It all started as a plan to build an apartment complex. In 2014, a development group spent $2.6 million to buy up a strip of homes in Oakland, knock them down and put up a high-rise. Now, the group has bigger ambitions to build a combination of a hotel and apartments, the second largest parking garage in the state, an office building, new highway exits and a wider main road. It’s estimated to cost $650 million.
Who is building it and what could implementing a project of such scale mean for Oakland?
The developers that go by the name of Oakland Gateway Ventures [OGV] say this project would solve countless issues in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, from parking and traffic to unwanted sewer drainage. Problem is, this is bigger than anything Oakland zoning ordinances allow, and some Oakland representatives aren’t happy with how the developers are conducting business.
The May meeting
A typical Oakland community meeting might focus on parking woes, maybe loud college students. One community meeting in May, however, led Oakland residents to the revelation that their neighborhood may be due for a great change. A 19-acre, multimillion-dollar change.
State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, had called the meeting to gather community input on a proposed large-scale development near the corner of Bates and Zulema streets. OGV’s hotel plans from nearly four years ago are small potatoes compared to the blueprints of today.
Its plans have exploded. Besides the office building with green space on the roof, the hotel-apartment complex and the parking facility with 3,000 spaces, OGV now aims to restructure three highway exits, rearrange the sewer system, build a rainwater retention pond and add a new bike lane along Bates that would connect to the Eliza Furnace Trail.
But some community members were already concerned that OGV — which is composed of five senior partners — was not taking adequate care of the homes they purchased in recent years. Neighborhood leaders worried about the zoning laws that these structures would appear to violate. And a few community leaders felt the developers were misrepresenting the level of buy-in from other leaders.
Close to 40 Oakland residents sat among state senators, PennDOT representatives and city planning staff at the May meeting. Wheatley’s chief of staff, Kirk Holbrook, said the developers weren’t invited in order to focus the meeting on gathering community input, but this didn’t stop OGV from making its voice heard. To ensure residents were aware of the project’s most recent revision, OGV sent along a Powerpoint presentation for Wheatley to show at the meeting.
The presentation included the names of dozens of government officials and businesses — Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, UPMC, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the names of many lawmakers in the room.
Pittsburgh District 3 Councilman Bruce Kraus, among others, found this alarming. He, and all the other officials in the room, had only met with developers for “courtesy visits.” No one there had ever announced their support for the project.
“They’re logo-ing their materials such that this elected official or that entity is in support of the project,” Kraus told PublicSource. “It’s disingenuous… I’m being kind to use the word ‘disingenuous.’”
Bill Kane, one of the principal members of OGV, contested the idea that the presentation was misleading. The title of the slide in question read, “Stakeholder Outreach.”
“They’re just people we visited,” Kane said in an interview to PublicSource. “They don’t support the project.”
After hearing community pushback at the meeting, Wheatley also decided he could not support the project. His chief of staff, Kirk Holbrook, said that as a general rule, their office will side with residents when they strongly oppose a new development.
“Our objective is just to make sure the residents are heard,” Holbrook said. “There is no way we would support something that did not have the support of the community groups. Our hope is they’ll go back to the drawing board, they’ll continue hearing suggestions and they’ll be able to come up with something that will be seen as beneficial to both parties.”
Kraus said he met with one of OGV’s frontmen, Robert Dauer Jr., in September 2016 for a courtesy meeting to learn about the developers’ plans. At the time, he thought of the plan as a “pipe dream.”
Kane sees it differently.
“We want all the facts out there. If you see those, it’s hard to say no,” Kane said.
So what are the facts?
Kane said the project kept growing larger out of necessity. In 2007, he drafted up the idea to build an apartment complex, but over the past decade, each kink in their design forced a solution that would increase the scale of the project. Kane said they now have tentative plans to put a retail space and underground parking within the building.
One early design of the hotel high-rise was 20 stories. It was too tall and would shade people’s homes. Kane thought that would be disrespectful, so he added plans to knock down the shaded homes and build offices in their place. The office would be short on one side, leaving the homes across the street unshaded.
“The project grew,” Kane said. “People kept coming saying: ‘You gotta do this, you gotta do that.’”
Kane claims once OGV showed the city their plans for the apartments, the city requested the developers to give 30 to 40 feet of their property to alleviate a 40-year-old traffic problem by widening Bates Street, adding right and left turn lanes at the Boulevard of the Allies and adding a bike lane. In exchange, OGV would get to build into Zulema Parklet that sits behind the property. Kane says OGV would leave the parklet open to the public and pay taxes on the green space. So widening Bates became a centerpiece of the project. Now they would widen the street all the way down to I-376.
This change meant restructuring the exits from the highway. According to OGV’s blueprints, both the Oakland and Glenwood highway exits would expand to two lanes, leading into a four-lane Bates Street and an extended Halket Street, respectively. Halket Street would then serve as another entrance into Oakland—the only one off of I-376 besides Bates Street. OGV would also build a ramp off the eastbound highway onto Second Street.
With the project now including state and federal roads, OGV is looking to partner up with the state to fund it. Kane said OGV will pay for all $650 million up-front with the hope that the state would pay them back for the highway portion in installments over the next 30 years. OGV would ask the state to pay interest at a fair-market bond rate.
It’s unclear at the moment just how much financial support the massive project has garnered outside of OGV. According to PennDOT’s press officer Steve Cowan, OGV informed PennDOT that they could get $50 million in federal funding through a congressman.
Kane said he’s met with U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and the congressman showed “strong interest,” but has not committed any financial support.
Shuster’s transportation and infrastructure communications director Justin Harclerode confirmed Shuster and staff had met with the developers and “encouraged the group to continue working with PennDOT and the state in the ongoing development of their plans.” He added, "Congress does not earmark funds for specific projects."
Over time, Kane and his team started to look at the project differently. Stating that Pittsburgh, and partly Oakland, has been “an economic engine that has kept Southwestern PA running,” Kane wanted this project to be the “gateway” into Oakland. That meant adding one more piece.
“Don’t call it a parking garage,” Kane said.
If you call it the state's second largest parking garage, Kane would correct you. It will be the largest "multi-modal parking facility" in Pennsylvania, he says. OGV plans to build it halfway up Bates Street on the hillside. The facility would hold cars, bikes, UPMC shuttles, Pitt shuttles and Port Authority buses. It would have compressed natural gas, a bikeshare service, showers and even a laundry service, so bicyclists and nearby hotel customers could get their clothes cleaned.
Next to the parking facility, OGV also plans to construct a rainwater retention pond, which the hotel and parking facility would draw upon for plumbing water.
Seems like a cool project—what’s the problem?
What’s so farfetched about apartments, a hotel, offices and more parking in Oakland? For many, it comes down to city zoning laws.
The plot of land on which OGV plans to build their high-rise is currently zoned as “Oakland Public Realm-D,” a designation that permits buildings to be, at maximum, 85 feet tall. This means that even OGV’s initial plans were more than double what zoning allows; the current height proposal is undecided.
In addition, the team intends to build its parking facility on an area designated as “hillside” by the zoning code. Intensive development is not recommended in “hillside” zoning areas. They’re prone to flooding and landslides.
Sabina Deitrick, a lawyer who specializes in urban redevelopment, said there are too many channels that OGV would have to pass through to overcome zoning ordinances. A project like this would require OGV to appeal to both the city zoning board and the planning commission — a process that allows residents to share their opinions and concerns.
“They’ve got a lot of places to get through,” said Deitrick, who is also an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “If all the Oakland groups show up at those meetings and are totally against the project, it won’t happen.”
Ray Gastil, director of city planning, said public testimony is built into the planning commission’s review process. At the moment, OGV is not far enough into its planning to schedule any hearings with the planning commission, but by the time they are, Gastil said community input will be important to the review process.
“We would expect them to have had a [public] meeting,” Gastil said.
Kane said in the future they plan to meet more with the community to hear their feedback. It’s been a challenge, he said, trying to keep residents in the loop while also attempting to do business.
“Community groups matter,” Kane said. The project is “so big. Everyone needs to get involved.”
Oakland residents have different outlooks on how this project will affect the community.
For example, OGV plans to raze a church for the Bates Street widening, but its pastor has nothing but positive things to say about the developers.
“They shared their ideas to make Oakland more accessible,” said Lance Rhoades, pastor of Tree of Life Open Bible Church on Bates. “Whenever I say, ‘Hi, we’re a church, we’re in Oakland,’ people go ‘I don’t want to go on Bates Street.’ If that’s what people outside of Oakland think of Oakland, then as people inside of Oakland, we have a responsibility to make that better.”
Rhoades added that OGV offered to help him find a new property for his church, going beyond what he expected.
But tensions are high regarding 219 properties in the area that OGV says it has signed contracts with the owners to purchase. Kane said only 11 of those properties were occupied by homeowners. The rest were rental properties.
But, for the few homeowners affected, the issue is not that OGV asked them to leave, it’s how they asked them to leave.
Paul Wieckowski, a resident of Oakland since childhood who owns a home off of Bates, said OGV “alluded” to the fact that there could be "eminent domain involved." That’s the power of the government to remove residents from their homes for the development of things like highways and public buildings.
“I’m not an unsophisticated guy,” said Wieckowski, adding that he was approached by OGV in early 2016 but has not signed any papers to move forward with selling his home. “I have a feeling that because I live in that area they think I’m less than capable.”
Kane denies OGV ever threatened eminent domain on anyone. In fact, according to real estate records, he overpaid for many Oakland properties.
By 2014, the group spent roughly $2.6 million to acquire a strip of homes along Bates Street between the Boulevard of the Allies and Zulema Street, paying much more than each house was valued. For instance, 3415 Bates St. was assessed at $55,700, while OGV paid $500,000 for the home.
Even if someone did threaten eminent domain in Pittsburgh, Deitrick said it would be an empty threat. “The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh is the only agency that can eminent domain in this city,” she said. The URA has confirmed it is not affiliated with OGV.
Some Oakland residents are also criticizing OGV for not properly maintaining the homes it has purchased along Bates. Since 2015, Rebekkah Ranallo, the director of external relations for the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation [OPDC], said her office has received an influx of calls complaining about the condition of OGV’s homes on Bates. The first buildings seen when motorists exit I-376 into Oakland, they say these homes have been occupied by vermin and littered with trash.
Almost every house along this strip has failed inspection since 2016, sending the developers to housing court twice in the past. Their last date in housing court was July 20 for the “accumulation of rubbish and garbage.” The day before their hearing, however, OGV sent someone to clean up. Liz Gray of the OPDC still showed up to court to make her organization’s displeasure known to the judge. Because of this, District Judge Eugene Ricciardi called OGV from the courtroom.
“I’m a little upset it took so long,” Ricciardi told Dauer Jr.
The violations had been outstanding since March. In the end, Ricciardi fined OGV $700. He also ordered them to present a maintenance plan to OPDC.
Dauer Jr. said their contractor had become too busy to maintain the houses in the past few months and that it wouldn’t happen again.
“I don’t like that excuse,” Ricciardi said. “Live up to your responsibility for the future.”
Michael Dawida of the nonprofit Scenic Pittsburgh said he supported OGV’s project and was excited to see those abandoned homes disappear. Next to those homes are multiple billboards facing the Boulevard of the Allies.
“We’re gonna knock down some ugly billboards,” Dawida said. “You’re harming the community as a whole by not redeveloping [Oakland].”
The project has grown so large, Kane estimates that, upon city approval, it would take three to four years to accomplish. It’s worth it to him, though.
“People don’t realize,” Kane said. “This isn’t for me. Or my partners. It’s for Southwestern PA.”
Evan Bowen-Gaddy is a PublicSource intern. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.