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7/28/20: Separation of church and city?

Pittsburgh’s City Planning Commission is expected to vote next month on whether a church in Allentown should be designated historic, possibly against the wishes of its owner, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church, built in 1912 on Climax Street, features beautiful leaded windows and internal art “much representative of the Munich Pictorial Style,” according to the historic nomination submitted by Preservation Pittsburgh. It is sometimes known as St. George’s Church, according to city Historic Planner Sarah Quinn.

One of the windows of the St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church, in a photograph submitted by Preservation Pittsburgh to the City Planning Commission for its meeting on July 28, 2020.

“I could tell you that the Catholic diocese is not pleased,” Quinn told the commission at an initial briefing.

Historic designation would limit future changes to the building’s exterior.

Diocesan Chancellor Ellen Mady wrote in response to PublicSource’s questions that the diocese has “notified the Historic Review Commission of its opposition to this nomination. The nomination of a religious structure cannot occur without the consent of its owner, and neither the parish [St. Mary on the Mount] nor the diocese has consented to this nomination.”

“Our code says that religious structures can only be nominated by the owner,” noted commission member Rachel O’Neill at the briefing, but only if they are “used as a place for religious worship.” The question, she noted, is whether a church in which there has been no active worship for around a decade is still subject to that rule.

City Planning Director Andrew Dash noted that the nomination has been shared with the city Law Department, which decided that it could move forward to votes by city commissions.

Testimony by proponents and opponents of the nomination, plus a vote, are set for Aug. 11.

The nomination is also expected to go before the Historic Review Commission Aug. 5. City Council would also have to vote on the designation before it would take effect.

7/28/20: The Civic Building could be historic

A Downtown office building that long served as the hub for Pittsburgh’s development activities qualifies for historic designation, city staff told the City Planning Commission.

The John P. Robin Civic Building, at 200 Ross St., was originally built by Jones & Laughlin Steel, which was headquartered there from 1908 through 1952, according to the historic designation nomination filed with the city. Then it became the home of the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA], the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP], and numerous city departments and bureaus, including several that deal with construction.

The John P. Robin Civic Building, in a photo submitted by Preservation Pittsburgh to the City Planning Commission for its July 28, 2020 meeting.

The city, URA and HACP in 2018 purchased the former Art Institute building at 412 Boulevard of the Allies, and development functions have been migrating to that more modern building. Planning Department staff said the Civic Building will probably be sold and turned into condominiums.

Because the building has benefited from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds, the city is required to take measures to mitigate any adverse impact that its abandonment of the building might cause, staff told the commission. The end of regular human activity in the building means a risk of decay, according to city Historic Planner Sarah Quinn. Putting it through the historic designation process is a step toward mitigating those effects, she said.

Historic designation would require that any owner go through an approval process before making major exterior changes to the building.

The city’s Historic Review Commission is expected to vote on the proposed designation on Aug. 5, and the City Planning Commission could follow Aug. 11.

7/28/20: Commission gives OK to West Penn Hospital, CMU plans

The City Planning Commission gave its nod to West Penn Hospital’s proposed expansion plan, but not without reservations about its potential impact on its neighbors in Bloomfield.

Earlier this month, the commission got its introduction to the hospital’s planned build-out, which includes expansion from 350 to 600 beds, addition of more stories to several buildings and wings, and construction of a new 700-space parking garage.

Prior to voting on the plan, Commissioner Becky Mingo questioned the impact a “massive parking garage” would have on nearby properties, and commission Chair Christine Mondor quizzed hospital officials on the traffic impact of the expansion.

“Medicine is changing and we need to keep pace with that,” said Ron Andro, the hospital’s president and CEO. That’s driving the expansion of the busy hospital, he said. “We are worried, because our garage right now fills up rapidly,” and that jeopardizes access for people who have urgent needs.

Hospital officials said that they plan to take measures to limit the effect of traffic on the neighborhood. For instance, they’ll close one garage entrance at night to avoid headlamps shining on nearby homes.

Pittsburgh City Planning Commission Chair Christine Mondor questions West Penn Hospital officials on their expansion plans, in a July 28, 2020 commission meeting conducted by Zoom. (Screenshot)

Mingo was the lone no vote. The plan goes next to Pittsburgh City Council for its consideration.

The commission gave its unanimous approval to Carnegie Mellon University’s planned redo of Scaife Hall.

If you’re wondering where these votes fit into the overall landscape of city development so far this year, check out the spreadsheet PublicSource uses to keep track of significant decisions on Pittsburgh’s built environment.

7/24/2020: Loan to speed Allegheny County rent relief process

The Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County [RAAC] board voted to lend $5 million to ACTION-Housing to get a rent relief program off the ground.

The loan is meant to allow nonprofit ACTION-Housing to start making rental payments for families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic ramifications, and will be paid back to the authority, by the county, via funds the county has been pledged from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security [CARES] Act, said county development Director Lance Chimka.

“There are people in need, and we want to offer housing stability to households at this time,” Chimka told the RAAC “We really want to start to get money out the door” as the $600 federal enhancement to weekly unemployment compensation is set to expire in coming days.

Chimka said the loan is part of an emerging “massive rent relief program” funded by the county with CARES money and administered by agencies including ACTION-Housing, that will “provide rental payments directly to landlords for income-qualified families, back to March and going to the end of the year.” The county last month allocated $25 million of its nearly $250 million CARES allocation to rental assistance, and the loan allows that money to start flowing more rapidly. Details are here.

Chimka said the county already has around 2,500 applications for the rental help.

The authority typically makes grants to back infrastructure projects, makes loans to businesses and works to move vacant properties back on the tax rolls.

Chimka said the only downside of lending RAAC money to ACTION-Housing is that it “will constrain our cash position, our ability to do maybe some other investments, but I really feel strongly that this needs to be a number one priority for our authority and our board.”

7/23/2020: Bonuses offered to landlords who join “Section 8”

Amid concerns that the pandemic is going to worsen the city’s already acute need for affordable housing, the board of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh voted to offer landlords $500 to $1,000 per unit that they bring on to the Housing Choice Voucher program, commonly known as Section 8.

The HCV program provides housing for lower-income families, who pay 30% of their incomes in rent, with the rest covered by the housing authorities. The authority has long had a waiting list for vouchers, amid concerns that it has used voucher money for development. Authority officials have said they have had difficulty attracting new landlords to the program.

From August through October, landlords whose units qualify can get the one-time bonuses — with the higher amounts for larger units — when they bring on tenants with vouchers. The authority will also pay all but $99 of the new tenant’s security deposit. The authority plans to spend roughly $500,000 on the effort, to come from its allotment of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security [CARES] Act funds.

7/14/2020: Commission says Froggy’s building can’t be razed … yet

The former home of the late Froggy’s bar can’t be demolished, the City Planning Commission decided, after an alliance of preservationists argued for saving that and another building in Downtown’s Firstside Historic District.

The commission, though, kept the door open to eventually permitting demolition should developer Troiani Group bring a full plan for its First Avenue site.

For a year, Troiani has been seeking the commission’s approval to demolish 104 and 106 Market St. Last month, Troiani showed the commission its early plan to build a 385-foot tower with 150 residences, offices and 300 parking spaces.

Preservationists led by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation countered that the existing squat, brick buildings can be partially or fully reused, and presented a study by architecture firm IKM Inc., which found several renovation options. “Not only could a signature tower be incorporated on to this site, but it is possible to achieve this structure while preserving the historical structures,” said DJ Bryant, a project designer at IKM, during a commission meeting that ran nearly seven hours.

A rendering of a potential reuse of Market Street buildings including the former home of the late Froggy’s bar, submitted to the City Planning Commission by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation on July 14, 2020

Matthew Craig, executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, suggested that Troiani Group does not have the financing in place to build the tower it offers, and might end up using the site for parking. “The choice is actually between keeping a potential renovated gem in a national historic district, or an empty lot,” he said.

Attorney Clifford Levine, representing Troiani, questioned the preservationists’ contention that there are economically feasible options for saving the decaying buildings. He told the commission that the development team needs permission to demolish now, because the next stage of the tower design process takes “a ton of money, a ton of time and a ton of energy.”

“I believe that your project could be strong,” said commission Chair Christine Mondor. But city code emphasizes “the retention and reuse of federally designated historic structures,” she said.

The commissioners voted — with Commissioner Rachel O’Neill abstaining — to deny the demolition request without prejudice, meaning Troiani Group can apply again.

Architect Ken Doyno discusses plans for a 385-foot office tower in Downtown’s Firstside Historic District, during a City Planning Commission meeting held by Zoom on June 16, 2020. (Screenshot)

7/14/2020: New apartments approved for “critical” corner of North Side

The City Planning Commission gave its OK to a proposed new apartment building that would flank the Central North Side’s iconic Garden Theater building, and fill a gap in the streetscape at an entrance to the city’s northern neighborhoods.

Trek Development and Q Development plan a 62-apartment building at the corner of West North Avenue and Federal Street, they told the commission prior to its vote. The developers needed the commission’s approval for the proposed corner building because they want larger floorplates than normally permitted under the city code, in return for environmental sustainability design.

Trek President and CEO William Gatti said he’s been working since 2014 “to bring this block to some semblance of its former glory.” The long-blighted corner has been a vacant lot since the Urban Redevelopment Authority razed the buildings last year. Trek and Q are also renovating a neighboring building that will include nine apartments, and the team plans three apartments on the second floor of the Garden Theater.

Attorney Patricia McGrail, representing North Side property owner Stephen Pascal, questioned whether the development plan met the requirements for the larger floorplates. Other neighbors, though, swung behind the plan.The developers “have listened to all of our concerns, all of our requests. They have bent over backwards,” said Maggie Connor, president of the Mexican War Streets Society. She urged approval “so that we can finally, please, for the love, see development on that corner. It’s really critical for that neighborhood.”

The commission’s vote was unanimous.

The corner of Federal and West North, presented by Trek Development and Q Development to the City Planning Commission on July 14, 2020.
A rendering of a proposed new apartment building, slated for the corner of West North Avenue and Federal Street, in the Central Northside, as presented to Pittsburgh’s City Planning Commission on June 30, 2020.

7/14/2020: CMU wants “a new kind of piazza” in one corner of campus

Carnegie Mellon University’s building boom could continue if the City Planning Commission approves the school’s plan to roughly triple the size of Scaife Hall, on the southwestern corner of campus. The new building would also create a new pedestrian-only section of the sprawling Oakland campus.

CMU wants to turn the 40,000-square-foot engineering building at Frew Street and Hamerschlag Drive into a highly energy efficient, 120,000-square-foot lab-and-classroom structure, five stories at its highest point.

The foundation of the new Scaife Hall would be a “podium mass,” partly underground, supporting both the office and classroom buildings and a plaza overlooking the ravine between campus and the Carnegie Museums. That plaza would be part of what Bob Reppe, CMU’s senior director of planning and design, called “a new pedestrian courtyard … a new kind of piazza,” or, put another way, a “maker court” flanked by several engineering buildings.

The new Scaife Hall would also close off Hamerschlag Drive to all vehicle traffic except for emergency vehicles.

Night-lit rendering of proposed new Scaife Hall submitted by Carnegie Mellon University to the City Planning Commission on July 14, 2020.

Commission members asked to see a few different views of the proposed building on July 28, when they are expected to vote on whether to approve CMU’s design.

7/14/2020: Harsh hospital facade could be “respite” space

A proposed outline for a decade of improvements to the West Penn Hospital campus could be better if it dealt with the main building’s “pretty harsh” interface with Liberty Avenue, the City Planning Commission’s chair told hospital officials.

The Bloomfield hospital plans to go from 350 to 600 beds, boost physician and non-physician staff size, add height to several buildings and wings, and construct a new 700-space parking structure. The hospital also plans to add trees, green roofs and rain gardens.

At the commission’s meeting, Chair Christine Mondor noted that the hospital is across the street from the Friendship Parklet, with which it could better interact.

“The building on Liberty Avenue right now is pretty harsh,” she said. “There’s not a sense that you want to stay there.” The hospital exterior and the parklet could be “places of respite and outdoor occupancy,” rather than just places across which people walk, she said.

The West Penn Hospital campus, as presented by hospital staff to the City Planning Commission on July 14, 2020.

The hospital’s team is likely to respond July 28, when the commission is scheduled to vote on the new institutional master plan.

7/09/2020: URA steers nearly $600,000 to two Larimer developments

Larimer stands to get a new indoor community or commercial space and two affordable for-sale homes following Thursday’s Urban Redevelopment Authority board meeting.

The URA board voted to increase construction lending by $517,261 and the architect’s contract by $23,200 on the conversion of the Larimer School’s auditorium and gymnasium into developable space. It could end up becoming a food co-op, community space, a business incubator, a food preparation site or a place for health and wellness activities, according to the URA.

The vote brings the budget for the conversion of the nearly-10,000-square-foot gym to just over $3 million, a price tag boosted by COVID-19-related delays and higher-than-expected bids. The architect is Pfaffman + Associates, and the building will be owned by a partnership between St. Louis-based developer McCormack Baron Salazar, and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.

The inside of part of the Larimer School auditorium and gymnasium, in an undated, recent photo. (Courtesy of the Urban Redevelopment Authority)

The rest of the school is set to become 35 apartments, with seven more townhomes across Winslow Street. Of those 42 residences, all but seven will be geared toward low-income tenants. The financing for that part of the redevelopment isn’t complete.

According to the URA, the school is the last significant historic structure in Larimer, and was long a community centerpiece. It has been closed for three decades.

The board also voted to award $45,000 in Housing Opportunity Funds to the URA’s Pittsburgh Housing Development Corporation arm, for construction of two new affordable for-sale homes on the northernmost block of Larimer’s Mayflower Street. The full funding package will be greater, but not all details have been worked out. The Larimer Consensus Group, which has been pushing for for-sale housing, has been involved in the decision-making, according to the URA.

“What we’ve been able to do is convert those two opportunities into a broader revitalization plan that will revitalize a whole block, which is absolutely what we want to be doing,” said Diamonte Walker, the URA’s deputy executive director.

7/07/2020: Allegheny County Council urges court action to hold off evictions

Update (7/9/20): Evictions and foreclosures will remain largely barred until Aug. 31 under an order issued by Gov. Tom Wolf. The order covers any evictions or foreclosures filed based on failure to pay, and any evictions based on the expiration of leases. It doesn’t apply to evictions for other breaches of leases. The order extends Wolf’s earlier moratoriums, which had run from mid-March through July 10.

Allegheny County Council is asking the county courts to impose a new moratorium on evictions, to replace the statewide bar on most such actions that runs only through Friday.

“Since the [COVID-19] emergency declaration is still in place, I think we should ask the courts to extend [the moratorium] to December first,” said Councilmember Bethany Hallam, who introduced the nonbinding motion.

Some members said an extension through December would be too long.

“I am a landlord,” said Councilmember Nicholas Futules. “I made arrangements for [tenants] personally to hold off on their rent until their unemployment came in.”

But he expressed skepticism about a blanket ban. “You have people that really need help, and then you have the ones that are taking advantage of the situation. … I don’t support this.”

The motion passed 13-0, with abstentions by Futules and Councilmember Paul Zavarella, who said he represents landlords and tenants in his law practice.

Most foreclosures are also barred statewide through Friday. Hallam’s motion did not mention foreclosures.

Council also approved, unanimously and without discussion, a nearly $250 million budget amendment to reflect federal aid flowing to the county, primarily under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security [CARES] Act. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s plan includes $25 million for a rental assistance program, to help struggling tenants to catch up on rent. The bulk of the CARES money would be used to cover services, operations, personnel and equipment the county has needed to cope with the crisis.

The legislation had previously been discussed and approved by council’s Committee on Budget and Finance.

Tenants who have lost 30% or more of their income since March 1 can now apply for as much as $1,500 a month in rental assistance, for six months, plus help with utilities, via the Allegheny County CARES Rent Relief Program.

The state also opened, this week, a program to aid tenants and homeowners affected by the crisis.

June recap:

News from the City Planning Commission, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and more

UPMC could captain nursing home COVID response under bill it helped to write

A year in Allegheny County ends in homelessness for two young trans men

Eviction on hold after Valmar Gardens residents ask for more time

Develop PGH archives

Mass ejection? Impending evictions in Allegheny County drive a scramble for changes and dollars

99 people who will help shape the Pittsburgh region’s recovery

16 authorities that influence our economy and the people who serve on them

Penguins pledge ‘full commitment’ to Lower Hill’s rebirth after URA approval of developer and plan

From the Hilltop to North Side, Black flight drives population change in Pittsburgh

Despite the Penguins’ decision to walk from Lower Hill, URA board will meet Thursday about development terms

Pittsburgh Penguins stop Lower Hill development, citing frustration over URA’s pace

Once a foil of the city’s master builders, Sam Williamson now guides the URA while leading a union, advocates and a political ‘army’

Prior 2020 Urban Redevelopment Authority coverage

Prior 2020 City Planning Commission coverage

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at or on Twitter @richelord.

Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...