Planning amid the pandemic: An effort to steer Oakland’s development may have to reflect the new reality

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A woman wearing a face mask passes Forbes Street Market on Pitt's Oakland campus on an otherwise pedestrian-free sidewalk on April 6. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

A woman wearing a face mask passes Forbes Street Market in Oakland on an otherwise pedestrian-free sidewalk on April 6. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

When a few dozen people met on Nov. 21 to chart Oakland's future, City Planning Department officials showed a picture meant to reflect the process to come: scores of people in a crowded room, leaning into each other for close conversations. They had no way of knowing that a coming pandemic would change that model — and much more.

By the time the Oakland Plan Steering Committee met on March 25, social distancing rules compelled it to connect via Zoom, rather than in a Semple Street office as planned. The coronavirus pandemic had seized the attention of the Oakland medical complex and dramatically changed the operations of its educational institutions. In the days that followed that meeting, committee members began to mull whether the pandemic might reverberate deep into the neighborhood’s future.

A typical public engagement meeting for a neighborhood planning process, as depicted in a presentation by Pittsburgh's City Planning Department to the Oakland Plan Steering Committee on Nov. 21, 2019.

A typical public engagement meeting for a neighborhood planning process, as depicted in a presentation by Pittsburgh's City Planning Department to the Oakland Plan Steering Committee on Nov. 21, 2019.

“It is incredibly hard to predict whether the massive shocks that we’re facing now will result in permanent change in the way we use technology," said city Councilwoman Erika Strassburger, a member of the steering committee, in an April interview. "Will it result in a total pattern change in the way we use technology to the point that we’re much more comfortable with online learning? It remains to be seen." She added that a new plan might need to include provisions for flexible or expandable medical facilities in Oakland "that could be used in the case of a different pandemic."

Oakland is the latest stop in an effort by Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration to encourage adoption of standardized 10-year neighborhood plans throughout the city.  The plans — which usually take two years and multiple public meetings to craft— are meant to help neighborhoods to attract the kinds of development they want and to guide public investment, zoning and planning decisions to prevent undesirable changes.

That was never going to be easy in Oakland, which is really four neighborhoods — Central, North, South and West Oakland — plus distinctive nooks like Oakcliffe and Oakland Square. Four UPMC hospitals and three universities draw tides of students and patients into streets lined with scrappy entrepreneurs and oft-beleaguered residents.

Now add the fact that the neighborhood’s anchor industries are in flux.

The coronavirus crisis could alter the neighborhood and, therefore, may affect the direction of the plan, said steering committee member Teireik Williams, a research associate with Carnegie Mellon University's Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab, who is also president of the South Oakland Neighborhood Group [SONG].

“I think the landscape of Oakland may change drastically,” he said, “if we’re moving to an online reality or a reality that’s different."

From boom to pandemic

Oakland is replete with plans.

What it lacks, though, is a single guiding document with broad buy-in with which “city departments and the other public agencies are in alignment,” said Derek Dauphin, a senior planner with the Department of City Planning, in a March interview. An official neighborhood plan could help to attract the kind of development neighborhood stakeholders want, while resolving disputes over desired density and building heights, and preparing for coming changes like the Port Authority’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit system.

The process started amid a building boom, said Georgia Petropoulos, executive director of the Oakland Business Improvement District, and a steering committee member. "The type and scale of development we’re seeing in Oakland, we haven’t seen in decades.”

The coronavirus crisis, though, is already stalling development processes short-term and could accelerate trends with long-term implications for Oakland.

A sign on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University on March 27 reminds people to stay at home and physically distance if they have to go out. The switch to remote learning for the remainder of the semester has left the campus largely vacant. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

A sign on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University on March 27 reminds people to stay at home and physically distance if they have to go out. The switch to remote learning for the remainder of the semester has left the campus largely vacant. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, for instance, has touted its commitment to telemedicine as the federal government has taken steps to make that option more widely available. A UPMC spokesperson said the medical system’s personnel were too busy coping with the crisis to submit to interviews for this story.

“I don’t think that telemedicine would necessarily erase the need for all sorts of appointments,” said Strassburger. It could, though, reduce them, she said, adding that “I don’t think that a small decrease in the number of people coming into Oakland would be a bad thing.”

Both the University of Pittsburgh and CMU have shifted spring and summer coursework to online learning platforms. Spokespersons and staff for those universities did not respond substantively to requests for comment for this story.

“Maybe a month from now, I’ll feel like I’m better at working from home than working on campus,” said Divyansh Kaushik, a doctoral student in computer science at CMU who is on the steering committee. “Or maybe it’s more economical to work from home than to work from campus. ... I think there’s the potential that it could be normalized.”

Divyansh Kaushik, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, is a member of the Oakland Plan Steering Committee. He attends class from his apartment because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Divyansh Kaushik, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, is a member of the Oakland Plan Steering Committee. He attends class from his apartment because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Michael Sinko)

Could telemedicine and online learning eventually affect the daily flow of nearly 40,000 students and some 33,000 education and healthcare employees through Oakland?

"Maybe there's not a need to have all of those individuals flowing in and out of Oakland," said state Rep. Jake Wheatley, a member of the steering committee. "But by the same token, we do want foot traffic because we have a lot of businesses there.”

"Maybe the traffic's going to get better," mused Shawn Nelson, Carlow University's special assistant to the president for board, community and government relations, and a member of the steering committee. The university responded to the pandemic by shifting all courses online in March, and hasn’t yet decided whether to do the same with summer classes.

Universities, she said, had already been moving toward more online instruction, especially as they cater more to non-traditional students who may already have careers and families. Carlow launched its first online course a decade ago and, at the beginning of this semester, was offering 20% of its courses entirely — and 9% partially — via online.

"I think all of us need to be thinking about [expanded online learning] no matter what we do,” said Nelson, “because I think when this is over, we don't go back to what we used to be."

Carlow junior Yousef Mohammad, a biology major, "got used to it in a week," he said of online education. While some professors handle it better than others, from the student perspective, there are distinct advantages, he said. "I don’t have to wake up at 6 every day, go and come back” to his Green Tree apartment, he said. “I could use that [time] to study."

Yousef Mohammad, a Carlow University junior majoring in biology, is an Oakland Plan Steering Committee member. He likes some aspects of remote learning but hopes to go back to the classroom for most of his senior year. (Photo by Yousef Mohammad)

Yousef Mohammad, a Carlow University junior, is an Oakland Plan Steering Committee member. He likes some aspects of remote learning but hopes to go back to the classroom for most of his senior year. (Photo by Yousef Mohammad)

That said, Mohammad, a steering committee member, expects to take most of his senior year courses on campus. And he would like to see an Oakland in which he could find an affordable apartment and life's amenities, if he does his postgraduate study in the neighborhood.

Expanded online learning could have profound ripple effects on Oakland’s future.

"What happens if the campuses are rendered, not superfluous, but secondary to the students' coursework?" said Andrea Boykowycz, nonprofit Oakland Planning and Development Corp.’s community services director, and a steering committee member. "How is that going to affect whether people want to live in Oakland?”

So far, she said, there’s no evidence of any plunge in demand for student rentals. But, she added, the crisis has created many "known unknowns, and then there are the unknown unknowns. … I would like to understand how this is going to impact people's interest in investing in real estate development in the business district.”

Who steers the plan?

Charged with navigating these waters is the 34-member steering committee, and its composition is a subject of controversy.

The committee consists of one representative each from five resident groups; three each from Pitt, CMU and Carlow — one administrative, one faculty and one student; two from hospitals; six elected officials; four from cultural or civic institutions; four from neighborhood development or business organizations; and one each representing Community Human Services, the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, the neighborhood's landlords, and Allegheny County. Its job is to coordinate the work of four forthcoming “action teams”— focused on community, development, mobility and infrastructure — that will be open to anyone interested in Oakland.

Dauphin said the Department of City Planning asked the major organizations in Oakland to participate in the steering committee, attempting to craft a manageable panel that’s “balanced and doesn’t go too far one way or the other.” He said the decision to include three members from each university was driven by the belief that administrations, faculty and students have “different perspectives.”

The switch to remote learning for University of Pittsburgh students has caused a large reduction in both vehicle and pedestrian traffic on the usually bustling corridor along Forbes Avenue in Oakland. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

The switch to remote learning for University of Pittsburgh students has caused a large reduction in both vehicle and pedestrian traffic on the usually bustling corridor along Forbes Avenue in Oakland. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

In a neighborhood with a long history of town-gown friction, though, the presence of nine university-affiliated people and just five resident representatives raised concerns that “we’re basically just replicating an existing unfair power dynamic,” as Boykowycz, who lives in Central Oakland, put it.

“We think that, continuously and historically, residents are one of the most vulnerable populations in Oakland, especially as it comes to their voices being heard over the power of the large facilities and organizations in Oakland, like the universities and hospitals,” said Williams, of SONG. Because residents will be affected the most, he said, “there should be equal if not equitable makeup of residents to institutional representatives.”

Each part of Oakland includes retirees, working people and stay-at-home parents, said Elena Zaitsoff, a retired teacher and the steering committee member from the Oakcliffe Community Organization. "I think each neighborhood should get three people,” she said. “And I've been flat-out told it's not going to happen."

Dauphin said it’s “possible” that the committee’s makeup will change, but added that it shouldn’t be enlarged to the point of being unwieldy. He added that the committee’s six elected officials — three city council members and three state legislators — are “resident-serving” voices on the committee, and some of the university representatives also live in the neighborhood.

“In terms of numbers, the employment side of Oakland is very substantial,” he added. “So we want to create the right balance” between resident and commuter voices.

Census Bureau estimates suggest that from 2009 to 2018, Oakland’s Black population declined from around 2,500 to around 2,200. Williams, a Black man who grew up in South Oakland and moved back there in 2018, said it’s painful to see “people that you’ve grown up with, and families that you’ve known, not be able to stay in the neighborhood where they’ve grown up and built a community in.”

Williams said it’s important to “not accept no as an answer when it comes to increasing the residents’ representation on the steering committee. … Without having equity at this point in the process, the product at the end will not be the equitable product for the people that it needs to be.”

The steering committee is expected to keep meeting monthly via Zoom for now, and the planners are revising a drafted public engagement plan, now rendered obsolete by the social distancing rules. That won’t be the last course correction.

"I think when this is over, we don't go back to what we used to be," Nelson said. "We can't really anticipate right now the ways our lives and our world are going to change, but I think we can anticipate that things will be different."

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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