South Oakland has long been a mixture of student housing of varying quality and a small, declining population of permanent residents, many of them elderly. Oakland actually lost 2,000 residents in the last U.S. Census, while similar “innovation neighborhoods,” such as University City in Philadelphia, adjacent to major research universities, have grown substantially.
Still, Oakland remains one of the city’s main economic engines and the hub for higher education, research and medical communities with about 50,000 workers, and thousands more students.
Walnut Capital has a plan for Oakland to catch up to its peers and become a neighborhood with plenty of walk-to-work options for the thousands of jobs there. The plan, called Oakland Crossings, envisions more than 1,000 new housing units in the area around the Boulevard of the Allies, with a number of mixed-use buildings, green spaces and even a neighborhood grocery store, which has been a priority in the neighborhood for decades.
The 17-acre plan includes residential structures near UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital along Halket Street, at the old Isaly’s building on the Boulevard of the Allies and McKee Place. The recently closed Quality Inn/Panera Bread will be the site of a new grocery store as part of a mixed-use collaboration with Pitt.
“We’re in the very, very early stages of planning for this project,” says Todd Reidbord, president of Walnut Capital, the giant developer behind the transformative reuse of Bakery Square and Oakland’s iconic Pittsburgh Athletic Association.
The developer wants to prioritize pedestrians over cars. Right now, the Boulevard of the Allies is a fairly auto-centric, high-speed route through the neighborhood, unpleasant to cross on foot. A pedestrian bridge across the street is part of the plan, as is a parking garage, along with substantial streetscape improvements.
Substantial demolition will be required for row houses that Walnut Capital has acquired on Halket Street, currently inhabited largely by students. Several large apartments could go there, with heights from 150 to 180 feet. New mixed-income housing is planned for McKee Place. The small, triangular, underutilized Zulema Park will be expanded to be used more as a possible public plaza.
There’s already some push back from at least one neighborhood organization.
“The development would demolish three large and dense city blocks, including homes and apartment buildings and trees that have been part of the residential fabric here for more than 100 years,” reads a statement by the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation on its website.
“We renovated the (Pittsburgh Athletic Association), we did the Highland Building in East Liberty,” responds Reidbord. “Those are monumental buildings. None of these buildings are in that category. Not even close. We know what historic buildings are.”
The Oakland Crossings plan will also add green space and public parks.
“We think we’ve delivered 10 out of 10 of the things the community told us they’re looking for,” says Reidbord. “We talked about enhanced green space and parks that are usable. We talked about transforming the Boulevard in the Allies from a kind of concrete swath through the neighborhood — with planted trees, medians and a pedestrian bridge across it that connects Oakland, and enables people to really be able to safely cross it. And community amenities, not just the grocery store, but others — maybe they’re shops, maybe they’re small restaurants, dry cleaners, places like that really are nonexistent today.”
Reidbord has not shared a total cost estimate, and thinks that a 3- to 5-year time frame is the most plausible with the project being built in phases.
Walnut Capital will hold eight public meetings, which can be found at their new website.