A rendering of a proposed new hospital tower, brought by UPMC to the City Planning Commission on March 8, 2022.
A rendering of a proposed new hospital tower, brought by UPMC to the City Planning Commission on March 8, 2022.

A new version of the Oakland Crossings development proposal got positive reviews from the City Planning Commission, which opted to postpone public testimony and its own vote until March 22.

Developer Walnut Capital’s proposal to rezone and then redevelop parts of South Oakland and Central Oakland had seemed to be on a fast track when it emerged in mid-September as legislation endorsed by then-Mayor Bill Peduto. But concerns expressed by Oakland advocates and the Department of City Planning staff slowed it down.

“There have been some pretty vast improvements,” said Andrew Dash, assistant director of the Department of City Planning.

Six months ago, Oakland Crossings involved:

  • 18 acres spanning the Boulevard of the Allies and reaching McKee Place
  • a wide variety of potential uses
  • buildings as high as 160 feet
  • no commitment to include affordable housing.

Now, following months of public input and negotiations under Mayor Ed Gainey, a first phase of Oakland Crossings would involve:

  • 13 acres, including the former Isaly’s building site, the Panera Bread/Quality Inn site and one block of Halket Street across from Magee-Womens Hospital
  • maximum heights of 65 feet without bonuses, but potentially reaching 85 feet if the buildings meet criteria like energy efficiency and availability of fresh food
  • no provision for college or university campus buildings, fast food or utility buildings
  • a commitment by Walnut that in buildings with more than 20 housing units, 10% would be affordable for 35 years, backed by Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) provided by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.
A map of the revised 13-acre Oakland Crossings rezoning proposal, provided to the City Planning Commission on March 8, 2022.

“We’re not just going to create affordable housing. We’re going to create affordable living,” in which households might only need one, or zero, cars, said Jonathan Kamin, Walnut’s attorney.

In addition to zoning legislation, the proposed deal between Walnut and the city would include a Public Benefits Agreement. That pact would detail the affordable housing arrangement and include Walnut’s pledge to spend $250,000 on employee training programs.

The commission could have heard testimony and conducted a vote, but had only received the amended proposal on March 7, said panel Chair Christine Mondor.

“We are probably the least knowledgeable about what’s in front of us right now because we’re seeing it for the first time,” she said. “But it certainly seems to be very much on the right track toward meeting some of the concerns that we had on the first time through,” she added, referring to a contentious Dec. 7 briefing

An artist’s rendering of part of the proposed Oakland Crossings development, provided by Walnut Capital to the City Planning Commission on March 8, 2022.

The commission plans to hear from the public at its next meeting, plus vote on whether to recommend the proposed new zoning rules to Pittsburgh City Council. With the commission’s recommendation, council can adopt the zoning with a simple majority vote. Without the commission’s thumbs-up, it would take yes votes from seven of the nine council members.

If Oakland Crossings is ultimately approved, the commission would still have a role in the development of the area. Walnut would need commission approval before building virtually anything larger than a single-family house, according to the developer’s attorney, Jonathan Kamin.

Commission briefed on proposed hospital tower, college

The commission also got its initial look at two proposed medical buildings.

UPMC wants to build a 17-story hospital bed tower on the former site of Children’s Hospital in Oakland, connected to UPMC Presbyterian. Curving down De Soto Street to Fifth Avenue, the sock-shaped building would give Presby patients access to 636 private rooms, which hospital officials said are currently lacking in UPMC’s flagship hospital.

Between its stone-and-glass base and the metal crown hiding its mechanical systems, most of the floors would be clad in glass, making it “a new beacon on the skyline for this area,” according to Stephen Vebber, an associate vice president at HGA Architects and Engineers and member of the design team.

The mass of glass drew questions from the commission. Members asked what would be done to reduce bird collisions and prevent reflections from creating hot areas outside.

Members of UPMC’s team said they consulted with bird experts and learned that most collisions occur on lower floors and can be prevented by dot or line patterns in the glass.

They added that the concave side of the building would be on the northeast, and would not receive direct sunlight. The convex side faces southwest, and that shape would scatter light.

UPMC’s team also touted targets of 12% minority representation and 6.9% women in the construction workforce, which would be active for four years.

“We do understand that it is a big project that will have a big impact,” said commissioner Rachel O’Neill. The commission expects to hold a public hearing and vote on the proposal on March 22.

Also slated for a hearing and vote on that date is Duquesne University’s proposed College of Osteopathic Medicine building on the 1300 block of Forbes Avenue, in Uptown. Rod Dobish, Duquesne’s associate vice president and chief facilities officer, said the building would train new physicians in the osteopathic tradition, which “takes care of the whole body, the mind and the spirit, which fits into Duquesne University’s mission.”

Duquesne University’s proposed College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Commissioners quizzed the design team on the building’s energy sustainability. The university is not pursuing a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating but is using a district energy system to provide steam heat and chilled water.

The commission is also likely to hold a March 22 hearing and vote on a proposal to allow future sidewalk cafes without requiring votes of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Those proposing cafes would still need approvals from both the city’s Department of Mobility & Infrastructure and its Permits Licenses and Inspections unit.

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

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...