Housing along McKee Place in Central Oakland would be replaced by mixed-use buildings that could be 108 feet tall under a proposal brought by Walnut Capital, which submitted this picture to the City Planning Commission on Dec. 7, 2021.
Housing along McKee Place in Central Oakland would be replaced by mixed-use buildings that could be 108 feet tall under a proposal brought by Walnut Capital, which submitted this picture to the City Planning Commission on Dec. 7, 2021.

The City Planning Commission signaled a yellow light to Oakland Crossings — a proposed redevelopment of 18 acres spanning the Boulevard of the Allies — at a briefing ahead of a likely hearing and vote next month.

Walnut Capital, with the support of outgoing Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration, wants to rewrite the zoning rules for much of the land from student-dominated McKee Place to the former Isaly's building east of UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital. Instead of low-slung student housing and an empty hotel, Walnut wants the OK to develop a grocery store, labs, classrooms, apartment buildings and much more, with building heights that could reach 108 feet along McKee and 160 feet near the boulevard.

“Here’s an opportunity for us to really transform our thinking and really take a look at some of the good things, and the not-so-good things about Oakland,” said Todd Reidbord, president of Walnut Capital.

An artist conception of the development that could occur along the Boulevard of the Allies if the proposed Oakland Crossings zoning is approved, submitted by Walnut Capital to the City Planning Commission on Dec. 7, 2021.

The proposed rezoning, though, has raised questions about Oakland Crossings’ potential effects on the rest of the neighborhood and about proper planning procedure. While the commission’s vote won’t be the final one, it could have an effect on the City Council tally to follow.

It hits the commission a few months before the anticipated completion of a two-year-old effort to plan the future of Oakland.

While Walnut’s representatives told the commission that their plan reflects input they’ve heard at Oakland meetings, commission Chair Christine Mondor said her panel was “flying blind without ever having seen the neighborhood plan.”

City Chief of Staff Dan Gilman acknowledged that the zoning change comes as the neighborhood is trying to chart its future. “But we wanted to put a basis on the table that allows us to advance this conversation before it’s too late and we lose this incredible opportunity,” he said.

Walnut gave its proposal to the Mayor’s Office, which endorsed it and introduced it to Pittsburgh City Council, skipping the typical review done by the Department of City Planning.

“I’m befuddled just that a mayor would sidestep his own Planning Department,” said
Commissioner Sabina Deitrick.

Reidbord contended that the commission should consider the potential benefits of redevelopment, with an eye toward the neighborhood’s future and should not get bogged down in procedural questions.

“I know you don’t want to hear about process, but that’s what planning is,” said Deitrick.

This map from Walnut Capital's plan for Oakland Crossings shows the benefits that the developer says would accrue to the neighborhood.
This map from Walnut Capital's plan for Oakland Crossings shows the benefits that the developer says would accrue to the neighborhood.

Reidbord said that portions of Central Oakland and South Oakland are governed by “a hodgepodge” of zoning classifications. His company owns, or has agreements to purchase, most of the parcels in the 18-acre footprint of Oakland Crossings and wants to turn it into a mixed-use neighborhood with more population density and more family-friendly greenspace than the current zoning allows.

Mondor, though, said she was concerned about the effects of potential 100-foot-tall buildings on the housing surrounding the district and especially on the single-family homes along Coltart Street, which would be sandwiched between two parts of the Oakland Crossings area.

“I would never, in any district, put two 100-foot-tall buildings surrounding a single street of residential,” she said.

The commission is charged, under the city code, with weighing whether the proposed zoning change is consistent with adopted neighborhood plans and city policies, advances public welfare and is likely to have a positive effect on nearby properties, among other criteria. If the commission votes against the change, it still goes back to City Council. But without the commission’s approval, it must win the votes of seven of the nine council members, rather than a simple majority.

Oakland Crossings was the subject of a Nov. 29 Development Activities Meeting conducted virtually by the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, at which some attendees expressed concern that the proposal would accelerate the displacement of families, and included no promise of housing reserved for low-income households.

Reidbord told the commission that virtually all of the housing that would be demolished to make way for Oakland Crossings is inhabited by college students.

The commission could hear public testimony and vote on the zoning changes on Jan. 11.

The Julian apartments approved for North Oakland

The commission approved a proposal for a 10-story apartment building in North Oakland despite concerns from some neighbors that it would be out of character for the area and would clog traffic.

The Julian would bring 148 apartments to the 400 block of Melwood Avenue, near Baum Boulevard. Hermitage-based developer The Hudson Companies has already won Zoning Board of Adjustment approval for the height, despite resident testimony that it would dwarf surrounding structures which don’t exceed four stories.

Leslie Clague, of Polish Hill, told the commission that The Julian would be “utterly out of place on this street.” Its residents would also exit from its parking garage on to Gold Way, an alley which Clague characterized as “already overburdened.”

A photo of Melwood Avenue (left) and an artist's conception (right) of the same streetscape as it would look following the construction The Julian apartment building, submitted by developer The Hudson Companies to the City Planning Commission on Dec. 7, 2021.

Jonathan Hudson, of The Hudson Companies, said that Gold Way can support the traffic if it is free of illegal parking and trash receptacles.

Commission members said they could not consider the size concerns because the Zoning Board had already approved the height. All of the commissioners who were present voted to approve the proposed apartment building.

Hudson said he hoped to get permits and start demolition and site preparation early next year.

The commission postponed indefinitely its scheduled advisory vote on a proposed ordinance submitted by City Council that would give the former body more involvement in some development approvals. Planning Department staff told the commission that it anticipated further discussion with council before any vote.

Rich Lord is Rtvsrece’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@rtvsrece.com or on Twitter @richelord.

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Rich is the managing editor of Rtvsrece. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...