Photo of the Oakland skyline courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After more than two and a half years of community meetings, public hearings, continuations and delays, the zoning to codify much of the Oakland Plan was approved by Pittsburgh City Council without comment.

Oakland’s zoning is now a mishmash of different heights and uses with a mass of restrictions and allowances that only a real estate lawyer could love.

One resident, Elena Zaitsoff of the Oakcliffe section of Oakland, spoke before the vote urging council members to stop the changes that would allow buildings that are up to 210 feet tall on the north side of the Boulevard of the Allies near her neighborhood, and up to 185 feet tall on the former Isaly’s site at the other end of the neighborhood, with buildings along the edges of Oakcliffe limited to 85 feet tall, which is still higher than the nearby apartment buildings.

City Council had held a meeting with members of the planning department just six days before. 

“I think I hear everyone’s exhaustion for a process that has been really fraught,” City Council member Deb Gross, whose district does not reach into Oakland, said during the meeting with representatives of the Department of City Planning on Feb. 22.

The new zoning, passed by City Council on Feb. 28 and signed by Mayor Ed Gainey the next day, reduces overall parking requirements, raises the allowable heights of buildings, sets a limit of 50% that can be used for apartments along the Fifth and Forbes corridor and eliminates parking requirements for buildings there.

Gross noted that while new buildings will be taller, there will be a net reduction of housing because of the limitation on apartments.

Andrew Dash, assistant director for strategic planning with the Department of City Planning, told council members the intention of the zoning for the Fifth and Forbes area was to encourage employment in the area that has been designated as an “Innovation District.”

Revised Oakland zoning map.

The Fifth and Forbes area of Oakland, between Craft Avenue and South Bouquet Street, is outside of the education/medical/institutional district that contains the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC campuses. The area of Fifth and Forbes outside of the educational district is now classified as UC-E which stands for “Urban Center-Employment.”

Dash said large parcels of the area have already been developed for entirely residential uses. An example of that would be the SkyVue Apartments, which were built at the corner of Forbes and Craft avenues.

“We wanted to make sure to preserve space in that Innovation District for employment purposes,” Dash said. 

That zone continues on the other side of Craft Avenue between the Boulevard of the Allies and just across Forbes Avenue. Up to 80% of the buildings in that district can be used for classroom space.

In the past, the maximum height of a building was 120 feet; under the new zoning the buildings can rise to 210 feet if they meet certain conditions.

Another new district runs roughly between Sennott and Dawson streets. That area is currently townhouses, three-story apartment buildings and two-and-a-half-story single-family homes, many of which are divided up into student housing. The new zoning is R-MU, or “Residential-Mixed Use,” which would allow buildings at a base height of 40 feet that could be as tall as 95 feet if they meet conditions such as containing setbacks of upper floors and green spaces. 

According to the zoning legislation: “The intent of this district is to provide healthy, attractive and affordable rental housing in multifamily buildings; and encourage a mixture of restored historic homes and modern apartment buildings, with neighborhood serving retail.”

The zoning along the Boulevard of the Allies across from the Hampton Inn and on both sides east of UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital to Dawson Street and along Halket Street across from the hospital is now zoned UC-MU for “Urban Center-Mixed Use.” In that district, commercial and residential uses can be in the same buildings. Under the new zoning, the buildings in the district can rise to 65 feet and under certain conditions can go as high as 185 feet between Bates and Halket streets, 85 feet near the Oakcliffe neighborhood and 120 feet east of Bates.

Aerial photo of Oakland courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

All three of the new districts cut back on the parking that had been required, with no parking at all required for new buildings along Fifth and Forbes avenues in the UC-E district.

The three new zones are also along the Craig Street corridor with the new UC-E district north of Baum Boulevard to the busway, the UC-MU roughly between Fifth and Forbes and Centre Avenue to Bayard Street, and the R-MU around those districts.

Under the new legislation, all of Oakland is now covered by “inclusionary zoning,” which means that any new development or substantial renovation of housing with more than 20 units has to have 10% of it be affordable housing. The legislation also states that if a tenant of an affordable apartment sees their family income rise above 80% of the Area Median Income, or $61,100 for a couple with one child, they have to move within 60 days or when their lease expires, whichever occurs later.

In a public comment on Feb. 22, before City Council sat down to discuss the plan, Andrea Boykowycz, interim director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corp., said she opposes the amount of classroom space allowed in the employment district. In earlier statements in December, Boykowycz said allowing classroom space gives the universities a backdoor for expansion.

City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith said during the meeting that while everyone thinks of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University as the schools in that area, Carlow University, which has a more limited campus, could rent space in the district for classrooms.

Kail-Smith noted that she was born and raised on Fifth Avenue in Oakland and loves the neighborhood.

“When I was growing up, around the [Fifth Avenue] bend, before it was Lamar, before it was outdoor advertising, there was the chicken farm. So I would love to go back to those days, but I don’t think we’re going to see that,” she said.

Kail-Smith said planning for the future in Oakland is difficult. “I can see it is never going to be what it was and I think it can be a great future working together.”

While Gross noted that a lot of people, both developers and residents, had expressed their frustrations about the plan, City Councilperson Erika Strassburger, who represents part of Oakland, said the package of zoning changes is not the end of the planning process.

Citing the inclusionary zoning and the elimination of the parking requirements for the economic district, Strassburger said, “I would be remiss if I didn’t say I am fully wholeheartedly in favor of this plan.”

Ann Belser

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.