Rendering of Craft Development Group's proposed housing project at 6886 Forward Ave. in Squirrel Hill courtesy of Indovina Associates Architects.

UpstreamPgh, the organization that acted as the steward to bring back Nine Mile Run, has organized a petition to stop the development of a 162-unit apartment building on Forward Avenue where the Irish Centre building sits.

The Irish Centre property at 6886 Forward Ave. is zoned as a park, which limits the uses and size of a building. But the developer, Toronto-based Craft Development Group, is seeking zoning variances for the use of the property, the height of the building, and the amount of floor space in relation to the size of the property.

Craft previously constructed The Mews on Butler, a 68-unit townhouse-style condominium development in Lawrenceville.

Ryan Indovina, the architect working with Craft, said the company has not decided whether the planned eight-story building in Squirrel Hill will be condominium or rental units.

Indovina described the project during an hour-and-a-half meeting with residents of Squirrel Hill, Swisshelm Park and Swissvale that was facilitated on Zoom by the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition on May 17.

Ray Baum, the urban coalition’s board secretary and Craft’s local attorney, said that something has to be done to improve the site, which has water and sediment runoff onto Commercial Street and into Nine Mile Run, the stream that runs through the property.

When asked by Squirrel Hill South resident Helen Wilson what UpstreamPgh thought of the project, Baum said no one from the organization was on the Zoom call, which would indicate that the organization was not very concerned.

But reached later, Michael Hiller, executive director of UpstreamPgh, disagreed, adding that there is no indication that the current state of the property is harming the stream.

Hiller says UpstreamPgh is indeed concerned about the proposed development but that he and another representative left the Zoom meeting earlier because they had to make a presentation at another meeting in Wilkinsburg.  

An UpstreamPgh petition, which was released on May 31, notes that the multi-unit building would be the first development abutting the stream, which was restored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and that the runoff from impervious surfaces of the development, such as parking lots and roofs, could jeopardize that restoration.

The former Irish Centre at Frick Park would be demolished and replaced by a larger, eight-story building by Craft Development Group. Photo courtesy of Indovina Associates Architects.

The petition also expresses the concern, as residents who attended the Zoom meeting did, that the development would change the scenic landscape of Frick Park.

The petition also notes that the property is prone to landslides and that “Forward Avenue has experienced multiple landslides in recent years.”

Upstream says that 1,616 people have signed the petition so far.

Neighbors have expressed concerns about both the size and location of the project.

City Councilmember Barb Warwick, whose district includes the area, says that the plan has garnered the opposition of its nearest neighbors as well as Frick Park users.

Warwick adds that part of the problem is that the developers came forward with the plan with no notice to local residents and without working with local groups. She has planned a meeting on June 15 with stakeholders, including UpstreamPgh, representatives of the neighborhoods surrounding the property and the developers, to see if they can work together to make the project work for all of them, possibly with some sort of community benefits agreement.

Under current zoning laws, there are certain uses allowed for the property: a park, a cemetery, a golf course, agriculture, a museum, or a restaurant. Parks zoning also allows for single-family detached housing, like the homes that were built along Mount Royal and Fernwald roads. Because multi-family residential is not a permitted use for the site, the project requires a zoning variance.

As he ran through the presentation, Indovina pointed out that the building would have two levels of parking underneath it and 20 surface spaces, for a total of 182 parking spots.

In addressing the variance requested for the height of the building, Indovina noted that the maximum height allowed is 40 feet.

“We’re proposing 68 feet tall or six stories on the Forward Avenue side and 87 feet or eight stories on Commercial Street,” he said.

Rendering of Craft Development Group’s proposed residential project at 6886 Forward Ave. in Squirrel Hill courtesy Indovina Associates Architects.

The final variance needed has to do with the floor area ratio allowed. The floor area ratio is the amount of floor space to the area of the property. In a park district, that is a 1-to-1 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 will need a variance to be allowed to have a floor area ratio of 1.33-to-1 (or nearly 250,000 square feet).

The building design shows brick facing with green roofs on the lower level roofs. Baum said stormwater will all be captured on site.

With 70 people on the Zoom meeting, there was a mix of residents who favored more housing, even if those units were not affordable housing, while others worried about the effects on traffic and the park.

John Williams expressed his concern about traffic safety, noting that the building will be located at the site of the hairpin curve and will block motorists’ views of other vehicles, bicyclists and deer as they come around the curve.

Others said the traffic on Forward Avenue at the intersection of Mount Royal Road is already backed up at rush hour because drivers use it as an alternative to the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.

Baum said the developers have been meeting privately with stakeholders, including Corey O’Connor when he was on City Council representing Squirrel Hill South and Swisshelm Park. Baum noted that the developers already reduced the size of the plan in response to O’Connor’s concerns.

The online hearing regarding the zoning variance was originally scheduled for June 1, but has been moved to July 6 at 10:10 a.m.

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.