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06/30/2020: Drive to demolish — or save — Froggy’s building goes into overtime
The Downtown building that once housed Froggy’s bar can’t be saved, experts hired by the would-be redeveloper of the site told the City Planning Commission. After hearing hours of testimony from consultants for developer the Troiani Group, the commission put off deciding on the proposed demolition until July 14, at the earliest, so foes of the wrecking ball can be heard.
Two weeks ago, several commissioners urged the development team to seek ways to preserve a cluster of squat structures on First Avenue and Market Street, including 104 and 106 Market, in the Firstside Historic District. Troiani Group wants to replace them with a 385-foot residential and office tower.
At this commission meeting, engineer Charles L. Cornely told the commission that the buildings are structurally unsound, with old and deteriorating brick that isn’t suitable for reuse.
“I just don’t see that saving the facades is even feasible from a practical standpoint, and the cost of installing the bracing and foundation required, and the underpinning underground, to try to save the facades — it’s economically unfeasible,” he said.
Lee Riccetti, a Philadelphia-based historic preservation project manager for Heritage Consulting Group, told the commission the buildings are not of a “high design” or any particular historical style.
And John Valentine, executive director of the Downtown Community Development Corp., said Central Business District residents who attended meetings on the proposal supported it. “The neighbors want something developed on a piece of property that’s been sitting there forever — forever,” he said.
The commission, though, has received many letters on the proposal, which has drawn fire from preservationists. After 7 p.m., following six hours of discussion of many projects, commissioners opted to postpone public comment and their vote on the demolitions.
06/30/2020: Pittsburgh townhomes without parking get planning OK
Opposition to off-street parking overflowed at the Pittsburgh City Planning Commission’s biweekly meeting, as neighborhood advocates swung behind a proposed zoning code change — and demanded more action to discourage new driveways and garages.
City code now requires one off-street parking space for every new townhome or rowhouse. The commission, in a 6-1 vote with commissioner Fred Brown in the minority, approved elimination of that requirement. If Pittsburgh City Council follows suit, developers will still have the option to include driveways and garages with new townhomes and rowhouses. But off-street parking will no longer be required.
Driveways and garages in tightly packed neighborhoods are “just dangerous. A lot of people get hurt” by vehicles backing out of driveways and across sidewalks, said Commissioner Becky Mingo.
Several neighborhood leaders urged the commission to go further.
“We believe curb cuts [for driveways] privatize public space, permanently reducing the supply of public parking. We believe it destroys our neighborhood’s walkability, making our neighborhood less safe,” said Lauren Byrne Connelly, executive director of the Lawrenceville Corp., in a public hearing portion of the meeting, conducted via Zoom. “We are requesting that curb cuts [in certain zones] be prohibited” or allowed only with a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing.
She was joined by other neighborhood leaders from Bloomfield, Garfield and the South Side.
Commissioners voted to ask the City Planning Department and city council to consider further restrictions on new driveways and garages.
06/30/20: Central Northside apartments would be sustainable — but affordable?
The long-blighted corner of West North Avenue and Federal Street could be the site of 62 new apartments, if the City Planning Commission approves a plan presented at its biweekly meeting. It’s unclear, though, how many will be affordable to residents of modest income.
The gateway to Central Northside has defied redevelopment for decades. Trek Development and Q Development want commission permission to build higher and larger than would normally be permitted on the vacant lot next to the storied Garden Theater, in return for their commitment to pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. Their sustainability plans include an underground system to keep runoff out of the sewer system, plus racks to hold as many as 40 bicycles.
Commissioner Jean Holland Dick asked the developers whether any of the units would be priced affordably. William Gatti, president and CEO of Trek Development, said the nearby Bradberry apartments, which the team developed, had an affordability requirement, but the new building’s financing doesn’t demand restricted rents or income ceilings. He noted, though, that the team is weighing the possibility of voluntarily making some apartments more affordable, as it has done elsewhere, to encourage economic diversity.
The commission is set to take public testimony and vote on the proposal July 14.
06/29/2020: Acting planning director gets mayor's nod to fill job long-term
More than a year after the departure of his last planning director, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has nominated, as the replacement, the man who has been filling in since then.
If confirmed by city council, Acting Planning Director Andrew Dash, of Manchester, would lose the “acting” part of the title. The 51-person Department of City Planning works to steer development of neighborhoods and parks according to zoning, permitting and accessibility rules and, increasingly, within sustainability goals.
Dash has been with the department for 12 years, following stints in Akron, Ohio; Mercer County, and Marshall. He takes a job last held by Andrew Gastil, who left Peduto’s administration to direct Carnegie Mellon University's Remaking Cities Institute.
In recent months, Dash introduced a guide to neighborhood planning efforts and shepherded the approval of plans for Homewood, Manchester and Chateau.
The planning director leads staff input into City Planning Commission decisions. That panel is slated to meet June 30 to address an agenda including the proposed demolition of several buildings in the Firstside Historic District.
06/25/2020: Housing authority commits to back new rentals
The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] board voted, at its monthly meeting, to commit $4.8 million to four developers to help to finance 74 new subsidized apartments.
The funding comes from the authority's allocation of Housing Choice Voucher funds, and is contingent on the developers getting more funding, likely through low-income housing tax credits.
The authority's conditional commitments:
- $2 million to Bridging the Gap Development to build 23 subsidized apartments in Crawford-Roberts
- $1.8 million to ACTION-Housing, 23 apartments, East Liberty
- $600,000 to The Community Builders, 20 apartments, Hazelwood
- $481,000 to Hazelwood Initiative, 8 apartments, Hazelwood
The tax credits would come through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. PHFA has advised PublicSource that its usual July announcement of awards is being postponed until August, due to delays caused by remote work necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
06/25/2020: Shorted in 2012, HACP gets windfall now
The HACP board voted to accept the settlement of a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The HACP joined six other housing authorities, all of which claimed that federal budget cuts in 2012 were applied in ways that violated HUD’s commitments to them. The HACP's share of the settlement is $3.5 million, of which 15% goes to the lawyers, leaving slightly less than $3 million. Board members did not discuss any potential uses for the money, and authority communications staff did not immediately respond to questions.
06/19/2020: Allegheny County releases CARES plan, including rental help
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on Friday broadly outlined his administration's intended uses for nearly $250 million in federal and state grants meant to help defray costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects.
Fitzgerald wants to put the $212.2 million coming via the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security [CARES] Act into the county budget to cover COVID-related services ($149.6 million), operations ($36.3 million), personnel ($15.8 million) and equipment ($10.5 million).
Another $25 million in federal funds allocated by the state would go toward a new rental assistance program for households experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic.
Separate state and federal funding totaling $10.5 million would cover other operations, services and equipment costs the county has incurred due to the emergency.
County council's normal process calls for introduction of the legislation Tuesday, discussion at a subsequent committee meeting, and a vote at a later meeting of the full council.
06/16/2020: Planning Commission not jumping at proposal to raze Froggy’s
A proposal to demolish a trio of squat, brick buildings in Downtown’s Firstside Historic District, to make way for a 385-foot residential and office tower, hit a wall of skepticism at the City Planning Commission.
Developer Troiani Group wants to take down 104 and 106 Market St. and 209 1st Ave., which includes the former Froggy’s bar. The site is the subject of a week-old Facebook page which urges preservation of the buildings. Commission members said they have heard from the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which urge preservation of some portions of the existing buildings. The commission could vote on the proposed demolitions June 30.
Market Street “is just wonderful,” said Commissioner Becky Mingo, during a commission meeting conducted via Zoom. “You walk down Market Street, and it's sort of part of this beautiful small scale, with these small windows, this sort of intimate place, on your way toward the river." She said it would be hard for her to vote "to just throw this away."
Architect Ken Doyno said that the buildings would be replaced by a tower with 150 residences, plus offices and street-level retail, with 300 parking spaces, mostly underground. It would feature gardens and a pool on terraces, and a rooftop walking track, among other amenities. He called it “the next opportunity for the city to propel forward,” and a potent symbol of Downtown’s resilience in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of the existing brick walls are unsound, and others likely wouldn’t survive the construction of below-ground parking, Doyno said.
Several commissioners urged the development team to work with preservationists and city planners to find a way to “keep the remnants of something called a historic district,” as Commissioner Sabina Deitrick put it.
06/16/2020: More homes without parking could be in city’s future
Less off-street parking could be good for residential neighborhoods, city planners told the City Planning Commission, which is weighing whether to nix a requirement that new townhomes and rowhouses include driveways or garages.
The city code requires at least one — but not more than four — off-street parking spaces for every new townhome or rowhouse, city Riverfront Development Coordinator Andrea Lavin Kossis told the commission. (Her presentation is here.) "This really dilutes street life,” she said. “It deactivates the street" by replacing stoops and front windows with parking spaces or garage doors. Driveways and garages also result in less on-street parking, she said. And the parking requirement bumps up construction costs by around 12.5%, plus increases the risk of car-on-pedestrian accidents, according to Kossis.
The legislation to lift the parking requirement for row houses and townhouses was introduced in Pittsburgh City Council in March. Council could hold a public hearing and vote following the commission's likely June 30 vote. If the change is approved by council, developers would still have the option of including off-street parking in new townhomes and rowhouses, but it would no longer be mandatory.
The commission seemed favorably disposed. "I think this is a great idea,” said Commissioner Rachel O’Neill.
The commission also unanimously approved construction of a 52-unit apartment building with just 11 parking spaces at 1717 Fifth Avenue, in the Middle Hill and the Uptown EcoInnovation District . (A parking tally provided by the architect at a June 2 commission meeting left out three spaces.) Developer Michael McAllister expects the planned Bus Rapid Transit system along Fifth will render parking optional for residents.
06/16/2020: Fracking at ET? Round 2 of zoning fight set for Monday
A zoning dispute that could go a long way toward determining whether fracking occurs at U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson Works will continue June 22, after 2 ½ hours of testimony on Monday failed to exhaust the competing viewpoints on the Merrion Oil & Gas plan to sink wells on a site that spans the borders of East Pittsburgh and North Versailles.
Merrion's three-year bid to drill 6,700 feet below the mill site's eastern edge hit a snag in January when East Pittsburgh rescinded its approval of proposed activity on its side of the border. Borough council voted that since Merrion hadn't started drilling within two years of the granting of a conditional use permit, that permit would be rescinded.
Merrion appealed to the borough's appointed Zoning Hearing Board, which started its proceedings Monday via Zoom at 7:30 p.m. and decided, shortly after 10:00, that it would have to continue them.
Much of the testimony revolved around whether Merrion had commenced work on the conditional use permit for the site within the two year period laid out in the borough's code.
Merrion Operations Manager Ryan Davis told the five-member board that the company has spent $2.1 million leasing mineral rights, conducting surveys and geotechnical testing, and working through the state Department of Environmental Protection's permitting process. "We've spent a lot of money, and time and effort, moving this forward that entire time," he said, in an effort to rebut the East Pittsburgh council's position that Merrion failed to commence operations within two years.
Davis characterized the company's drive through the DEP permitting process as "near the goal line." But he admitted that the company has received none of its three required DEP permits, got a dozen notices of deficiencies in its applications, and last week characterized the regulatory process as "0%" complete on its website.
East Pittsburgh Councilwoman Stacey Simon testified that she proposed the resolution to rescind the permit after learning that the two year clock had expired. Edith Abeyta, of North Braddock Residents for Our Future, testified about community opposition to the drilling proposal.
East Pittsburgh residents are expected to testify on Monday. Any decision the board makes could be appealed to court.
06/11/2020: URA may fight oppression — after closed-door meeting
The Urban Redevelopment Authority has traditionally dedicated itself to spurring construction in Pittsburgh, but under board Chairman Sam Williamson, the agency’s mission continues to evolve.
At today’s meeting of the URA board, Williamson started with a moment of silence for George Floyd, the Black man slain by fired-and-criminally charged Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and other “victims of police violence,” in his words.
“For centuries, police violence has served to protect the economic status quo and to enforce racist structures all across our society,” Williamson continued, in a meeting conducted via Zoom. “For way too long, actions of this organization, of the URA itself, perpetuated and worsened many of those same racist structures in our local economy.”
He said the divide between white and Black economic horizons has been well-documented for half a century but that many measures indicate that it is only widening.
“There’s urgent long-overdue action to dismantle these systems of oppression, that we have to consider as a board,” he said. “The board and the senior staff of the URA have started talking about what we need to do.”
Williamson then said that the board would hold an executive session, after the public meeting, to discuss its options and resources.
The state Sunshine Act requires that all deliberations of board quorums must be conducted publicly, with seven narrow exceptions.
Asked by PublicSource, via email, for the rationale for holding that session outside of public view, URA Chief Legal Officer Nathan Clark answered: "We believe PA law provides that meetings held solely for the purpose of collecting information or educating Board members about an issue do not fit the accepted definition of 'deliberations' even if the information may later assist the members in taking official actions."
06/11/2020: City programs to help homeowners, businesses expand
The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s program to help cover housing costs for low-income city households disadvantaged by COVID-19 has 665 clients either receiving or awaiting payments, agency staff reported at today’s board meeting. The board voted to expand the number of private providers administering the program from four to 11, in order to improve the turnaround time on applications.
“We are expecting a surge of evictions once the eviction moratorium expires, so it’s good that we’re doing this now,” said Chairman Sam Williamson.
The board also voted to create a loan fund for businesses that face costs associated with recovering from the pandemic-driven economic shutdown. Starting today, affected small businesses in the city can apply for loans of as much as $75,000.
06/10/2020: While city agency rolls out more COVID aid, county "working with folks" on plan
Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority board is set to vote Thursday on a Recovery Loan Program which would allow small businesses in the city to borrow as much as $75,000 to get back on their feet. That follows a $15,000-per-business Emergency Loan Fund that the URA launched in April. The URA board is also expected to vote Thursday to contract with 11 nonprofit organizations to distribute funds to renters and homeowners struggling with housing costs.
What about struggling businesses and residents in suburbia, where the URA does not operate, but where Allegheny County Economic Development and the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County [RAAC] are active?
After Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald spoke with county council Tuesday evening, PublicSource asked whether he had plans to aid struggling small businesses and residents in places like Millvale and Homestead.
"Our redevelopment authority has been working with folks on that as well," Fitzgerald said. Asked for a time frame for a rollout, he said: "I can't give you a time frame on that."
Asked whether the source of funding could be the roughly $212 million in federal funds the county gets under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security [CARES] Act, Fitzgerald said: "It could be, it could be."
PublicSource has followed up for details, and will report them here as soon as they are available.
To learn more about the URA, RAAC and other development-related boards, check out Board Explorer.
06/09/2020: "Clean construction" passes county council
Allegheny County Council unanimously approved "clean construction" legislation, which would require that contractors working for the county, or working on county buildings or land, use ultralow-sulfur diesel fuel and the best available pollution control technology in their large diesel equipment..
The closing quote of the short debate: “What it does is help clean our air," said Council Vice President Robert Macey. "It was pretty easy to figure out, that clean air is better than dirty air.”
06/08/2020: State steering CARES money to small businesses
Pennsylvania small businesses affected by the nearly three-month shutdown of much of the economy can now tap a $225 million state grant program, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday.
The money is to be distributed through the state's 17 nonprofit community development financial institutions [CDFIs], and divided into three pots:
- a $100 million Main Street Business Revitalization Program to cover costs of adapting to new business operations due to the closure order;
- a $100 million Historically Disadvantaged Business Revitalization Program for businesses owned and operated by economically disadvantaged persons, which have had COVID-related costs;
- $25 million to help the CDFIs to offer forbearance to their borrowers, or to address the effects of defaults on their finances.
The money comes from the $3.9 billion the state received under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security [CARES] Act. The release on the program is here.
06/05/2020: “Clean construction” could be the rule on Allegheny County-related jobs
Allegheny County Council could vote Tuesday on legislation that would compel contractors on many county-paid construction jobs to take measures to control pollution emissions.
The bill by council members Anita Prizio and Olivia Bennett would require that contractors working for the county, or working on county buildings or land, use ultralow-sulfur diesel fuel and the best available pollution control technology in their large diesel equipment. Violators would be in breach of their county contracts, and could face damage claims.
It wouldn't apply to projects that cost under $2.5 million, nor to work that doesn't involve county dollars or county-owned property.
It could, however, affect much of the work done under future county capital budgets. In the last four years, county capital budgets have ranged from $100 million to $111 million in work on bridges, buildings, parks and roads.
Council's Committee on Public Works endorsed the bill in May. If approved by the full council and signed by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the rules would kick in on Jan. 1.
06/04/20: URA lists “tools” for COVID-affected businesses
The Urban Redevelopment Authority on Thursday announced the launch of its Tools for the Transition web page, meant to provide Pittsburgh businesses with a clearinghouse for information they might use to emerge from the pandemic shutdown. The page includes information on funding sources and loyalty programs; guidance for reopening, operating outdoors and doing business online; and a photo essay showcasing innovative approaches.
(For a look at the members of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board, visit Board Explorer.)
The city also has a new housing assistance resources page.
06/02/20: Could Homewood’s new plan address enduring injustices?
Homewood has a new plan, and there is hope — at least among some neighborhood leaders — that it could start to address the enduring injustices that inflamed the nation’s streets in the week since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
While many community plans focus on what should (or shouldn’t) be built along various streets, the new Homewood Comprehensive Community Plan takes a different approach.
"It is a people-based plan,” said city Planner Christopher Corbett, who worked with 22 organizations and some 200 people to craft the plan. “It doesn't identify a lot of sites for development ... We focus on policy and the needs of the community."
Those needs include:
- access to healthy and fresh foods
- improved education
- more out-of-school-time options for kids
- organization of public health and safety teams
- increased career readiness and placement
- promotion and preservation of Homewood's Black culture
- management of vacant property
- conversion of empty houses into owner-occupied homes.
The City Planning Commission got its initial look at Homewood's plan on March 10, at its last meeting before the coronavirus put a halt to its proceedings. The commission, meeting via Zoom, approved the plan today. That doesn’t obligate the city to address those neighborhood needs, but does make them the official yardsticks against which future development proposals will be measured.
"It's interesting, at this time, with all of the complications, and distress over the coronavirus and its impact on minority communities and the killing of African Americans at the hands of the police, and people across the country are demanding equity and focusing on the disparities,” Rev. Samuel Ware, co-chair of Homewood Community Development Collaborative and executive director of Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania, told the commission via Zoom.
He said the plan “puts us ahead of everybody else in terms of addressing the disparities that exist, and [fostering] the kind of cooperation and collaboration and unity” that cities need.
Its “components address most of the issues that we hear people complaining about, and marching and protesting about, in much of the rest of the country. … It will lower, and in some cases eliminate, the disparities” between Black and white quality of life, if implemented, he said.
Median household income in Homewood is under $20,000, and thus just under half that in the city as a whole, Corbett told the commission.
Other business and civic leaders from the neighborhood spoke in favor of the plan, and no one spoke against it.
Implementation will be the key, said Zinna Scott, a board member with Operation Better Block, in Homewood. "We don't want to be kind of treated like the Indians: promise us one thing and give us another."
"This is a very, very crucial time in our history,” noted commission member Jean Holland Dick, prior to the vote. “There is a desperate need for good, common-sense grassroots leadership ... and I think this is a perfect example” of that.
(For a look at the City Planning Commission's membership, visit Board Explorer.)
06/02/20: In Uptown’s future, who needs parking?
Just eight parking spaces for 52 residences? In Pittsburgh?
Those numbers were presented to the City Planning Commission today, in its first meeting following a pandemic-driven 12-week break. How could that math possibly work? The answer, according to architect Ryan Indovina, is the proposed Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] project, which would run from Downtown to Oakland, and which last week won a pledge of nearly $100 million in federal funding.
Developer Michael McAllister wants to build a six-story apartment building at 1717 Fifth Ave., in Uptown, right along the proposed path of the BRT. That proximity to transit is what gives McAllister and Indovina confidence that just a fraction of residents will need on-site parking. The design could even accommodate a future conversion of that limited parking to retail space at some point in the future.
There are no public subsidies in the project, and no units will be specifically priced for low-income affordability. McAllister said there would be a broad range of unit sizes and rents.
The commission must decide whether the building fits within Uptown’s plan and could vote on the proposal as early as June 16.
The developer's full presentation is here.
06/02/20: Oft-stymied Steelers try again on sign
The Steelers haven’t always imposed their will on city signage regulators. Last year, when the football club wanted to change some seat colors in order to create a "nonadvertising sign" in the stands, the Zoning Board of Adjustment stopped them cold. A proposed 260-square-foot placard for an under-construction pro shop at Heinz Field was also rejected last year as too large, by the same board.
Today, the team’s architects at Kolano Design came to the City Planning Commission with a smaller, zoning-board-approved sign — just 45 feet long with letters 3 foot 3 inches high. It wasn’t flagged by the commissioners, who raised no questions or concerns, and their vote is set for June 16.
More details on the Steelers' plans are here.
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