The Pittsburgh Planning Commission voted to approve a preliminary land development plan to build office and retail space at the former Penn Plaza site in East Liberty, which is owned by LG Realty Advisors.
Commissioners approved the plan on Tuesday, after nearly five hours of deliberation and public comment from close to 40 speakers, the majority of whom opposed the project. They used their allotted three minutes to call for affordable housing and to critique the community outreach process.
“I think it’s clear that the people whose lives are most affected by this plan demand the city Planning Commission reject LG’s development proposal,” said Steve Capri, a North Side resident and member of the organization Socialist Alternative. “This proposal came out of an undemocratic process…the vast majority of people affected were at best an afterthought.”
A number of people argued the development would not satisfy the zoning code’s requirement to “create a favorable environmental, social and economic impact on the city.”
“LG [Realty’s] redevelopment plan clearly fails many of your clearly stated criteria,” said Krystle Knight with the Thomas Merton Center, referencing rising rents and stagnant wages. “Pittsburgh needs to seriously consider what it means to be one of the most livable cities in America. Most livable for who, exactly?”
But LG Realty’s president Lawrence Gumberg argued the Pennley Park South development would create a positive impact on the city.
“All we’re trying to do is to create jobs and taxes and in this case, we are creating a fund for affordable housing,” he said. “This is a significant benefit to the community.”
When it looked as though the Planning Commission might make a motion to deny the project, LG Realty’s attorney Jonathan Kamin said the city’s larger issues surrounding affordable housing and gentrification were outside the scope of the city zoning laws.
“I do think it is unfair that, what I would call legislative shortcomings, that exist within the city process, are being foisted upon us,” he said. “The Planning Commission’s job is to evaluate the project based on the objective criteria that’s provided.”
Commission chairperson Christine Mondor said there must be a citywide discussion to develop criteria that allow projects to be evaluated for their social and cultural impact.
“As Pittsburghers we want affordability, cultural preservation and a right to the city. A city we helped sustain in far worse times than these,” she said. “This project is a lightning rod and these issues need to be systemically dealt with.”
Ultimately, the commission voted four to two to approve the project with two conditions. The first would limit the development’s height to 108 feet. That is a reduction—by more than half—of LG Realty’s “by right” ability to build to 238 feet. Doing so could significantly reduce the tax revenue generated by the project, said Gumberg. The second condition would require a community gathering space.
Kamin said they have concerns about the conditions and will need to study them to see if the project is still viable. LG Realty still must submit a final land development plan for Planning Commission approval.
Tuesday’s hearing was the second time LG Realty’s development plan was presented to the Planning Commission for a decision. In January of 2017 the body rejected a proposal to build a Whole Foods grocery store, apartments and office space on the site. That rejection ignited a round of lawsuits between the developer, the city and four community groups. After more than six months of mediation, a consent order of court laid out a process to return the development to the regular city process.
This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. on Wed., May 15 to provide more information.