By SUSAN JONES
Oakland Crossings, the ambitious development plan by Walnut Capital for South Oakland, has been getting considerable attention lately from the media, Pittsburgh City Council and Mayor Bill Peduto, along with some neighborhood groups who aren’t very happy with the process used in developing the proposal.
If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, we’re here to help.
What is Oakland Crossings?
Pittsburgh developer Walnut Capital, whose many projects include Bakery Square in East Liberty, is proposing a complete makeover of 17 acres of South Oakland, mostly along Halket Street and McKee Place. New, taller housing units would replace the single-family homes that now house mostly groups of students.
Walnut Capital’s stated goal is to increase the density of permanent, non-student residents in Oakland to make it a more vibrant neighborhood. There has been a push lately to create more housing for faculty, staff and other Oakland workers to allow them to live within walking distance to work.
One of the goals of neighborhood groups in the area has been to bring in a grocery store.
“We believe that grocery stores want to be in Oakland, … but they really need the demographics in the population that support the grocery store to appear, and then once that happens, we believe that we can have a very successful grocery store,” Todd Reidbord, president of Walnut Capital, said during one of several online information meetings about the project on Sept. 30.
The proposal now includes the construction of three buildings on Halket Street opposite of UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, which would have businesses and offices on the first floor with apartments above them. There also are new apartment buildings planned for McKee Place along with plans to develop Louisa Street as a connector between the two areas with improvements to the steps and a central plaza between Coltart Street and McKee. Walnut’s plans also include more greenspace along both streets. In all, the project would have about 1,000 apartment units.
In addition, the plan calls for an apartment building and a parking garage at the historic Isaly’s site on the Boulevard of the Allies and a bridge over the Boulevard at Halket Street. Walnut Capital also proposes closing a section of Zulema Street between McKee and Halket to create a plaza next to Zulema Park and improving the intersection of the Boulevard and Halket.
“We are neighborhood developers, we’re committed to Pittsburgh,” Reidbord said. “These are legacy projects for us. … These are things that we’re going to live with the rest of our lives, and we think we’ve proven that with all the developments that we’ve done throughout the city.”
He projected the development would create 4,000 construction jobs, which he pledged would all be union jobs, and “we’re committed to an employment program for people who live in the neighborhood.” He also said sustainability would be one of the keys to these new buildings.
Walnut Capital has created a website detailing is plans for Oakland Crossings. It also is planning an in-person meeting about the project at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at Bakery Square.
Why are people complaining?
While there are complaints about what the project includes, the main sticking point right now is about the zoning process.
Walnut Capital wants to create a new zoning subdistrict that would include all the areas in its planned development. The proposal for the new subdistrict came from Mayor Bill Peduto’s office straight to City Council, instead of through community discussions and the planning department.
“Our biggest concern is that the process by which it was introduced is completely wrong,” Wanda Wilson, executive director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corp., said in an interview with the University Times. “It completely subverts the regular process for zoning legislation — a process that is very well known and we’re very familiar with. … It’s gone beyond unorthodox.”
Wilson and a few dozen other people stressed this point at a hearing they had requested this week before City Council. Several said the project’s path through the mayor’s office seemed to be a favor from Peduto as he prepares to leave office.
“They are taking a piece of writing that was done by Walnut Capital’s attorney and introducing that into City Council, separate from (the city’s) own planning department being involved in. And that’s really the issue,” Wilson said. “There’s been no community discussion about the zoning, and it was written by a private entity with monetary gain to be had.”
The Post-Gazette reported that Dan Gilman, Peduto’s chief of staff, said the planning department was involved in conversations surrounding the legislation and in meetings where it was reviewed and amended and where recommendations were made.
Any zoning changes usually come after extensive community discussion and are led by civil servants in the planning department who have no monetary gain, Wilson said.
Walnut Capital has said that its planners attended more than 30 meetings over the past year with neighborhood groups and used information gathered at these meetings to develop its proposal so it would meet the needs expressed by the residents, such as the walkway over the Boulevard of the Allies.
Most of the people who spoke at the City Council hearing on Oct. 5 urged a delay in approving the zoning change until the completion of the Oakland Plan, a 10-year vision for the neighborhood that is now in the draft phase. Members of neighborhood groups from other areas of the city also spoke up at the hearing to say allowing the zoning change to proceed without more public comment would set a bad precedent.
In addition to complaints about the zoning process, Wilson said the content of the plan has raised concerns. Rezoning Halket Street to mixed-use, “changes the whole character of that area,” she said. Walnut Capital said 18 of the 20 single-family houses on the street that they have under contract are actually student housing.
Wilson and others also object to the height of the proposed buildings, particularly on McKee Place — “Heights over 150 feet high, which is 15-store buildings, which is completely out of context of that community,” she said.
“A lot of times people treat Oakland as though it’s not a place where there are homeowners, where there are longtime residents, where there’s a community of people who care about the place, … and that it’s only a place to make money,” Wilson said.
At the hearing, several people said that Walnut Capital’s plan also doesn’t make any allowances for affordable housing, which is one of the things the Oakland Plan is advocating.
What does Pitt think?
Pitt is making its own moves in South Oakland. The University announced this summer that it plans to redevelop the Quality Inn site on the Boulevard of the Allies into non-student housing with a grocery store on the bottom floor. Pitt also has agreed to buy from Walnut Capital 18,517 square feet of property on Bates and Coltart streets, where the developer recently tore down 11 condemned rowhouses. Pitt hasn’t announced any specific plans for the site, but has said: “The property sits at an important and highly visible juncture for the University and acquisition will enhance a key campus gateway.”
Reidbord said that Walnut sees the Quality Inn site as the “linchpin” for redevelopment in the area. He said they’ve been working with strategic stakeholders in the area, such as Pitt, UPMC and the city.
“We are following Walnut Capital’s development plans for Central Oakland with keen interest,” David DeJong, senior vice chancellor for Business & Operations, said in an email. “The University of Pittsburgh’s plans for the Quality Inn site include adding a grocery store as well as non-student housing, which would create more options for folks to work in Oakland and enjoy a walkable commute. Both changes address longstanding needs — as articulated by the community — which we identified through extensive engagement with Oakland residents while forming our Institutional Master Plan.
“As these plans develop, we will continue to engage, listen and learn so that we can make the most of this exciting opportunity.”
What comes next?
Good question. Many at the City Council hearing urged delaying the zoning change until the Oakland Plan is completed early next year.
Walnut Capital is pushing an aggressive timeline that would bring the plan to a hearing before the City Planning Commission in November and to a full City Council vote by January.
Councilman Bruce Krauss, who represents that area of Oakland, asked for time to do some more research on the project before the council decides whether to delay a vote on the zoning change.
But he also said one possible reason for urgency is the $35 million to $50 million from the pandemic-related American Rescue Plan that is targeted at public realm, infrastructure improvements such as this.
At the Oct. 6 Faculty Assembly meeting, David Salcido, a South Oakland resident and research assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine, urged people to add their comments to the Oakland Plan, for which he’s on the steering committee.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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