Oakland is poised to be taller, shinier and more deliberately developed following a six-hour meeting of the City Planning Commission that focused largely on the future course of the neighborhood.

The commission approved a glittering new UPMC tower. It gave its recommendation — with conditions — to a modified version of the controversial Oakland Crossings plan, which now goes to Pittsburgh City Council for a binding vote. And the commission received its first of two briefings on a proposed guide for the neighborhood’s development over the next decade, which may come up for a vote in May.

“Today is a great day for Oakland and for the entire Pittsburgh region,” said Georgia Petropoulos, CEO of the Oakland Business Improvement District [OBID]. She called the Oakland Crossings compromise a “historic deal that will propel Oakland’s vibrancy.”

Numerous residents, though, said they were concerned that Oakland Crossings could overwhelm the mostly-residential areas that flank it. Howard K. Stevens Jr., who has lived close by the proposed development zone for 36 years, bemoaned “the possibility of a soaring 185-foot building next door” to his condo.

Map of proposed 13-acre Oakland Crossings zone, submitted by Walnut Capital to the City Planning Commission.

Originally pitched by developer Walnut Capital and then-Mayor Bill Peduto as a rezoning of 18 acres around the Boulevard of the Allies, Oakland Crossings has been whittled down to 13 acres. Following negotiations between Walnut and Mayor Ed Gainey, it no longer encompasses apartment-heavy areas along McKee Place, and it now includes a commitment to build some affordable housing.

In parts of the zone, building heights would not  exceed 85 feet, but in others they could reach 185 feet.

“The heights they propose are not compatible with Oakland homes,” said Millie Sass, an Oakland resident. “The tall buildings proposed by Walnut Capital will surely cast shadows on Oakland residents” at times, she added.

Wanda Wilson, executive director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. [OPDC], who had criticized the proposal and the process after its September introduction, called the amended version “a significant departure” from the original.

“It’s a monumental win for the community that this zoning legislation now includes bonus points for affordable housing,” Wilson said, referring to provisions that would allow higher buildings when some units are priced for low-income households. But she stopped well short of endorsing the amended version, objecting to the heights and the potential for demolition of houses along Halket Street.

Commissioner Becky Mingo added two conditions to the commission’s recommendation:

  • That college and university campus uses be removed from the list of permitted developments in the zone
  • That city council take a careful look at the heights and the massiveness of new buildings that would be allowed.

With those conditions, the five commissioners who were then in attendance voted to recommend that city council approve Oakland Crossings. With that recommendation, the proposal can pass the nine-member council with just five yes votes. Had the commission recommended against Oakland Crossings, it would have needed seven council votes.

Councilman Bruce Kraus pledged an “intense” public process, including at least one more hearing.

‘Massive’ UPMC glass tower to proceed

The commission unanimously approved UPMC’s plan for a 17-story tower running from UPMC Presbyterian to Fifth Avenue. With construction slated to start this summer and run for four years, it will occupy the site of the former Children’s Hospital. It will include 636 private patient bedrooms and 450 parking spaces.

The glass-clad plan received endorsements from the OPDC and the OBID.

“This development will fundamentally alter Oakland’s built environment due to its massive scale,” said OPDC’s Wilson. She added, however, that it is consistent with the community’s plans.

A rendering of the proposed bed tower, to be attached to UPMC Presbyterian, presented by the health system to the City Planning Commission on March 22, 2022.

Five organized labor organizations expressed their support in testimony before the commission, noting the likelihood of nearly 1,000 union jobs on the construction site.

The lone critic during the commission’s public hearing was Dan Davis, an economic justice organizer with Pittsburgh United, a coalition of community, labor, faith, and environmental groups. Davis said the tower would be “636 more beds that many of [UPMC’s] workers cannot afford to access without going into debt.”

A UPMC representative later told the commission that the health system now has a minimum wage of $15.75. He added that workers in the lowest pay grades “have zero out-of-pocket for health care” while those above that level choose insurance plans that then govern their costs.

The commission, which asked many questions about the design at a March 8 briefing, voiced no objections to UPMC’s plans before voting to approve it.

Plan could bring ‘a safer and gentler’ Oakland

The commission also held its first of two briefings in which city Planning Department staff presented a new blueprint that would inform and guide investment in Oakland for a decade.

If approved by the commission and Pittsburgh City Council, The Oakland Plan would be the yardstick used to consider city investments and private development proposals. It also entails a rewrite of the neighborhood’s zoning rules.

Construction in Oakland on March 22, 2022. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

The plan is the product of more than two years of roughly 100 meetings of a steering committee, action teams, focus groups and technical advisory groups. Neighborhood organizations, employers, institutions, elected officials and students were among those involved, according to city staff.

Among the plan’s many goals, policies and other proposals are:

  • Development of more housing, including affordable housing
  • Attraction of more job opportunities
  • Intentional inclusion of Black residents, university students, immigrants and newcomers in processes
  • Increased livability through open spaces and expanded tree canopy
  • Access to life’s necessities within a 20-minute walk of all parts of the neighborhood
  • Creation of facilities and amenities for children
  • Development of community resource hubs with gathering spaces, daycare, career and educational services and wifi
  • Rapid transit options within a 10-minute walk of all parts of the neighborhood
  • Better pedestrian and bicycle safety through new and improved sidewalks, protected lanes and paths
  • Reduction in parking through the encouragement of other transportation options
  • Careful stormwater management, with an aim of reducing erosion and landslides
  • Restored habitats and control of invasive species
  • Reduced energy consumption and increased use of renewable power sources
  • Movement toward a “zero waste community” by reducing waste and recycling and creative reuse
  • Encouragement of urban agriculture and other measures to improve food access
  • Cooperation on air quality improvement, especially among large institutions.

“I am very excited about the possibility of Oakland being a safer and gentler place for everyone,” said Commissioner Becky Mingo, noting that parts of the neighborhood are difficult for cyclists. 

Construction in Oakland on March 22, 2022. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

“This is a great collection of best practices and good things to do, and very thorough,” added commission Chair Christine Mondor.

The commission will hear a second briefing, focused on the plan’s development planks, on April 5. It intends to hold a public hearing and vote on the plan May 17.

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...