South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

Forum looks to add members before March


The controversial, proposed “Villas at Winter Park” single-family, 13-home residential development off Hackstown St. in the Slopes is back again following the recent overturning Common Pleas Judge Joseph James of two Planning Commission decisions.

The news was relayed by city Councilman Bruce Kraus at the Jan. 10 meeting of the South Side Planning Forum.

The meeting began with the thanking of Candice Gonzalez, of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, for volunteering to serve as forum secretary following the retirement of Christine Gaus.

Regarding the proposed development, Mr. Kraus said “I expected more” from the developer who, he said, bought the property and played “hardball” against the wishes of everyone involved.

Residents have expressed concerns about the appropriateness of the site geologically, and the impact on Hackstown, Gregory, and Magdalena streets during construction and afterwards.

Mr. Kraus said the project was rejected twice by the Planning Commission for the applicant not being forthcoming with geotech studies. The decision was appealed to Common Pleas Court, where it was overturned.

He will ask the city’s Legal Department if there is precedent for the city to continue the process when a Planning Commission decision is reversed.

“It will be massively disruptive,” Development Review Committee (DRC) Chair Tracy Myers said of the development. She said steep slope zoning was created for a reason.

Mr. Kraus said his concern is the continued disruption over five years of driving heavy equipment on narrow streets. There is a two-phase, five-year construction schedule.

He said residents may continue fighting by appealing Common Pleas Court’s decision, but they have already spent considerable money on this, including financing a geotech study.

Unfortunately, developers come in with established attorneys who understand the system, he said, and residents do not have the funds to fight.

On a related note, Barbara Rudiak, of the South Side Community Council, said representatives of developer Edwards Communities Development Co. met with the community the prior week about a proposed 316-unit apartment complex planned for Wharton St. near the Birmingham Bridge.

Nearby residents have expressed complaints about obstruction of views, increased traffic, lowered property values, and destruction of the fabric of the neighborhood.

A Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) hearing on the proposal was scheduled for Jan. 12.

At the community meeting, real estate attorney Lafe Metz said a reason the development team seemed late to the process was the owner of the recycling plant to be razed on the site, and who entered into a sales agreement, asked for time to tell his long-time employees about the action.

While Mr. Metz apologized if the project seemed rushed, he said that evening’s meeting was the 12th community outreach with various stakeholders, like the Mayor’s Office, Riverlife’s Design Review Committee, South Side Community Council, URA, Dept. of Public Works, and others.

Ms. Rudiak at the Planning Forum meeting that “community” meetings might be better defined.

Ms. Myers said there is a community process in place, but no paid staff to stay vigilant as there was with the defunct South Side Local Development Company.

Mr. Kraus said the city has neighborhood planners, who maybe should be taught to be the first step in the community process.

Ms. Myers said “one of the challenges” of the community process is that the ZBA calendar gives little time to know what is coming up. The developers have the advantage of money, and also much time to prepare for the hearing.

Forum chair Hugh Brannan said the forum has not taken a stand on the proposed apartment complex project. The Community Council is neutral, while the Chamber of Commerce supports it. The DRC did not take a position.

Next, on the neighborhood plan, Ms. Myers said it was sent to the entire committee as a digital document. Full reviews will be conducted every six months. At three and nine months, the plan will be looked at to see how organizations are doing with their responsibilities.

The recent plan update included recommendations that Duquesne University and the South Side Bar & Restaurant Association (SSB&RA) become members of the planning forum. Duquesne would be non-voting, while the SSB&RA would be a voting member.

Ms. Myers said she would follow up on this as she wants both “at this table” by March.

Mr. Kraus said he met with City Theatre personnel recently about arts and entertainment in the South Side. He said a future consideration is having an arts and entertainment representative on the planning forum board.

Attendee James McNeel, managing director of the City Theatre, said the organization has a real commitment to the South Side, and wants to play a role in the neighborhood.

“We need to band together,” he said.

Ms. Rudiak said that “cultural” piece is something the forum may want to think about to enhance the perception of the South Side as a positive place to be.

“I think there’s too much negativity that comes out in the news,” she said.

Mr. Kraus said he attended a meeting in Mayor Peduto’s office recently about making Pittsburgh more of a music city. He said he suggested making it part of the reinvention of East Carson St.

In announcements, the annual South Side Soup Contest will be held on Feb. 18. Tickets, which sell out quickly, go on sale at Noon on Feb. 3.

The Community Council Home Tour will be held on May 20. Ms. Rudiak said to let her know of any potential houses to put on the tour. They must be homes that are currently occupied and not on the market.

Mr. Brannan said the neighborhood plan states the chair position be looked at every two years, which is now. As no one stepped up to assume the role, he will continue for one more term only, he said. He has served as chair for the past 25 years.

The next forum meeting will be on Feb. 14.


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