This map from Walnut Capital's plan for Oakland Crossings shows the benefits that the developer says would accrue to the neighborhood.
This map from Walnut Capital's plan for Oakland Crossings shows the benefits that the developer says would accrue to the neighborhood.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto had planned to close out his second term with a comprehensive plan for neighborhood-guided development.

Instead, he’ll leave the city with a major proposal for Oakland that was shepherded by the Mayor’s Office rather than the city’s planners, and renewed debate over the balance between market-driven opportunity and community-driven planning.

Oakland Crossings could bring $500 million in investment to 18 acres straddling the Boulevard of the Allies and stretching north to student-dominated McKee Place, according to developer Walnut Capital. In the place of student rentals and mostly empty commercial buildings, the developer wants to build new housing geared toward workers, a grocery store, commercial space and potentially teaching and lab space.

That can’t happen, though, without city action, including a total rewrite of the zoning that governs what can be built in that part of Oakland. Mayor-elect Ed Gainey, meanwhile, said Thursday that his administration will evaluate development proposals through the lenses of affordable housing and community consensus.

Walnut attended meetings aimed at forging a unified vision for Oakland, and presented its concept to the City Planning Department. But when that process didn’t proceed quickly enough, Walnut took its plans to Peduto, who then urged Pittsburgh City Council to approve.

Walnut’s rezoning proposal will be the subject of an involved public process, including:

The mayor-first process, though, drew criticism from the Oakland Planning and Development Corp., which has argued that Walnut should have waited until the neighborhood had completed a two-year-old effort to chart its future. The neighborhood’s other registered community organization, the Oakland Business Improvement District, has taken the position that the current process is appropriate.

PublicSource used the Right-to-Know Act to get communications related to Oakland Crossings involving Walnut and city officials. Here’s how the proposal became a test of the city’s efforts to balance progress and process.

September 2020: Peduto goes all-in on neighborhood planning

Eight months before his Democratic primary loss to state Rep. Gainey, Peduto assembled the media to announce the launch of a new process that would help residents to guide the development of their neighborhoods. ForgingPGH, he said, would start with public input and end with the production, by late 2021, of a comprehensive plan for 90 neighborhoods.

“We’ll be able to create plans for neighborhoods throughout the city that reflect what the people who live in that neighborhood want,” Peduto said, flanked by his Planning Director Andrew Dash.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto waits for his turn to speak at a press conference introducing the ForgingPGH comprehensive planning process, at the City-County Building, on Sept. 1, 2020. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

“We’re in the process of doing it in Oakland,” the mayor added. “In those types of areas where you don’t have stability because there’s a lot of investment being looked at, or change, you need to have a plan moving forward. This will come down to the neighborhoods, the neighborhood organizations and the people living and working there, and what they want to see and what they want to happen in their community.”

Indeed the city had already launched, in November 2019, a two-year effort to plan the next decade of growth in Oakland. Such plans often entail new zoning, which determines which uses – commercial, residential, retail, institutional, industrial – can move into various sections of the neighborhood. But COVID slowed it down, and Oakland’s plan is now likely to go to the City Planning Commission for consideration in February or March, according to Dash.

July 2021: Planning hears a proposal

The ongoing effort to plan Oakland’s future wasn’t meant to freeze development there. From May through June, Walnut Capital President Todd Reidbord emailed back and forth with City Planning Department staff, seeking permission to demolish some of the company’s properties in the neighborhood. And on July 29, he had a virtual meeting with the city’s planners, in which his team presented the Oakland Crossings proposal.

That’s normal. The department often holds such meetings with developers before they submit applications for city actions, according to Dash. That way staff can identify any issues up front, resulting in applications that can move more readily through the city processes.

At the meeting, planning staff asked how Oakland Crossings could proceed alongside the neighborhood’s planning process. Staff wanted a follow-up meeting.

Excerpt of notes from a pre-application meeting of July 29, 2021, compiled by Department of City Planning staff.

Planning staff was “neutral” to Walnut’s pitch, Reidbord told PublicSource. He wanted more enthusiasm.

“Frankly, it’s frustrating,” he said this week. “Here we are, saying to the city, ‘We want to embark on a development, maybe a half a billion dollars of investment bringing in thousands of new residents, taking properties that are generally speaking in poor shape, infrastructure that hasn’t been looked at in 100 years, creating opportunities for new jobs and new development and bringing new residents into the city.’ … And they start talking about process over substance.”

Planning staff reported to city Chief of Staff Dan Gilman the day after the meeting: “Any disagreement by the city on approach (which there is, both legal and strategic as far as we’re concerned) involved [Reidbord] being pretty combative in our meeting yesterday.”

Such a meeting would normally be followed by back-and-forth involving the developer and Planning Department staff, after which the developer would submit a formal application for consideration by the City Planning Commission, according to Dash.

Reidbord, though, chose a different path.

September 2021: Walnut goes to mayor, planners mull options

In early September, Walnut asked the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. to hold a Development Activities Meeting [DAM] at which it could present its plan. The city code prescribes such meetings prior to some city actions. Wanda Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit development group, asked Dash to weigh in.

Sept. 2, 2021 email from Wanda Wilson, executive director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corp., to City Planning Director Andrew Dash and then-Senior Planner Derek Dauphin.

The city’s planners emailed back and forth about what public stance they should take.

Then-Senior Planner Derek Dauphin — now the department’s neighborhood planning coordinator — emailed Dash, calling the emerging proposal “an important opportunity to provide long-term housing” in Oakland. He added, though, that “there are areas that were important to the community such as affordable housing and sustainability where we’re less clear if [Walnut is] in alignment” with the community’s vision. 

Reidbord this week characterized Dauphin and Dash as “progressive … I think they have good ideas and good thoughts. But it seems to me that they’re too tied to the community process, which I think is a good thing, but in the end you have to show leadership.”

He brought his proposal to Peduto’s office, where he got a different reception. “There was no resistance,” he said.

Gilman said the Mayor’s Office took up the matter but kept Dash in the loop.

“There were differing opinions on whether to wait for the entire Oakland planning process to conclude,” Gilman said. The Mayor’s Office opted to proceed.

“I have seen projects require significantly more public subsidy or not come to fruition if you wait, wait, wait,” Gilman explained. “It was too big of a risk to wait and potentially lose this opportunity.”

On Sept. 15, Peduto sent to council legislation rezoning the 18 acres of Oakland on which Walnut wants to pursue Oakland Crossings. “Thank you in advance for your favorable consideration of this important legislation.”

At a community meeting on Sept. 19, Dauphin “just opted not to comment,” he wrote to Dash the day after.

November 2021: Developer, planners lay out visions

Dash said this week that his team didn’t support the decision to advance the zoning legislation through the Mayor’s Office rather than through the Planning Department. “But they have the ability to do that, and they chose to do that, but I would say that is atypical.”

The director said he understands that development processes need to be flexible, but added that he prefers paths that are “as connected to community sentiment” as possible.

Oakland Planning and Development Corp. is pushing for inclusionary zoning, requiring that a certain percentage of housing is affordable to households of modest income, as part of the neighborhood’s future. “By going through this process in this way, this private developer is looking to circumvent that,” Wilson told PublicSource on Thursday. “And that’s a real concern for us in terms of equitable development in our community.”

The centrality of the Mayor’s Office to the proposal could change the usual dynamic of the City Planning Commission process.

Usually, when a matter comes before the commission, a developer or their representative serves as the “applicant,” presenting and sometimes defending their plans before the nine-member, all-volunteer panel. Because Oakland Crossings took a different path, the applicant will technically be the Mayor’s Office (which appoints the commission) or the council (which approves those appointments). 

“They may turn it over to Walnut Capital” to provide the presentation, Dash said.

Map of proposed Oakland Crossings district, from legislation introduced to Pittsburgh City Council.

Reidbord wants to start building, fast, to take advantage of solid demand for housing and retail space, plus low interest rates. “We’re committed to doing this project because we think this is great for the city of Pittsburgh,” he said.

More broadly, he would like to see the city’s Planning Department, Mayor’s Office and Urban Redevelopment Authority more readily coordinate in support of development. He’d love to see expedited approval processes for high-priority projects, so they don’t have to wait on the same bureaucratic runways as, say, a homeowner’s application to build a fence. And how about a total rewrite of the city’s rules about what can be built where?

“Our zoning codes need to be amended and thought through a little better to think about what Pittsburgh wants to look like over the next 50 years,” said Reidbord, “not what it looked like in the past 50 years.”

2022: New mayor, uncertain fate for plans

ForgingPGH aimed to set the vision for the next 20 years of development. But it’s now on hold. 

The Department of City Planning got public input and studied development trends and conditions. But it paused the effort after Peduto lost the primary, and there won’t be a comprehensive citywide development vision by the end of this year, as the mayor had wanted.

The fate of both ForgingPGH and Oakland Crossings will be on Mayor-elect Gainey’s to-do list when he takes office in January.

Ed Gainey, the Democratic nominee for mayor of Pittsburgh, after voting in the May primary election. (Photo by Nick Childers/PublicSource)

Two days after his election victory, Gainey said he’s still being briefed on development matters including ForgingPGH and Oakland Crossings. “I’m going to want to see affordability,” he said of the housing component of Walnut’s proposal.

Broadly, Gainey said he favors lots of community engagement and would back development that has majority — though not necessarily unanimous — support in neighborhoods. “We want to be able to change the narrative a little bit, where [developers] aren’t just telling us what they want to do, but where as a city, we’re listening to hear whether their interest mirrors our interest.”

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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Rich is a reporter and assistant editor at PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2005 through early 2020, leading projects on child poverty, the opioid...