossings plan on Wednesday. (Zoom screenshot)

Elena Zaitsoff, a resident of South Oakland for 42 years and member of the Oakland Plan Steering Committee, said the zoning ordinance is a non-starter since it wasn’t written by city planning professionals, making it full of potential “errors and legal surprises.”

“First, this ordinance needs so many substantive changes that it should just be blocked,” Zaitsoff said. “It’s not even worth the close scrutiny that would be required.”

Kim Zigmond, a resident of Coltart Street, said despite being excluded from direct redevelopment under the proposal, her family and neighbors will be most negatively affected.

“Walnut Capital is proposing to build huge towers on McKee and Halket,” Zigmond said. “This is not a short-term project. We will be subjected to living in the center of a construction zone for years.”

Controversy over Oakland Crossing’s route through City government was another recurring theme in community members’ comments. Walnut Capital originally brought the proposal to then-Mayor Peduto in September, who skipped over the Department of City Planning and sent it straight to Pittsburgh City Council.

Some, such as Squirrel Hill resident David Vatz, dismissed criticism of the process as the work of a “vocal minority” trying to “derail such a transformative project.” Vatz, a former Pitt student and Oakland resident, also said improvements promised by Oakland Crossings, like new housing and a proper grocery store, are long overdue.

“How can one of our marquee neighborhoods not even have basic services for residents?” Vatz asked. “Luckily, rezoning Oakland and allowing development to go forward can fix some of these problems.”

Melissa Ruggiero, a landlord on McKee Place, said while she understands concerns about the process, they’re not justification to dismiss the plan entirely.

“Let’s not throw out new development because of issues with the process,” Ruggiero said. “And I really think if Pittsburgh wants to be a world-class city, we have to change.”

Several Halket Street residents, who gathered in person to attend the meeting, said Oakland Crossings is necessary to rejuvenate the neighborhood. The proposal would extend maximum building heights on Halket Street, with some parts allowing for up to four times the current limit. In support of the project, one resident said Oakland is “filthy,” while another said “Oakland is dying.”

Longtime North Oakland resident Adam Butkus said he loves living in Pittsburgh because the community creates and decides on proposals like Oakland Crossings “according to a formula,” something Walnut Capital has foregone here.

“But basically, we have a procedure where we do A, B and C, and this A, B and C procedure was totally bypassed,” Butkus said. “Because I’ve been on this Oakland Planning Commission now for almost two years, and basically we were overlooked by Walnut Capital.”

A few students were also in attendance, and spoke out against the proposal. Dominic Victoria, chair of Student Government Board’s community and governmental relations committee and a sophomore politics and philosophy major, raised concern over rippling displacement throughout the neighborhood if Central Oakland apartments are demolished to make way for redevelopment.

“And we want to be part of the solution, like we truly want to be part of the solution,” Victoria said. “But the unfortunate thing is there’s little choice when the already low-quality housing we have is replaced by housing that’s, by nature, hostile to students.”

Divyansh Kaushik, president of Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate Student Assembly, said making it more practical for students to live in Oakland should be a top priority. He said there’s a need for an “abundance agenda,” creating as much affordable housing as possible.

“We should not be thinking of property as a way to create wealth,” Kaushik said. “[Graduate students] can’t afford to live in Oakland right now. We need that housing in Oakland.”

Kaushik said the Oakland Plan is doing a much better job than Walnut Capital at gathering student input.

“So students are busy, they do not have time to show up to community meetings. Please take their views into active consideration,” Kaushik said. “The Oakland Plan is actually doing that.”