Arendering of the front of a building along Penn Avenue. The building could be higher if the developer's zoning request is approved. Rendering courtesy of Walnut Capital.

Walnut Capital has reached an agreement with neighborhood organizations about the community benefits for the expansion of Bakery Square, but Mayor Ed Gainey said he is not entertaining any developments that do not contain enough affordable housing and do not help stabilize neighborhoods.

Before Walnut Capital called the community-wide meeting on Aug. 9 about its proposal to expand Bakery Square, the developer spent time with representatives of the Larimer Consensus Group and The Village Collaborative, East Liberty’s registered community organization, to work out a community benefits agreement.

The agreement calls for Walnut Capital to dedicate $6 million for affordable housing in the East End, primarily Larimer, with a commitment to raise another $19 million from other sources.

The money to build new homes and bring others up to code would be transformative, said Chase Patterson, chair of the Larimer Consensus Group.

Walnut Capital also committed to using $4.8 million from the real estate tax generated by the development to finance investments in education, workforce development, health and wellness, and affordable housing.

Todd Reidbord, a founding partner & president with Walnut Capital, said the agreement is the result of listening to what the community wants. He notes that 80% of the housing stock in East Liberty is rental units. The $6 million his company is putting into the housing initiative, called Build 100 Homes, is just the catalyst to get the ambitious project started.

“The most needed type of housing is for-sale, mixed-income housing that is for the Black middle class who have been decimated in our community. The statistics bear that out,” Reidbord said.

In addition to the first boost of money, which will be followed by fundraising to garner another $19 million, Walnut Capital has also agreed to set up the framework for the community organizations to lead the development and to lend its expertise on homebuilding. But Walnut Capital will not be building or selling the homes.

A schematic design from Walnut Capital of Bakery Square. The light blue buildings are part of the expansion. Map courtesy of Walnut Capital.

Bakery Square expansion

Walnut Capital wants to expand Bakery Square to the west along Penn Avenue to redevelop 14 acres where the Village of Eastside strip mall, home of Trader Joe’s, and to where Club One used to be.

The agreement with the community groups calls for Walnut Capital to include “workforce housing” in 5% of the new apartments built on the expanded site. That housing would be affordable for people making between 80% and 120% of the median income in the area, which, according to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, would be $60,700 to $91,000 for a couple or $75,850 to $113,775 for a family of four. 

Patterson described the negotiations with the developer as “tough.”

He told residents at a meeting in July that he and the Larimer group’s leadership might seem friendly with Walnut Capital, but that only came after long hard fights over benefits to the community.

Patterson said Walnut Capital tried to keep the community benefits to just the real estate tax that would be generated by using the city’s Transit Revitalization Investment District (TRID) program in which that tax money can be designated for specific use.

Patterson said he approached the negotiations with the knowledge that “they are about making money and I am trying to revitalize a community where everyone can live.”

Darryl Canady, senior pastor of the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church and a member of The Village Collaborative, said the most important part of the community benefits agreement is the section in which the developer agrees to dedicate $6 million and assist in raising another $19 million to build affordable owner-occupied housing.

Canady noted that nearly all of the affordable housing built recently has been for renters.

“To try to help some people to be able to afford a house, that means everything. That’s the most important aspect to this,” he said.

“We spent two years meeting with the community,” Reidbord said. “This is a bottom up community benefits agreement.” 

The Larimer Consensus Group and The Village Collaborative are hosting a development activities meeting about the zoning plan at 7 p.m. on Sept. 27 at the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church.

The 5% workforce housing planned for the development is a lower percentage of affordability than the city has placed on parts of Oakland and Lawrenceville, where 10% percent of new housing in large developments has to be affordable.

Mayor Ed Gainey, left, listens to the concerns of Larimer resident Tab Duckett during a community meeting. Photo by Ann Belser.

Gainey pushes back

Walnut Capital’s proposed extension of the Bakery Square development would require zoning changes creating a Specially Planned District.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess (D-Point Breeze North) introduced legislation to expand the Specially Planned Districts in order to allow the development, but it has yet to be reviewed by the Planning Commission, which has not scheduled a public hearing.

According to a Post-Gazette editorial, which was based on correspondence with the zoning administrator, the city is purposely holding up the process. Mayor Gainey, who refuses to talk to the Post-Gazette while its employees are on strike, addressed the Larimer Consensus Group on Sept. 6 about the issue.

“I’m not entertaining housing proposals that do not have a certain percentage of affordability in it. We need to stabilize our neighborhoods,” Gainey said. “Market rate has not gotten us there. Market rate has done more to displace and replace us than it has done to stabilize us and that doesn’t only hurt the neighborhood, it hurts the school district.”

He explained that developers are building small apartments with one-bedroom units renting for $2,000 a month, which do not attract families, so there are fewer children in the neighborhoods and fewer children in the schools.

“So in order to keep people here you have to have affordability, and so every development that I’ve talked about, and yes I‘m talking about Walnut Capital, they understand when they come to see me that they’ve got to have a level of affordability. They have not had to do this in the past because they had carte blanche. Them days is over.”

Gainey said he has not spoken to any representatives of Walnut Capital about the proposed zoning changes. 

“When they want to know how I feel, they can come knocking on my door. But I am not going to have a verbal back and forth with Walnut Capital through the press.”

The developers and community groups have had meetings with representatives of the mayor’s office, but the mayor was not present.

Walnut Capital’s plan for the overpass at the East Liberty Busway. Map courtesy of Walnut Capital.

Zoning would allow taller buildings

Walnut Capital’s proposal, as submitted, shows renderings of the buildings that are significantly different than would be permitted under the zoning changes it has proposed.

On Page 31 of the plan, which focuses on the plaza that would be built spanning the railroad tracks and the busway between Target and Trader Joe’s, a sketch shows an 11-story building. It is one of the few sketches of proposed buildings in the plan.

Yet that building, if built as tall as requested, could be more than twice as high. The zoning proposed by Walnut Capital for the site where Club One used to be, along the railroad tracks to East Liberty Boulevard, allows for buildings to be built up to 285 feet high. 

To give some perspective, the new Pennley Park South building with Whole Foods on the ground floor is 150 feet high. The new proposal calls for five buildings in the area known as Subdistrict D, which would each be nearly twice as high. At 285 feet they would be just 15 feet shorter than the cross on top of the spire of East Liberty Presbyterian Church.

The proposal calls for a lower height for the building closest to Penn Avenue, which is rendered as an E-shaped building. The rendering with the proposed zoning changes shows just four floors of the building along Penn Avenue. But the building that Walnut Capital is proposing would be 45 feet tall, then would step back and rise to 85 feet, then would rise to the full proposed height of 150 feet.

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.