How some Allegheny County municipalities are working to make transit-oriented development happen

A look at efforts to build transit-oriented development in Dormont, Castle Shannon and Crafton and how zoning codes have affected the projects.

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A passenger stands at a ConnectCard kiosk at Dormont Junction transit station.

The Dormont Junction T station. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

When Seth Davis moved to Dormont in 2011, he was drawn by the affordability of the community and the accessibility of public transit. T stations in the South Hills suburb mean a short ride into Pittsburgh, and the community also has a walkable commercial strip with sidewalks on every street.

In his view, a progressive development plan for the Dormont Junction T station could give the borough even more of what he already likes.

What’s now a park-and-ride lot owned by the Port Authority of Allegheny County could be transformed into a mixed-use development with retail, office space and apartments spread across four buildings. The Port Authority hopes the project will boost ridership and increase revenue, all while adding $3.5 million in station improvements and developing one of the few remaining plots of open land in Dormont.

To Davis, the plan would make the community even more pedestrian- and transit-friendly. Instead of a parking lot, he imagines a grab-and-go coffee shop or businesses with open space for his family to enjoy nice weather in the summer.

“I see this as really being a better benefit and better use than the adjacent parcel that’s just a car lot,” said Davis, 34, a military master planner by trade and former planning commission member in Dormont.

But there’s a catch: Under Dormont’s zoning, the proposed plan isn’t allowed. 

Borough code restricts the density of residents living in a given space — a problem for new apartments — and mandates a set number of parking for businesses and apartments. 

The Port Authority sought local input starting in 2018. So while the design isn’t currently allowable, in the authority’s view, it reflects the community’s wants for transit-oriented development [TOD].

Breen Masciotra, TOD manager for the Port Authority, said, “It’s interesting to have the conceptual program and then to give that to the borough and say, ‘Hey, council members participated in this process, residents participated in this process...One problem, it’s not legal under your code.” 

In some communities, TOD occurs naturally as the areas build out near a transit station. The Port Authority is actively looking to launch TOD projects on its property to create walkable communities that utilize their services. The agency is also interested in working with stakeholders interested in development in a half-mile radius of their stations. 

“Our goal is to see this kind of development occur because it’s good for our system,” Masciotra said. “The more walkable communities that exist, the more density that exists, the easier it is for us to save. The more people will ride. It’s a virtuous cycle.” 

TOD has become popular in cities like Boston, New York and Chicago over the last decade, but the Port Authority of Allegheny County has only begun to create a systematic plan for it in the last five years, in part because of a state increase in funding.

TOD projects have been completed in East Liberty and at the South Hills Village Station in Bethel Park. In 2016, the authority created TOD guidelines that serve as best practices and outline the intended value for residents, including improved accessibility, affordable housing and health benefits of walkable communities. 

In 2018, the authority conducted an evaluation of all 76 of its guideway stations and prioritized them in terms of suitability for development, Masciotra said. 

“In cities across the U.S., we’re seeing transit improvements displacing the very riders that it’s intended to serve.” 

Across Allegheny County, transit-oriented developments face many challenges, including zoning issues, parking limitations and the need for funding and development partners. For example, in Castle Shannon, one proposed TOD project has been in the works for 20 years.

To help reduce barriers, the Port Authority and the Congress of Neighboring Communities [CONNECT]* has brought together leaders in 10 local municipalities for the last two years to find ways to make their communities more accessible to TOD projects. 

The two organizations brought in national firm Dover, Kohl & Partners to work with municipal leaders. In August, the firm completed an analysis of local hurdles facing TOD and provided each community with a toolkit to move projects forward.  

“We’re giving all these municipal leaders a better understanding of the zoning codes, so that they can actually build the community to be multilateral and transit-industry friendly,” said Lydia Morin, executive director of CONNECT, an organization that helps local municipal leaders identify and solve common problems.

Municipalities like Dormont and Crafton have begun the process to update their zoning codes.

Dormont Manager Ben Estell said the zoning overhaul must go through another set of public meetings and may not match plans proposed through the Port Authority site plan for Dormont Junction. 

In Crafton, leaders are looking to promote the community’s easy access to the busway.

And while leaders point to many benefits that come from projects like this, there are people who have concerns. Some questioned the affordability of apartments planned in an earlier iteration of designs approved for Castle Shannon station, while the East Liberty project has been met with mixed reviews.

Laura Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit [PPT], commends the effort of Port Authority and CONNECT to help “oftentimes under-resourced municipalities” work to better shape their codes to support TOD. However, she points to both the East Liberty and South Hills Village station projects as missed opportunities to ensure better transit access to low-income residents. 

“Which is disappointing because in cities across the U.S., we’re seeing transit improvements displacing the very riders that it’s intended to serve,” Wiens said. 

Municipalities should work with community organizations to ensure that affordable housing remains available, Wiens said. When creating equitable TOD, Wiens said developers should consider if money spent on parking spaces could be better spent on affordable housing or bus passes for residents. PPT would also like to see the Port Authority and the City of Pittsburgh formally adopt TOD guidelines, instead of just recommending them. 

Currently, the Port Authority does not have guidelines that detail what affordable housing should look like. Masciotra said she would like to see them developed. The goal, she said, is not to displace residents with new development. PPT believes it’s equally important that current tenants have protection from displacement if rent rises from new construction.

To ensure that TOD projects are successful and community-focused, Adam Bonosky of Dover, Kohl & Partners said municipalities and residents should collaborate on a vision for the community and write zoning codes to match.

Bonosky’s zoning recommendations include eliminating parking minimums and reducing required street setbacks for buildings. 

While local projects face many challenges, Bonosky said Allegheny County isn’t behind much of the country. That’s because the projects themselves aren’t the biggest hurdle. 

“The biggest hurdle is transit,” Bonosky said. 

In Dormont: It all comes down to zoning 

With easy access to public transit near its commercial strip, Dormont already has almost naturally built itself into transit-oriented community. The South Hills suburb has a growing younger population, Estell said, drawn to its walkable streets and “craftsman-style houses the HGTV crowd loves.”

But he described the borough’s zoning code as “cookie cutter.” Borough leaders are using grant funding to give the zoning code its first major overhaul since 1995. Changes could impact the number of parking spaces required in a development as well as the density of residents allowed. 

A previous Port Authority concept design from 2012 called for a mix of housing and retail at Dormont Junction, along with a community pool and more than 500 parking spaces to cover the park-and-ride lot and a nearby borough parking lot. 

But plans hit a snag.

Borough code requires 1.5 spaces for every apartment unit, and the borough requires additional parking spaces for the proposed businesses. At the time, both the Federal Transit Administration [FTA] and the Port Authority required every parking spot removed from the park-and-ride lot to be replaced, Masciotra said. 

Building a parking structure is expensive, Masciotra and Estell said, sometimes costing more than $20,000 a spot. 

The project was dead by 2016, Estell said.

Seth Davis, Dormont resident and former planning commission member, stands at Dormont Junction

Seth Davis is a Dormont resident and former planning commission member in Dormont. Here, he is pictured at Dormont Junction. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

The Port Authority went back to the drawing board. In 2018, brainstorming began again.

Parking is still a challenge. Not only does the latest plan reduce parking spots, it still fails to clear Dormont’s local zoning code. Estell said residents have vocally opposed redevelopment of the former Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church, less than a half-mile away from Dormont Junction. Loss of parking has been a major point of contention, he said.

But the Port Authority and FTA rule to replace every park-and-ride spot no longer exists, meaning the power is now in the hands of Dormont officials.

“First and foremost, it’s going to come down to the zoning code,” Masciotra said. 

Estell could not say how many parking spaces would be required to meet Dormont’s current requirements. 

Masciotra said the hope is that T riders from the South Hills would instead park about 4 miles away at South Hills Village. Dormont Junction is a free alternative and draws commuters from other suburbs.

Davis likes the new plan better than the last, and in his view, the development could encourage the Port Authority to improve transit. He sees parking as a hurdle that can be jumped.

At public meetings, residents said they wanted to see first-floor businesses and multiple buildings so they can cut through to get to the station, Masciotra said. Currently, riders use a mud path that goes through a grass hillside that Estell said is known as “the cowpath.”

The project also extends the station’s platform and extends its canopy.

Estell said there aren’t many chances a municipality has to have a say in keeping affordable housing, which is included in the project plan. He hopes increasing the housing stock alone will help balance costs in the area, especially with higher-priced units he said are planned at the former Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church.

In Dormont, Estell said some residents voiced support for affordable housing. Others said they see Dormont as “on the rise” and don’t want to create low-income housing in the community.

Dormont’s council doesn’t have an official stance on the project, Estell said. 

In his view, a developer isn’t going to veer from what the community wants, so the zoning decisions are “going to be an important step along the way.” Dormont hopes to hire a consulting firm by the end of the year to begin the zoning overhaul, Estell said. 

Currently, the borough could grant zoning variances, but Masciotra said the Port Authority would rather not seek a development partner “until there’s some amount of certainty around the code changing to allow what we’re after.” 

Regardless, Masciotra said the Port Authority likely will move ahead in the next year with in station upgrades.

In 20 years, there’s still no development 

It’s been 20 years since Castle Shannon leaders first attended meetings about a potential development on the Port Authority-owned park-and-ride lot at the Castle Shannon T Station.

The borough changed its zoning to make way for the project, but it’s repeatedly stalled. For years, JRA Development Group has served as the project’s lead developer, and the company has pulled in several partners to work with them.

The company did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Plans for the site have come and gone. Each has fallen by the wayside for various reasons, including financial difficulties and contractor issues, said Castle Shannon Council President Mark Heckmann. 

Public funding dates back to Gov. Ed Rendell’s tenure as governor, Heckmann said. A tax increment financing [TIF] district was established, according to borough manager Thomas Hartswick. TIFs are a way that local governments can help subsidize projects by diverting additional real estate taxes from new development in the district back to the project. 

Mark Heckmann, Castle Shannon council president, at the Castle Shannon T station

Mark Heckmann, Castle Shannon council president, pictured at the Castle Shannon T station. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

In recent months, borough leaders have heard from a developer who is working to see “how we can breathe life back into this,” Heckmann said. 

No official plans have been submitted, though borough leaders have seen drawings. Hartswick said the company is working on costs.

Masciotra declined to talk about the project because it’s active, and she started with the Port Authority after its initial stages. 

If the latest developer falls through, Heckmann said it may be time to start anew. Funding tied to the initial project would be lost. 

Still, some borough leaders tout the development’s  potential. 

“It’s a tremendous thing when you can hop on the T and, in 20 minutes, you’re at the USX Building,” Hartswick said. “I would think that a developer who specialized in this type of development would see the potential that exists on the site.” 

But leaders know that longtime residents are frustrated by the lack of movement. 

“It’s exasperating,” Mayor Donald Baumgarten said. “I’ve heard the story so many times. It’s déjà vu all over again — Groundhog Day.” 

The mayor points the finger at the Port Authority. 

“To me, it’s just a joke,” said Baumgarten, who said he was initially excited by the project. “It’s been crawling and crawling. It’s not even on its knees anymore.” 

Residents today only have two questions, Baumgarten said: “When are they going to do it?” and “Where am I going to park?” 

Heckmann is more optimistic. He credits the Port Authority for doing its diligence to show the value of TOD. 

He wants to make sure the right developer partners with the project and that it offers the needed amenities and price point for Castle Shannon. 

“I don’t begrudge anybody who is taking their time to figure out financing, whose working with all partners,” Heckmann said. 

A community-wide approach 

Coletta Perry relies on Port Authority transit to get to the Pittsburgh International Airport early in the morning. She walks from her home in Crafton to the bus station. Within 20 to 25 minutes of boarding — and for just $2.75 — she’s there. 

“You almost can’t drive that fast,” said Perry, who serves as president of Crafton’s borough council. 

Unlike Dormont and Castle Shannon, there’s no Port Authority-owned park-and-ride lot to build on. But that doesn’t stop borough manager RJ Susko from looking for ways to add transit-focused development. 

The borough covers roughly 1 square mile, with stations on the West Busway in the center. Residents in most of the borough can easily walk to catch the bus.

“How do we make Crafton a more attractive community for somebody to locate here that wants an easy commute, you know, to just hop on the busway, get Downtown?” Susko said. “It’s like 12 minutes.” 

Perry said borough leaders are thinking of “out-of-the-box kind of ideas,” like starting a shuttle service to drive people to bus stations. They’ve even thought about a large-scale project to redevelop the municipal building and adjacent parking lot owned by the volunteer fire department.

It’s only brainstorming, but Susko said it would place a large piece of land on the bus line back on the tax rolls and give the business district a spark. 

Crafton hosted a pop-up block party Oct. 6 focused on the borough's vision for a pedestrian-friendly community.

Crafton hosted a pop-up block party Oct. 6 focused on the borough's vision for a pedestrian-friendly community. (Photo courtesy of RJ Susko)

Currently, Crafton is searching for a consultant to help rewrite its zoning code, partly to focus on TOD. 

The borough launched a “#I <3 Crafton” campaign and hosted a pop-up block party on Oct. 6, where they transformed a street into their vision of a pedestrian-friendly community with illustrations of streetscaping ideas that included added trees that could be planted in that block of Noble Avenue. 

Susko envisions the commercial strip having a coffee shop or a brewery that would be a nice place for residents to walk to when they get off the bus after a long day.

“Crafton can go forth and be successful and have the things that places like Carnegie and Dormont have or are starting to get going,” Susko said. 

*The Richard King Mellon Foundation provided funding for CONNECT and the Port Authority to provide assistance to communities related to transit-oriented development. The foundation also provides funding to PublicSource.

Correction (10/30/2019): A previous version of this story inaccurately described transit access from Dormont to Pittsburgh International Airport.

Stephanie Hacke is a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at stephanie.hacke@gmail.com.

This story was fact-checked by Juliette Rihl.

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

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