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The Buncher Co.’s Riverfront Landing complex and Oxford Development’s 3 Crossings in the Strip District. The 178-acre Hazelwood Green, designed to attract tech companies. A proposed development by Millcraft Investments at the former J. Allan Steel site in Chateau with a Ferris wheel.

As these and other developments continue to remake the land along Pittsburgh’s three rivers, city planners are finishing a major rewrite of the riverfront zoning code. It’s a project long in the making, generating controversy with developers because of restrictions on the use of land, size of buildings and control of other elements that zoning requires of them.

The Planning Commission last month adopted revisions meant to appease some of the developers’ objections and sent the riverfront zoning to City Council with a recommendation for approval.

Sometime this year, a new “RIV district” will be in place to guide the development of 35 miles of riverfront, doing away with some of the existing overlay and specially planned zoning districts.

Why is zoning changing? 

“Revising the riverfront zoning has been a recommendation made in several previous planning efforts, starting in the ’80s actually,” says Andrea Lavin Kossis, riverfront development coordinator for the Department of City Planning. The old code, she says, didn’t recognize the rivers as a cultural amenity, but specially planned districts in certain places later did so.

Land along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers traditionally was zoned urban industrial or general industrial. The rewrite is meant to recognize the riverfronts as “valuable cultural and ecological resources” that are regionally significant, according to the code, which says the city’s regulation of development is also meant to “improve the ecological health of its rivers and riverfronts.”

Updated zoning will complement planning efforts such as the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan and the forthcoming Comprehensive Plan. The RIV district will have subdistricts recognizing riverfront mixed-use, general industrial, industrial mixed-use, the North Shore with its stadiums, and riverfront mixed residential.

In more than 200 pages, the code spells out minutiae such as changes to setback requirements, building heights and lengths, parking, sidewalks and landscaping.

What can we expect? 

The zoning includes a bonus system for affordable housing, stormwater management and transit, permitting exemptions if developers meet certain city goals in those areas.

With the riverfront interim planning overlay district (IPOD) in effect for nearly two years, “I think people have gotten used to the fact that there needs to be certain standards for riverfront development, including setbacks and height restrictions and encouragement of various amenities,” says Vivien Li, president and CEO of Riverlife, a nonprofit organization that promotes riverfront activation.

“The Planning Commission was very responsive at its last meeting when it adopted a number of changes that the real estate community wanted,” she says. The commission made changes to how wide buffer setbacks would be and made accommodations to the size of the North Shore stadiums, among other things.

“I think it is a good compromise,” says Li, “in terms of fostering additional development along the riverfront with a number of amenities that benefit the general public.”

Editing continues, with a goal of simplifying the complicated document, says Lavin Kossis.

“In addition to writing new zoning for the riverfront, we’re updating a variety of other sections,” she says. “One of our goals with this zoning is for it to be easier to understand. It will include illustrations, for example, and we’re trying to make it as straightforward as possible. This is for anybody who wants to do work on the riverfronts.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.