Three months before former Mayor Bill Peduto left office, he proposed a zoning change for nearly 18 acres of Oakland specifically tailored to a plan by Walnut Capital, the landowner, that would allow the developer to construct buildings up to 180 feet high near UPMC Magee Womens Hospital.

Now two months after Mayor Ed Gainey has taken office, the development, known as Oakland Crossings, has been scaled back. 

Though the new zoning proposal limits the height to 65 feet, the developer can add “bonus height” by earning “bonus points” for items such as energy efficiency, a commitment to hiring underrepresented groups for the operation of the building for the first 10 years, and for constructing a grocery store in the development.

The plan, unveiled at a Pittsburgh Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, March 8, also eliminates the block-long high-rise buildings planned for McKee Place.

The effect of the change is that while the buildings the developer plans to build along Halket Street will still tower over the two-story homes on Coltart Avenue, there won’t be a similar block of buildings built on McKee Place. 

The land across the Boulevard of the Allies — on which the Art Deco-style building that was once Isaly’s corporate headquarters and most recently has been used as a medical office – is also included in the district. 

In all, the area is now 13.25 acres, according to the presentation from the developer.

While Walnut Capital has not included in its documentation how many apartments are planned for the development, the company has agreed that in any building that holds more than 20 units, 10% of those units will accept vouchers for federally subsidized housing. That agreement lasts for 35 years. The company has also added senior housing as a possible use.

The plan provides for the possibility of up to nine bonus points each worth 15 feet in additional height. That could add 130 feet to the building that houses a grocery store, making it 195 feet tall. The other buildings could gain 105 feet with the bonuses, making them 170 feet tall.

However, the proposed zoning states that buildings that are built higher than 65 feet have to have the upper floors set back so they can’t just be a flat 195-foot wall.

A map presented with the plan shows the developers plan to build a 120-foot building closest to Forbes Avenue, 185-foot high buildings where the Quality Inn hotel is located and on the Isaly’s property, and another 85-foot tall building closest to a row of homes on Niagara Street on the west side of the Isaly’s parcel.

Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak noted that the new city administration inherited the project midway through the zoning change process, which was initiated by the developer and the former mayor, not by the community plan that is being developed by Oakland residents and stakeholders.

“From the point of view of the Gainey administration, the changes here have been discussed, negotiated and agreed to with the developer,” Pawlak said.

The changes in the plan were explained to members of the Pittsburgh Planning Commission during a meeting that was advertised as a public hearing. However, Commission Chair Christine Mondor noted the revisions had only been released the previous night to the commissioners. She said if the hearing were held as advertised the commissioners would not have a chance to ask questions and instead would have been asked to vote on the plan. 

The members approved a continuance to the next meeting, scheduled for March 22, which Mondor said will give them time to study the changes.

The delay in the public hearing also meant that Oakland residents, who had been sitting through hours of the planning meeting, did not get a chance to speak. 

Andrea Boykowycz, assistant director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, noted in the question and answer portion of the meeting, which was held via Zoom, that it was the third time residents had been shut out of testifying with no advance notice.

Mondor’s request for a continuance was not a rejection of the plan.

“It certainly seems to be very much on the right track toward meeting the concerns we had on the first time through,” she said.

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...