Public opposition to the development of 162 condominium units at the Irish Centre site on Forward Avenue in Squirrel Hill has taken on the feeling of a political campaign with yard signs and petitions.
On Thursday, Aug. 3, a four-hour meeting of the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment displayed some of the intensity of the opposition as Geri Smith, of Swisshelm Park, a founder of the newly formed group, Frick Park Friends, presented a 23-page slide deck to the board that includes references to the petitions with 2,731 signatures and 304 letters from residents all opposed to the development at the edge of Nine Mile Run. About 150 people were watching the live stream of the zoning board hearing on YouTube.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting followed a contentious July 31 meeting of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition board of directors, which decided to support two of the developer’s variance requests but oppose the other two.
The development at issue is a proposal by Toronto-based Craft Development Group to build condominiums on the edge of Frick Park in an area that is zoned for park use.
The developer needs to obtain four variances to the zoning code. The first would allow a multi-unit residential development in an area that is zoned for parks. Other than a park, there are other uses that are allowed under park zoning, including a cemetery, a golf course, agriculture, a museum or a restaurant. Parks zoning also allows for single-family detached housing, such as the type that built along Mt. Royal and Fernwald roads.
Another variance would allow for a 15-foot tall retaining wall. Currently, the zoning allows for a wall to be no higher than 10 feet.
During the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition meeting, the board agreed that these two variances would be acceptable because they would like to see more housing in Squirrel Hill.
The two variances that they oppose are to the height and scale of the building. Current zoning allows a building that is 40 feet high and three stories, but the developers are proposing an eight-story building that is nearly 90 feet high.
The final variance needed has to do with the floor area ratio allowed. The floor area ratio is the amount of floor space in relation to the area of the property. In a park district, that is a one-to-one ratio, so one square foot of floor space is allowed for every square foot of land. For example, if the building takes up half the property, it can be two stories high to maintain that floor area ratio.
In the case of the Irish Centre, the property is 186,500 square feet. The developers need a variance to be allowed to have a floor area ratio of 1.33-to-1 (or nearly 250,000 square feet).
The Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition objects to those two variances because they say the building would be too big, particularly situated next to Frick Park.
Neighbors, particularly those in Swisshelm Park and along Forward Avenue in Squirrel Hill, object to the increased traffic that would be generated by the residents of the building. Craft’s traffic consultant, Chris Prisk, said the highest traffic volume from the site would be 59 trips in the busiest hour of the morning and 62 trips in the busiest hour of the evening.
Residents also said the building is being designed without enough parking. The developer is proposing 182 spaces.
During the hearing on the variance, in addition to the architect and consultants, seven people testified in favor of the development. Most said the neighborhood needs more housing and two said the development would slow traffic and make the road safer.
Jon Danzak, of Regent Square, a former member of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, said the current property is an eyesore. He said the trees of Frick Park will block the view for park users and the new development will generate about $500,000 in tax revenue.
In addition to the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition and Frick Park Friends, the development was opposed by UpstreamPgh, which is the new name of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association. Twenty-one individual residents also testified in opposition to the plan.
As for the project architect, Ryan Indovina said stormwater from the property would be controlled using green roofs, rain gardens and plantings, and underground stormwater storage tanks. He said that while there has been concern expressed that the stormwater would cause damage to Nine Mile Run, “In this case, I just want to be clear that it would not.”
Michael Hiller, the executive director of UpstreamPgh, disputed that.
“When you add impervious surfaces, stormwater runoff increases,” he said, noting that climate change has caused more frequent severe rainstorms.
Frick Park Friends also presented the testimony of Emily Constantine Mercurio, of Swissvale, a geologist who said the slopes of the site are too great and the site is surrounded by red bed soil, which is clay.
“Slopes in the red beds are notoriously sensitive,” she said.
Mercurio noted that Forward Avenue is already routinely closed because of landslides and added that the new development, with the excavation below the red beds and the vibration from the construction, will exacerbate the situation.
“This is simply not a good idea from a geologic and hydrologic statement,” she said.
Ray Baum of Squirrel Hill, the attorney for Craft General, objected to Mercurio’s testimony saying that the construction engineering and stormwater mitigation would be handled during pre-construction meetings with the city.
“All of the issues regarding the geology and stormwater runoff will be addressed by the permitting,” he said.
Alice Mitinger, chair of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, said the parties have until Sept. 14 to submit their arguments and supporting documentation. After that, the board will have 45 days to make a decision.