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6/29/21: Planning Commission approves new South Side apartments
The Pittsburgh Planning Commission approved the construction of a new 246-unit apartment building in the Southside Works complex, adjacent to the Three Rivers Heritage Trail and South Side Marina.
New York City- and Nashville-based developer SomeraRoad, which has been behind the redevelopment of the Southside Works complex, presented its plan for the 1.8 acre Southside Works Waterfront Apartments on June 15. Some commissioners initially expressed concerns that the structure, which would border a stretch of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, could narrow a path where bicyclists and pedestrians already compete for space.
SomeraRoad emphasized the inclusion of a landscape buffer between the proposed seven-story structure and the trail. Just behind the buffer, the proposed building will have entrances, patios and lawns butting up against the trail, and would add 108 bicycle parking slots, in addition to 184 parking spaces.
Commissioners approved the new construction, though some, like Commissioner Becky Mingo, expressed continued worries about the conflict between high-speed bicyclists and increased foot traffic the apartments would bring to the trail.
“I remain concerned that this is an unresolved problem, where the bicyclists who are going at clipper speed are interacting more and more with residents or tourists who are here, with three-year-old children who don’t pay attention,” Mingo said.
Andrew Donchez of SomeraRoad said the developer would work with the Urban Redevelopment Authority to improve safety along the trail, such as by adding additional signage and striping to highlight pedestrian entry points.
SomeraRoad is also exploring the addition of kayak storage for residents as part of the project, and is exploring a possible partnership with the marina. Commissioners overall expressed approval of the project’s incorporation of the trail and neighboring waterfront into the building’s design elements.
After being pressed on whether the development would include affordable housing units, Donchez said the current building proposal does not, but that SomeraRoad is “in discussion” with the URA on its affordable housing goals for the city.
With the commission’s go-ahead, SomeraRoad plans to break ground on the complex late this year and open in early 2023.
The commission also voted to push back an approval vote on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s proposed 10-year master plan, which calls for the demolition of the seminary’s Fulton Apartments and the construction of new housing where the campus borders Sheridan Avenue and East Liberty Boulevard.
The commission delayed the vote so the seminary had time to address concerns commissioners raised regarding the height of the East Liberty development, as well as sidewalk space and pedestrian access.
Chair Christine Mondor said she would like to see the seminary return with guidelines for a future developer that would include specifying entrance locations and how to approach public spaces like sidewalks.
“Where is the neighborly gesture to the community to say, ‘you’re visiting a friend, come enter here’?” Mondor said. “I feel like this is too much building for this site, and it doesn’t create an entrance for North Sheridan.”
VEBH Architects principal Daniel Engen agreed the seminary could return to the planning commission in a few weeks with more extensive guidelines in place.
“I think we would approve the plan with the faith and understanding that the seminary would come back as soon as feasible with an appropriate completion of this plan,” Commissioner Holly Dick said.
The plan includes five new privately developed townhouses along Sheridan Avenue, and an apartment building along East Liberty Boulevard It would also provide for new parking, fencing and student-housing at the over two-and-a-quarter centuries-old seminary.
The seminary’s master plan places the selection of a development partner to construct the townhouses and apartments in its second phase, scheduled to begin in 2026 and end between 2028 and 2031.
—By Chris Hippensteel
6/17/21: URA board approves loan, land sale for coming East Liberty apartments
Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority board voted to sell land and lend money to a developer intent on building a new apartment building in East Liberty, and catering largely to low-income tenants displaced in 2018 from the razed Penn Plaza.
Trek Development Group will buy a parking lot on North Beatty Street from the URA for $400,000, and take out a $450,000 loan from the city’s Housing Opportunity Fund, according to resolutions approved by the URA board at its meeting.
The loan will be part of the $13.2 million funding package – almost all of it federal, state or local public money – needed to construct the 42-apartment Harvard Beatty Housing building. URA staff said the terms of the loan and the other financing require that 33 of the apartments remain affordable to low-income and very-low-income families for 40 years. The other nine can be rented at market rates.
Trek President and CEO William Gatti said his company has had “an excellent partnership” with groups of residents displaced from Penn Plaza.
Penn Plaza housed around 200 people, many of whom were compelled to leave largely redeveloped East Liberty. Some have moved into Trek’s 47-unit Mellon’s Orchard building, in East Liberty. Already Trek has received 34 applications to Harvard Beatty from former Penn Plaza households, with another 13 expressing interest.
Harvard Beatty will include 33 one-bedroom apartments, and the balance will have two bedrooms. It is expected to open late next year.
6/17/21: Contractors working on Hill’s “Avenue of Hope” can get loans
Pittsburgh’s Avenues of Hope effort, which aims to direct resources to seven business districts in Black neighborhoods, is getting a $1 million infusion from First National Bank [FNB] following an Urban Redevelopment Authority board vote.
The funding is to go from FNB to the URA for distribution as low-interest lines of credit of as much as $100,000 each to small contractors preparing to work on projects along the Hill District’s Centre Avenue. That’s one of the areas dubbed Avenues of Hope, along with business districts in Allentown/Beltzhoover, Hazelwood, Homewood, Larimer, Perry North and South and Sheraden.
URA Director of Commercial Lending Jennifer Wilhelm told the board that the agency is working to find money for contractors working to improve the other six districts.
Avenues of Hope was unveiled in October, at which time no funding was allocated. Since then, the URA has begun cobbling together resources to meet the goal of rejuvenating the seven business districts.
Small contractors, often including minority-owned and women-owned business enterprises [MWBEs], sometimes have trouble assembling the equipment and manpower needed to take on larger development jobs.
City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, a URA board member, called the lines of credit “a tool that will start to address some of the small contractor needs, specifically on the Lower Hill. … I think this is going to be a huge help to our MWBE business community.”
FNB is the intended anchor tenant for a planned 26-story office tower on the Lower Hill.
6/15/21: Planning commission concerned with trail impacts, affordability on South Side
Developers working to reconfigure the Southside Works complex asked the City Planning Commission to approve a proposed 246-unit apartment building near the neighborhood’s marina, and arguably too close for comfort to a popular trail.
The developer, SomeraRoad, based in New York City and Nashville, is already at work on offices and public spaces on the Flats, not far from the Hot Metal Bridge. The proposed seven-story apartment building would sit on 1.8 acres along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, near a Monongahela River marina.
“We think Southside Works could be a great live-work-play environment,” architect Travis Kreidler told the commission. “In a post-COVID environment it will really be a great experience for the City of Pittsburgh.”
The team plans close integration between the proposed Southside Works Riverfront Apartments and the trail. That trail runs to Millvale and Manchester, and connects to the Great Allegheny Passage. Entrances and some patios, along with a courtyard, pool and lawn, would flank the trail. The 108 bicycle parking slots would complement 184 parking spaces.
Commissioner Becky Mingo worried that the design could, in places, further cramp an already-narrow stretch of trail on which speedy bicycles buzz by pedestrians. “You haven’t really helped the situation there, and may have made it more difficult,” she told the development team.
Team members did not respond to her concerns.
Commissioner Holly Dick encouraged the inclusion of affordable units. Andrew Donchez, of SomeraRoad, said the developer is in talks with the Urban Redevelopment Authority about inclusion of affordable units. The URA coordinates several programs that provide loans or grants to support development of apartments that must then remain affordable and reserved for households with modest incomes.
The commission is expected to hold a hearing and vote on the proposal June 29. If approved, SomeraRoad hopes to start construction late this year and open in early 2023.
6/15/21: Theological campus in East Liberty could host new housing
The 13-acre Pittsburgh Theological Seminary rarely has more than 100 students and 17 faculty on its grounds, so its administration is looking for ways to consolidate operations and potentially develop new housing where it borders East Liberty Boulevard and Sheridan Avenue.
Seminary officials are asking the City Planning Commission to approve a new 10-year master plan for the 227-year-old institution. The campus now includes eight major buildings. Some, like the Hicks Memorial Chapel, would be preserved and improved. Others, like the Fulton Apartments, could be razed in coming years.
The seminary is talking with developers about constructing an apartment building, likely around six stories, across East Liberty Boulevard from the back side of the East Liberty Home Depot.
“We’re not a high-growth place,” VEBH Architects principal Daniel Engen told the commission. Building new housing is “one way to get a little more life and activity on the campus or adjacent to the campus.”
The seminary would need a private developer to construct the housing, and several have expressed interest, but only if the apartment building is upwards of 130,000 square feet, and likely 75’ high, Engen said.
The seminary wants any new housing on its campus to be “mission-aligned,” said Thomas Hinds, the institution’s vice president for finance and administration. He said that might mean that it caters to seniors, or to working-class households.
Along Sheridan, the seminary would consider developing five townhouses.
The commission plans to hold a public hearing and vote on the plan June 29.
6/10/21: URA board approves sale of land despite concerns over price, community benefits
The Penguins’ development team can buy 2.5 acres of Lower Hill District land for $10, build an office tower and begin to finance development in the Middle Hill and Upper Hill, following a vote by the Urban Redevelopment Authority board.
The URA board’s series of 4-0 votes, at a special meeting, clears the way for the start of construction on the former Civic Arena site, which has been the subject of intense public debate since 2007. The vote followed assurances of progress in negotiations between the development team and the Hill Community Development Corp. regarding neighborhood benefits to stem from the development.
Hill CDC President and CEO Marimba Milliones told the board that developer Buccini/Pollin Group sent neighborhood leaders a new community benefits term sheet on Wednesday.
While it’s still being reviewed, Milliones said it reflects improvement over past offers. She said she still hoped that it could be improved to include measures to give Hill residents and Black businesses opportunities to work in the tower, and to give the community a say in how a proposed Opportunity Zone fund for the Middle and Upper Hill is used.
With progress on those points, she told the board, “we have a viable path forward.”
Both URA board Chairman Sam Williamson and board member R. Daniel Lavelle, who is the city councilman representing the Hill, described the process that led to the $10 sale price.
They said a 2007 agreement negotiated between the Penguins’ leadership and then-Gov. Ed Rendell, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato included a $15 million development credit for the hockey club, even if it did nothing but park cars on the former arena site.
A 2018 renegotiation of the deal eliminated the $15 million credit, but in return locked in the $10 price for the parcels of land.
“Though admittedly, they are not paying for the land, we’re also not paying them millions of dollars to develop it,” said Lavelle.
Williamson added that the URA doesn’t like some elements of the arrangement, but doesn’t want to “block progress on the Lower Hill for another generation.”
Much of the new tax revenue generated by the new development will be diverted and split between the development team and a Greater Hill District Reinvestment Fund, empowered to invest in neighborhood priorities. That fund will be controlled by a panel co-chaired by Lavelle and a representative of the Hill CDC.
Prior to the board’s votes, several members of the public questioned that arrangement, and a provision that gives 4% of reinvestment fund dollars to the Hill CDC to fund its operations. Lavelle said that provision was necessary so the Hill CDC could continue to monitor progress “without scrambling for resources.”
State Rep. Ed Gainey, a board member who last month won the Democratic mayoral primary, spoke for less than a minute during the hour-and-a-half-long meeting.
He talked about securing more than the currently promised level of community investment, perhaps through a surcharge on cars parked on the site, or the Opportunity Zone fund, or a pledge to direct excess tax funds to the neighborhood.
“So I’m looking forward to working with you to ensure that going forward we have the proper investment for the Hill to grow,” Gainey said. “But there has to be some community benefits agreement going forward for the Hill District, that we can still see the Hill District developing, right before us.”
Board member Jodi Hirsh was absent.
The office tower site is owned by the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority. Under an option agreement governing the entire 28-acre site of the former Civic Arena, both the SEA and URA boards must approve all sales. The two boards are expected to vote on transfers of additional parcels in coming months and years, and members of both panels said today that efforts to ensure community benefits would continue.
6/10/21: Transfer of part of former arena site gets one of two approvals
The Sports & Exhibition Authority board voted to transfer around 2.5 acres of Lower Hill land to a Penguins-led coalition, for the construction of a proposed 26-story office tower and development of public greenspace.
The SEA owns the land, which is part of the 28-acre site that formerly included the Civic Arena. The transfer also requires the approval of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board. The URA board meets this afternoon, and is scheduled to vote on the transfer.
The transfer of the land has become the subject of contentious public discussions between the development team and some Hill leaders, including the Hill Community Development Corp., which is the city-registered community organization for the neighborhood. The Hill CDC has contended that the development team has not done enough to meet pledges made in 2014 that the development would benefit the entire neighborhood in a variety of ways, ranging from affordable housing to wealth building.
SEA staff told the board that developer Chris Buccini, of the Penguins-picked firm Buccini/Pollin Group, has signed a term sheet committing to several community benefits, including:
- A $7.5 million deposit into a new Greater Hill District Reinvestment Fund, backed by future tax dollars generated by the tower
- Use of 20% of new parking taxes generated by the site to back neighborhood priorities
- $500,000 in funding for small business kiosks to be included in the public greenspace
- Operation of a center which will help neighborhood residents to get construction jobs on the site.
SEA board member Glenn Grayson, senior pastor at the Wesley Center A.M.E. Zion Church in the Hill, told the board that the development team and community representatives have put some commitments in writing. “I’m operating on trust that the few things that were negotiated but could not yet be put in writing will be honored,” he said, without specifying those items.
“Regardless of how this goes, I expect discussions to go on into the future,” added state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, the SEA board chair, prior to the vote.
Neither the Hill CDC nor the Penguins responded immediately to PublicSource’s requests for details on the status of negotiations.
No SEA board members voted against the transfer. One member, Sala Udin, was recused from the discussion and vote because his son is part of the development team.
If the URA board agrees, most of the 2.5 acres will become the property of Office Partners XXIII Block G1 LLC, a joint venture of the Penguins-related Pittsburgh Arena Real Development, Buccini/Pollin Group, Clay Cove Capital and First National Bank. FNB will be the tower’s anchor tenant. The greenspace will be owned by a new conservancy.
The $225 million tower construction project is expected to involve some 450,000 hours of labor, and the development team projects that minority workers will get 25% of that work, while women are expected to perform 11%, SEA staff told the board.
6/3/21: Republican legislators reviewing Pennsylvania’s anti-blight tools
State House Republicans pledged to strengthen the fight against blight in Pennsylvania communities at a hearing that included lengthy testimony by Allegheny County’s development director.
Lawmakers at the hearing, held at the Salvation Army Allegheny Valley Worship and Service Center in Brackenridge, said that existing anti-blight tools may need to be updated, and new ones created, to address the effects of depopulation and deindustrialization.
“We can produce effective change with this,” said Rep. Carrie Lewis DelRosso, R-Oakmont, who hosted the meeting attended by 10 lawmakers. “The state of Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth deserve much better with this.”
Allegheny County Economic Development Director Lance Chimka told the lawmakers that 30 of Allegheny County’s 130 municipalities have median home sale prices of $60,000 or below. That often means that the market values of houses are less than the debts attached to them, making rehabilitation financially difficult. “It’s a complete market failure for many of our communities,” he said.
He said that tumbledown structures decrease the values of neighboring properties to the tune of an estimated $1.2 billion. That results in more than $5 million a year in lost property taxes for the county alone, with higher losses to the involved municipalities and school districts.
Erosion in state development funding has made it harder for local governments to reverse blight, Chimka said. While new state-created tools have helped, they have not met the need, he said.
For instance, the 2008 conservatorship law, which allows responsible owners to take stewardship of blighted properties, has been adopted by “predatory” actors seeking control of buildings in “rapidly appreciating” markets.
Conservatorship should not be used “to gas our already hot markets,” he said, recommending tighter eligibility requirements.
Chimka said the county has so far raised $2.1 million for demolition of blighted properties through a new fee on deed and mortgage filings. But local governments have submitted $7.6 million in applications for that money, an indication of the vast need to raze empty buildings.
The next challenge will be finding ways to spur development on land cleared through those demolitions, he said.
Lawmakers in attendance discussed legislative tweaks that could ease the clearing of liens from properties and help land banks to transfer properties to new owners. They also mulled potential new tools, including creation of a statewide registry of property owners, and assessments that could be levied on owners of blighted buildings. Republicans are the majority in the state House and Senate.
Blight remediation “doesn’t have a party attached to it,” said Lewis DelRosso.
Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe and Pike counties, majority chairwoman of the House Urban Affairs Committee, pledged “further work to look at strengthening some of the acts that are in place.”
6/1/21: Commission: 52-year-old bank branch shouldn’t fall
An empty bank branch, which Citizens Bank is hoping to raze and replace, cleared a hurdle toward historic designation, which could thwart its proposed demolition.
Built by Mellon Bank 52 years ago on Penn Avenue in East Liberty, the branch became part of Citizens in 2001, but was shuttered last year.
At 11,000 square feet, it’s nearly four times as large as today’s typical branches, Citizens Head of Property, Strategy and Execution Jared Wallace told the commission. “It’s a very large, intimidating, dark building,” he told the commission. “It’s not welcoming and it’s not fit for [its] purpose any more for us.”
Brittany Reilly, of Preservation Pittsburgh, nominated the branch for historic status, and the city’s Historic Review Commission agreed. The City Planning Commission’s role in nominations is to review whether the designation would be good for the adjoining properties and surrounding neighborhood. Pittsburgh City Council then gets the final say.
Reilly told the commission that the unusual building, with its green glazed brick, vast windows and accordion-like shape, is “a welcome mat into East Liberty, which has undergone unfathomable change, transformation, resurgence and growth.”
Because it was a product of Mellon Bank’s exceptional architecture and design program, embraces the modernist period of architecture and reflects the era of urban redevelopment, it should be preserved, Reilly argued.
Architect Gerald Morosco, retained by Citizens, countered that isn’t even among the best of the Mellon Bank branches.
Commissioner Becky Mingo noted that the city is trying to preserve and reuse resources, including buildings. “I see this building as serving a wonderful purpose at this juncture of two very important intersections,” she said, adding that it “works very well within the neighborhood context.”
While several commission members were absent from the final vote and one abstained, a majority approved the historic designation.
Citizens can’t demolish the building while the historic nomination is being considered. If council approves the designation, any plan to demolish would have to win the approval of the Historic Review Commission. The City Planning Commission would also have to approve demolition, because the building is within the special Baum-Centre district.
6/1/21: University urged to avoid ‘tunnel-vision situation’
Duquesne University can move forward with plans to expand its Forbes Avenue presence, but should work with Pittsburgh staff to avoid overbuilding along the Uptown artery, the City Planning Commission ruled.
Duquesne’s plans to build a College of Osteopathic Medicine, plus one new dormitory and one new academic building, are the centerpieces of the proposed Institutional Master Plan that came to the commission for a hearing and vote. If approved by Pittsburgh City Council, it would guide campus development through 2031.
The College of Osteopathic Medicine, a $53 million project, is not expected to exceed 120 feet in height. Duquesne’s proposed plan, though, doesn’t rule out building the dorm and the academic building to 180 feet, and leaving little public space on their respective sites on Forbes.
“I’d really like to see some sort of commitment to a courtyard or other carve-outs in the building,” said commissioner Rachel O’Neill, referring to the dormitory. She said she’d like to avoid approving the creation of “a kind of tunnel-vision situation” on Forbes.
Rod Dobish, Duquesne’s associate vice president and chief facilities officer, said it would be hard to make commitments without consulting with the developer slated to construct the dorm.
In a compromise, the commission voted – with one abstention – to approve Duquesne’s proposed master plan, with the condition that the university work with Department of City Planning staff to refine plans and avoid creating what commissioner Becky Mingo called “one solid cube” of buildings along Forbes.
The plan next goes to council for approval.
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