Develop PGH Bulletins: Bid to frack on Edgar Thomson site goes to court

Below: With evictions looming, Allegheny County Council asks courts to act

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The Edgar Thomson Steel Works, photographed in January 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The Edgar Thomson Steel Works, photographed in January 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Develop PGH Bulletins updates you on the Pittsburgh region's economy, including close coverage of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, City Planning Commission and other important agencies. Please check back frequently, sign up for the Develop PGH newsletter and email rich@publicsource.org with questions, tips or story ideas.

11/25/20: Edgar Thomson drilling fight moving to court

A New Mexico company’s bid to frack on U.S. Steel’s land in North Versailles and East Pittsburgh is now in court following a Tuesday appeal filing.

Merrion Oil & Gas spent millions preparing to drill on the Edgar Thomson Works site, and the East Pittsburgh Zoning Hearing Board has misinterpreted that borough’s code, according to the company’s Notice of Land Use Appeal filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

The timeline: In December 2017, East Pittsburgh council voted to approve Merrion’s zoning application to conduct drilling-related activities on a sliver of the borough’s land. The actual well sites would be in North Versailles.

In January 2020, the borough council rescinded that approval, arguing that the code allowed for that reversal because the company had not started drilling activity within two years.

Merrion asked the borough’s Zoning Hearing Board to reverse council’s action, but last month the board issued a ruling upholding the rescission.

The company argues in its appeal that in 2018 and 2019, it worked on surveys, core borings and other tests on the site, while working through the Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] permitting process, spending nearly $2.7 million.

Merrion also argues that the rescission provision in the borough's zoning ordinance applies to 45 specified conditional uses of property, but does not apply to oil and gas well sites.

The appeal, authored by attorney Harlan Stone, requests reversal of the Zoning Hearing Board's decision, so the company can pursue drilling-related work on the site. It has not yet been assigned to a judge.

Merrion’s plans would still need the approval of the DEP, which has not yet signed off.

11/24/20: Allegheny County Council asks for longer eviction moratorium

With a federal order restricting evictions due to expire at year’s end, Allegheny County Council voted to ask the county courts to enact a local moratorium, which would run through Oct. 1.

The federal order was driven by concern that evictions would dislocate people and worsen the COVID-19 pandemic. Council member Liv Bennett noted that as the clock ticks on the federal order, “our COVID numbers are not ceasing — they are increasing. … In order to shelter in place or homeschool, you need to have a home.” She said that state estimates of the timing of vaccine distribution drove her to propose a moratorium that would run into the early next autumn.

The resolution is nonbinding. County courts — along with the state Supreme Court and Gov. Tom Wolf — were authors of some of the eviction moratoriums that were in place prior to the federal order.

Council member Nicholas Futules, a landlord, said he saw “some serious problems” with a blanket moratorium. He noted that some tenants might refuse to pay the rent during a moratorium, even if they can afford it, while landlords still have to pay taxes, insurance and often mortgages.

Nonetheless, the motion passed, 11-3, with Futules, Sam DeMarco III and Cindy Kirk voting no, and Paul Zavarella abstaining because he is a lawyer who represents landlords and tenants.

11/24/20: Strip apartment developer not afraid of COVID

Proposed developments at either end of the Strip District drew favorable responses from the City Planning Commission, ahead of votes set for its next meeting, on Dec. 8.

The first was a proposed six-story, 114-unit apartment building, proposed for the site of a longtime vehicle service center at the corner of Penn Avenue and 32nd Street. Near the Strip’s eastern border with Lower Lawrenceville, the area has a “gritty, industrial character” that the development would adopt, said Shawn Kichline, a principal at Oxide Real Estate Development.

An artist's rendering of a building proposed for the corner of Penn Avenue and 32nd Street, in the Strip District, presented by Oxide Real Estate Development to the City Planning Commission on Nov. 24, 2020.

An artist's rendering of a building proposed for the corner of Penn Avenue and 32nd Street, in the Strip District, presented by Oxide Real Estate Development to the City Planning Commission on Nov. 24, 2020.

Commissioner Becky Mingo asked whether COVID-19 was expected to affect the demand for city apartments.

Kichline said he’s “personally of the belief that some of the work-from-home will become permanent,” but added that building design can adapt to the new reality. His firm is considering whether each of the apartments — which will range in size from studios to two-bedroom units — can include designated office space.

“I like the scale. I like how it’s relating on the street level,” said Commissioner Rachel O’Neill, adding that she’d like more information on how the building will relate to some of its smaller neighbors.

11/24/20: Commissioner speaks glowingly of new Strip plan

The City Planning Commission also got its first look at a second proposal for a new building near the Strip’s western edge, close to Downtown, where the concrete, former ice house known as the Wholey Building now sits lifeless.

Rather than the prior massive, blocky design derided by one commissioner as a “Lego office building,” developer JMC Holdings and architect Brandon Haw came armed with renderings of a four-leaf clover of connected towers of different heights.

An artist's comparison of prior, and new, proposed designs for a building on the 1500 block of Penn Avenue, in the Strip District. Both designs have been presented by JMC Holdings to the City Planning Commission.

An artist's comparison of prior, and new, proposed designs for a building on the 1500 block of Penn Avenue, in the Strip District. Both designs have been presented by JMC Holdings to the City Planning Commission.

“We listened to you. We heard you. We made changes,” attorney Dusty Kirk Elias, representing the development team, told the commissioners.

Upon a base of an 846-car garage, the new 1501 Penn Avenue would consist of four “mini-towers,” ranging in height from 10 floors of offices on the side facing the Strip to 14 floors on the Downtown-facing flank. The center would be “translucent glass that will subtly glow at night,” according to Haw. It will “glow very gently in the evening, and be sort of a little glowing beacon for the project.”

“Wow, where to begin?” said Commissioner Becky Mingo. In September, she called the original design “a gigantic barrier” with no Pittsburgh-specific character traits.

An artist's rendering of an office tower proposed by JMC Holdings for 1501 Penn Ave., presented to the City Planning Commission on Nov. 24, 2020.

An artist's rendering of an office tower proposed by JMC Holdings for 1501 Penn Ave., presented to the City Planning Commission on Nov. 24, 2020.

She said that she’s still worried that there is “nothing else around it that has that sort of height,” and that the building heralds “the infiltration of Downtown” into the Strip.

“Change is hard for us,” Mingo continued. And yet? “I think it’s going to be a nice building. It went from me really not liking it to me thinking it would be a nice building on that site.”

No other commissioners commented, ahead of the likely vote in two weeks.

11/24/20: Crawford-Roberts, Downtown renovations come before planning panel

The City Planning Commission gave a quiet nod to a plan to turn a former City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works building into office and retail space, priced in part to accommodate Hill District entrepreneurs.

In the Crawford-Roberts section of the Hill, and also in the Uptown Eco-Innovation District, the three-floor building is to be sold by the city, and converted into a four-story structure by developer Derrick Tillman, of the firm Bridging the Gap.

It will include co-working spaces charging lower-than-market rates for local residents, said architect Amanda Markovic. She added that the proposal has been the subject of “a very robust community engagement process” that led to letters of support  from the Hill Community Development Corp. and Uptown Partners neighborhood groups.

There was no public comment, and commissioners had neither questions, nor comments before approving the proposal.

An artist's rendering of the proposed conversion of a Pittsburgh Department of Public Works building in Crawford-Roberts into offices, retail and community space, as presented to the City Planning Commission on Nov. 10, 2020. (Screenshot)

An artist's rendering of the proposed conversion of a Pittsburgh Department of Public Works building in Crawford-Roberts into offices, retail and community space, as presented to the City Planning Commission on Nov. 10, 2020. (Screenshot)

The commission also heard plans to convert the empty offices of the so-called Triangle Building, where Liberty Avenue meets 7th Avenue and Smithfield Street, into 23 apartments. Most would be one-bedroom units, with some two-bedroom, and all would be leased at market rates. The commission is likely to vote on that proposed renovation in two weeks.

Downtown's Triangle Building, in a photo presented to the City Planning Commission on Nov. 24, 2020.

Downtown's Triangle Building, in a photo presented to the City Planning Commission on Nov. 24, 2020.

11/19/20: Penguins broaden Hill development team

The Penguins' chosen developer for the Lower Hill District site of the former Civic Arena is entering into a series of partnerships with local individuals and businesses, Mayor Bill Peduto's administration announced.

Maryland-based Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] is charged by the Penguins-affiliated Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Redevelopment L.P. with spearheading the proposed $1 billion redevelopment plan for the 28 acre site.

BPG is opening a Pittsburgh office, and has hired, as vice president, Hill-based developer Bomani Howze, according to the Peduto administration's press release. Howze will coordinate with Dorin Dickerson, soon to be director of project development for the Penguins, and now community outreach manager for Mascaro Construction Company. The firm E. Holdings, led by Hill developer Irv Williams, will work on "solidifying bridges between the development team and the minority and women-owned business community," according to the release.

Hill historian and designer Kimberly Ellis will be the development's legacy consultant, ensuring that the development includes "welcoming public open space," according to the release. Woman-owned Monaloh Basin Engineers will be a site survey consultant. Minority-owned AWK Consulting Engineers, based in Turtle Creek, will provide geotechnical and design services.

BPG and the Penguins hope to break ground early next year on the site's proposed 26-story FNB Financial Center, according to the release.

The heavily subsidized project hit a very public speed bump in May, and as of late September it still had not satisfied some Hill District neighborhood advocates.

The partnership announcement “demonstrates some progress,” said Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corp., which has insisted that the Penguins' team comply with a 2014 Community Collaboration Implementation Plan [CCIP]. In a short phone interview, she praised “the effort, and the talent” reflected in the announcement, but added: “The ultimate measure of success will be whether they meet the stated goals and outlined plans of the CCIP, which at this point they have not.”

11/19/20: Downtown steam heat system could sell pipes, dissolve

A steam system that supplies heat to dozens of Downtown buildings may be a few months from partial sale of key assets, and a few years from its final gasp.

Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal [PACT] is a 37-year-old nonprofit cooperative, run by a board including county and City of Pittsburgh representation, which provides heat for 47 Downtown buildings via a steam plant and a century-old network of underground pipes.

According to an eight-page recommendation provided by PACT management to its board of directors in preparation for a meeting held this morning, Allegheny County's impending withdrawal from the Downtown steam system will cut PACT's revenue by 30%. Meanwhile a private company, Princeton, N.J.-based Clearway Energy Inc., is building a rival steam heat system for buildings on the northern end of Grant Street, which would poach more PACT clients and shave another 30% of revenue. Add to that the fact that PACT has "significant major maintenance expenses" coming, according to the document.

In light of those realities, PACT's leadership is recommending a sale of its underground steam pipes to Clearway, for $750,000. Clearway would take on the job of heating some PACT members' buildings. Clearway would also provide financing for 29 other businesses that can't be accommodated by that company's proposed new system, but that could instead build new heating systems within their buildings.

The Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal building and smokestack Downtown. Photo by Jay Manning PublicSource

The Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal building and smokestack Downtown. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

A proposed timeline provided by PACT management to members indicates that if key members sign on to the plan by the end of the year, the full membership could vote to enter into a final agreement with Clearway by April. Clearway could then start building a new system in October. PACT could formally dissolve by the end of 2023.

Reached by phone, PACT Operations Manager Timothy O’Brien did not dispute the information obtained by PublicSource, but declined to comment substantively.

11/12/20: Penguins development team requests Lower Hill deadline extensions

The Pittsburgh Penguins-led team that has the right to redevelop the Lower Hill District has missed a deadline and will be asking for more time to get construction started, the chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] board said at that panel's monthly meeting.

The Penguins' development arm, Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Redevelopment [PAR], has the right to redevelop the 28 acres of the former Civic Arena site under an option agreement with the URA and the Sports and Exhibition Authority. PAR had until Oct. 22 to begin development on at leat 6.45 acres, URA board Chair Sam Williamson told the rest of the board.

“Clearly that deadline has passed," Williamson added. "PAR has missed that deadline. PAR has proposed to the URA a new deadline of April 30, 2021.”

Under the option agreement, PAR could be compelled to put into escrow some of the revenue it now gets from parking on the site, Williamson said. He said the URA board will consider the request for a deadline extension at a future meeting.

PAR is also on the hook to provide the URA, by Dec. 10, with a conceptual development plan for a portion of the site, called Block E. That area of the site is expected to include an entertainment venue. Willliamson said the board may consider an extension of that deadline at its Dec. 10 meeting.

The Lower Hill redevelopment has faced numerous speed bumps, including a May disagreement between the PAR and the URA that the development team and the agency quickly patched up. Hill community leadership continues to believe that the PAR is moving too slowly in meeting its commitments to the neighborhood, according to a letter Williamson read to the board.

11/12/20: A roof, five houses, and loans for landlords

Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority will pay to fix the roof of an imperiled East Hills apartment building, in one of a quartet of affordable housing measures approved by the URA board at its monthly meeting.

The 36-unit Bry-Mard Apartments house seniors and people with disabilities, many of whom have faced homelessness before, said Evan Miller, the URA's senior policy and lending analyst. A leaky roof rendered several units uninhabitable and forced the removal of carpeting from some areas, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development threatened to pull funding, he said. The board approved $200,000 — half a grant, half a loan — to the nonprofit-owned apartment building.

Evan Miller, the Urban Redevelopment Authority's senior policy and lending analyst, tells the board about the Bry-Mard Apartments' leaky roof at the URA's virtual board meeting of Nov. 12, 2020. (Screenshot)

Evan Miller, the Urban Redevelopment Authority's senior policy and lending analyst, tells the board about the Bry-Mard Apartments' leaky roof at the URA's virtual board meeting of Nov. 12, 2020. (Screenshot)

The board also voted to:

  • Provide $656,864 in grants and loans to Observatory Hill Development Corp. to support the rehabilitation of five abandoned houses on Bonvue Street. The development corporation expects to spend $1.36 million on the five rehabs, and to sell three to lower-income households, and two at market rates.
  • Approve the $10 million 2021 budget for the Housing Opportunity Fund, detailed below. The budget largely mirrors prior annual allocations to support the development and preservation of affordable rental and owner-occupied housing, but also includes $250,000 to pay lawyers to help fight evictions.
  • Accept a $150,000, interest-free loan from UPMC to the Small Landlord Fund, which provides low-interest loans to property owners who want to improve their units and rent them out to Housing Choice Voucher [Section 8] holders. The fund is also supported by PNC Bank and the Lincoln Land Institute.

11/10/20: Public Works building could become private office space

Developers hope to turn a former City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works building in the Crawford-Roberts section of the Hill District into office and retail space, according to a presentation made to the City Planning Commission.

Developer Derrick Tillman, of the firm Bridging the Gap, and architect Amanda Markovic described for the commission a plan to buy the three-floor building from the city, add a fourth story, and transform it mostly into offices. It would also include a coffee shop, an “innovation space” with workforce development resources and clean energy job training areas, and “a civic plaza” at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Dinwiddie Street.

The site is within the Uptown Eco-Innovation District, which drives the need for commission approval. Commission members asked the development team to bring back details of their discussions with the Hill Community Development Corporation and Uptown Partners neighborhood groups. The commission could vote to approve the project Nov. 24.

The commission also approved the conversion of the Allegheny Building, at 429 Forbes Ave., Downtown, from offices to 190 apartments.

11/5/20: Eviction, foreclosure emerging priority for city fund

A Pittsburgh fund that has focused on creating and preserving affordable housing is planning to spend some of its money helping households to fight eviction and foreclosure.

The Housing Opportunity Fund [HOF] Advisory Board approved a $10 million budget for 2021 that includes $250,000 for "helping renters and homeowners with legal assistance." The method of providing that assistance was not detailed during the board’s meeting.

“We could be facing a cataclysmic event as the moratoriums expire,” said Diamonte Walker, an HOF advisory board member, and the deputy executive director of the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.

The legal assistance line item would be a new one for the HOF, which began operations in 2018 and receives money from the city’s deed transfer tax.

The HOF has focused on backing housing development and repairs, providing temporary cash assistance to households in crisis, and helping new homeowners with down payments. Those priorities would still get the bulk of the money.

Court action on most evictions for failure to pay are now being suspended, under a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The order expires at the end of the year. The pace of eviction filings in Allegheny County slowed somewhat last month. Landlords filed 489 cases against tenants in October, versus 851 in September, according to Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab.

The HOF’s proposed budget is otherwise roughly consistent with prior years, except for a dip in the allocation to the Housing Stabilization Fund, which provides short-term aid to households at risk of homelessness. That program is now getting funding from other, private donors.

The proposed 2021 Housing Opportunity Fund budget approved on Nov. 5, 2020, by the HOF Advisory Board. (Screenshot)

The proposed 2021 Housing Opportunity Fund budget approved on Nov. 5, 2020, by the HOF Advisory Board. (Screenshot)

Before becoming official, the proposed HOF budget has to win the approval of the URA board, expected to vote next week, and Pittsburgh City Council, which could address it next month.

PublicSource receives funding from The Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

October recap:

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

A tale of two districts: In Strip and Firstside, the Peduto administration cheers some development, stops other plans

COVID-19 threatens Mon Valley’s emergence from economic decline, but small business owners remain hopeful

Develop PGH archives

Not over in the Hill: Neighborhood leaders say the Penguins are coming up short

$2.5 million for steam? Allegheny County pact with Peoples raises costs, contracting questions

How fast has UPMC grown? The answer in four charts

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

September development coverage

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

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

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