‘It’s not really a residential neighborhood anymore’: Halket street landlords talk about Oakland Crossings proposal


John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer

Walnut Capital advertisements in South Oakland.

By Colm Slevin, Senior Staff Writer

Al Pasquarelli, a landlord and lifelong resident of Oakland, is willing to sell and move out of the neighborhood he’s lived in his whole life because he believes he’s leaving it in good hands with the Oakland Crossings plan

“I lived in Oakland all my adult life and as a kid, so it’s sort of a mixed bag, but it’s time to change,” he said. “I thought it’s about time somebody did something to spruce the place up.”

The Oakland Crossings proposal, spearheaded by Shadyside developer Walnut Capital, 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. The proposal also calls for houses on Halket Street to be demolished to build new housing. Yet some landlords on the street expressed excitement over the proposal and selling to Walnut Capital.

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. Mayor Ed Gainey delayed the vote a few days after holding a town hall meeting where permanent residents addressed “mixed feelings” about the proposal. Gainey has delayed the vote on the proposal until Tuesday.

Franco Pasquarelli, a landlord on Halket Street and Al Pasquarelli’s nephew, said growing up, Oakland was filled with families who would go trick or treating and attend schools in Oakland, but that isn’t the reality anymore. He said he thinks Oakland Crossings would bring some families back to the neighborhood.

“Oakland is not what it used to be. When I was growing up, there used to be a lot more families around there that were always trick or treaters when I was younger. I haven’t had a trick or treater or come by the house for 15 to 20 years,” Franco said. “I feel like if they did this development you would bring, based on what they’re telling us, that this will be apartments or condos, professionals, people that are working and they would bring families.”

Franco Pasquarelli isn’t the only Halket Street landlord who’s in favor of the proposal. Dan Casciato, a lifelong Oakland resident, said he also supports Oakland Crossings because he believes it will make Oakland a more attractive place to live for Pitt graduates.

“It’s gonna make the city look vibrant and attract people that graduate and say ‘I want to live here. It is a nice place to live and I can work here.’” Casciato said. “But people aren’t going to buy these old houses.”

Todd Reidbord, president of Walnut Capital, said a lot of the company’s other properties are mixed income and have a wide range of age groups living in them. He feels the proposal could bring more families into Oakland, while helping to diversify the neighborhood.

“I think that it’s a place where people often start a family but you get this sort of bad rap that we’re not building housing for families, but we’re not building housing for the old, traditional 1950s families,” Reidbord said. “A lot of people come from different countries and different parts of the world and often they’re used to living in apartment buildings in cities. They feel very comfortable living in larger buildings with safety, security and amenities.”

Walnut Capital’s proposal has faced opposition from the Oakland Planning and Development Corp., which believes the developers didn’t properly consider how the proposal will impact the community and its community members. OPDC also said the proposal doesn’t align with the Oakland Plan, ​​a 10-year vision for the neighborhood crafted by the City and neighborhood stakeholders.

Franco Pasquarelli said he is in support of the plan because he wants more families living in Oakland. He feels Oakland is not a residential neighborhood anymore, and that students will rent elsewhere, so he does not view displacement as an issue.

“It’s not really a residential neighborhood anymore. You’re not displacing anyone,” Franco said. “So I don’t know what some people that are opponents of the thing are saying like we’re really this one residential neighbor, I want to ask them who are these residents that are talking about? There aren’t many around anymore.”

Reidbord agrees with Franco. He said he doesn’t think Oakland Crossings will cause residential displacement since it’s introducing more properties to the area.

“I don’t know whether if you tear down a house where there were three or four or five student apartments that were chopped up, and then you’re making opportunities to bring in 1,000 new residents is that considered displacement,” Reidbord said. “I don’t buy that argument. I don’t I don’t feel that there’s displacement in the part of the project.”

Wanda Wilson, executive director of OPDC, said there are opportunities for families to move into the houses on Halket Street, whether as a renter or a future owner.

 “If it were student rental that you were worried about,” Wilson said. “There are lots of opportunities for either people with a different type of renter to be there or for them to be purchased for owner occupancy at some point in the future.”

Casciato said the Oakland Crossings proposal will renovate parts of Oakland that aren’t as close to the University, which adds appeal to places further down Forbes Avenue or on the other side of the Boulevard of the Allies.

Franco said he believes the proposal will help jumpstart Oakland. 

“Oakland needs just something jumpstarted. I mean, all these houses are 100 years old,” Franco said. “There are so many houses that need work. I mean, Oakland is just kind of tired right now. The neighborhood needs revitalization. And I thought this is a good way to jumpstart it.”

Franco said one of the biggest things Oakland needs is a grocery store. He says it is not feasible for students to get groceries anywhere in Oakland and that this is one of the most important parts of the proposal.

“We haven’t had a grocery store since the Giant Eagle that was up at the end of our street moved out 20 years ago,” Franco said. “I feel like having a grocery store would benefit the people of Oakland that are still here. Even the students should want that. There’s really no place for them to get food. There’s the CVS where you can just get like a half gallon of milk and some snack foods, you know, it’s not really a grocery store.”

Franco said at one point, a group of the landlords on Halket Street decided to sign a paper petition to send to City Council to show that they wanted the proposal to go through even if it meant they had to move.

Franco said the petition was improperly formatted and did not include the emails of signers, meaning it has to be resubmitted. The revised petition is currently in the signature collection process again.

Franco said in the whole time he has lived in Oakland, he has never once felt like OPDC has made any changes that have improved Oakland.

“I’ve been here 37 years and there’s not one thing that I can think of in my 37 years where I’m like, ‘Wow, OPDC did that, and that made Oakland better,’” Franco said.

Wilson said they have done quite a lot to benefit the community, including building affordable homes in the neighborhood and helping high school students from low-income families out of poverty.

“I would say that the people who might say [we have accomplished nothing] are ill informed and not fully aware about all the technical aspects,” Wilson said. “We provide annual reports on our website about the work that we do.”

OPDC held a meeting to discuss the proposal last November, but the Halket homeowners said they weren’t informed. Al Pasquarelli said he feels OPDC does not care enough about the landlords to inform them of the meeting.

“The worst part was they were holding a Zoom meeting a few weeks ago to go over the proposal and we never heard about it,” he said. “We found out through Walnut Capital they were having this meeting. Nobody contacted us. Nobody’s ever asked us for anything. Don’t claim to be a community representative without notifying the community, which is us. We own the house.”

When given a chance to respond, Wilson said they never personally reach out to residents about OPDC meetings and that information about meetings is publicized.

“There’s no requirement to do that. It was a meeting that we publicized very broadly,” Wilson said. “So anybody who is sort of aware of what’s going on in their community and would like to be involved can join our newsletter. I would say that people who are absentee owners are not really engaged in what’s going on in the community. That was their choice not to be involved with what’s going on in the community.”

Franco believes people who oppose the project are afraid to see the neighborhood change. He said he thinks the proposal is going to increase their property value and make the neighborhood more attractive.

““It’s going to only make the neighborhood a better place, and how is that a bad thing?” Franco asked. “It’s only going to increase the value of your properties. It’s only going to make the place more beautiful. I just don’t see the downside.”