City Council hears divided opinions on Oakland zoning proposal


Zoom screenshot

Pittsburgh city council members discuss Oakland zoning proposals in a public meeting over Zoom.

By Colm Slevin, Assistant News Editor

Pittsburgh city council has limited time to vote on controversial Oakland zoning proposals that have the potential to reshape the neighborhood or restart the lengthy process.

If the city council does not make its final decision by next week, the legislation will be considered a “deemed denial” and Corey Laymen, the city’s zoning administrator, said the two-and-a-half-year process would have to restart. The council has tabled the legislation twice, reconvening Monday a public hearing that started in September. It has received two 30-day extensions, which end on Dec. 14.

Andrew Dash, deputy director of the Department of City Planning, discussed some of the proposed changes, including zoning, building dimensions and building purpose. The changes sparked controversy among attendees, who expressed outright abhorrence to complete approval. 

The zoning amendments, which are part of the Oakland Plan, would create three new zoning districts in Oakland with set building size and use requirements. The residential-mixed use district would allow for multi-unit housing, including affordable housing, in Central Oakland between Louisa Street and Dawson Street. 

The urban center-employment would allow for taller buildings, create new sidewalk standards and limit residential development in between Forbes and Fifth. And urban center-residential mixed use would permit more mixed commercial and residential development surrounding the Boulevard of the Allies.

If the proposal is approved it would also require housing developments with 20 or more units to have at least 10% of their units designated as affordable housing, expanding inclusionary zoning in Oakland. 

Representatives from Pitt and Carlow University requested to raise the limit for educational-use space. James Williams, the senior director for city and county government relations at Pitt, wanted the number increased to 80%. He also wanted an increase to maximum allowable building length from 250 feet to 300 feet. 

Elena Zaitsoff, vice president of the Oakcliffe Community Organization, said issues with the bill include its size and its use of the performance point system. The Department of City Planning designed the point system to encourage “new developments to embrace innovation and contribute to neighborhood livability” and rewards developers for including affordable housing, public art and energy efficient design.

“Bill 529, creating new zoning districts in Oakland is fraught with issues. OCO is asking the council does not pass it until more work is done on it,” Zaitsoff said. “Problems exist with process boundaries, dimensions uses and performance point system.”

Karen Brean, who worked as an associate for Walnut Capital, also spoke in opposition of the proposed bill. She was against the limitation of classroom size, and said the proposal was too ambitious. She cited the deal to produce 40 affordable housing units, saying it is more than Walnut Capital produced in Lawrenceville. 

Luciano Sciulli, owner of Sciulli’s Pizza on Fifth Avenue, spoke in favor of comments from Pitt and Walnut Capital. Sciulli said both groups are good neighbors to “one of the last mom and pop businesses in Oakland.” 

“When COVID hit we had nothing. So by letting these big companies come in like Walnut Capital and Pitt right next door to us. We had issues, we resolved them. They’ve been great neighbors. Any issue we had, they took care of us, no questions asked,” Sciulli said. “We need development, and height restriction on Fifth and Forbes is not going to change, everything is high already as it is. But we need to move the wheel. Give them the green light to let them build.”

Many speakers in favor supported creating affordable housing to ultimately help families start a life in Pittsburgh or to allow for Oakland’s job force to live closer to work. David Vatz, chapter lead of Pro-Housing Pittsburgh, said he is in support of the potential zoning rules.

“We encourage them to allow greater heights especially for residential uses,” Vatz said. “And making bonus points easier to hit so we can encourage more residential construction.”