Two weeks ago the Buncher Company presented Riverfront Landing, a 37-acre development on property in the Strip District, to the Planning Commission requesting the creation of a Specially Planned (SP) zoning district. Last week, Councilman Patrick Dowd released a letter addressed to Mayor Ravenstahl in which it was revealed that a $50 million dollar Tax Increment Financing (TIF) package is proposed for, presumably, site improvements. This week, the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed zoning district, where the public will have its first opportunity to voice their opinions regarding this several hundred million dollar project.
This public hearing is far too late in the process for meaningful input.
The SP district classification is for developments over 10 acres in size, which have citywide impacts and currently requires the Planning Commission to hold a public hearing prior to recommending approval. Only then can it proceed before City Council. But at this point the design process has pretty much established the most important elements of the master plan – the streets and blocks that will define and shape the public realm for decades.
The big picture and public criticism in the shaping of our city is lost, with comments mostly directed towards developer-focused concerns regarding proposed building heights, building materials, what type of suburban-style landscaping “buffer” to use, and as always, parking. These smaller-picture concerns shield the developer from poorly made urban design decisions – it is much harder to redesign infrastructure than it is to choose a different color of brick.
Is there room for improvement in this process? I believe there is. Suggestions for improving the process through incorporating greater public involvement:
• For projects that have a citywide impact and/or receive public funding, a public participatory process should be required well ahead of the Planning Commission briefing – optimally before the designers put pen to paper. This process should engage the development team, city agencies, civic leaders, businesses, residents, and other stakeholders in a meaningful and productive dialogue in creating not “developments” but “communities.”
• For projects that front our rivers, it should be a given that we shouldn’t see parking garages from the river’s edge or from the water. One of Pittsburgh’s most characteristic features, we deserve urban waterfront edges which promote a continuous, active environment incorporating well planned and designed spaces.
• New methods of delivering architectural projects – IPD and BIM – provide the opportunity to change traditional roles of collaboration. Why shouldn’t this extend also to how developers collaborate with the public? As part of the preliminary land development plan application, a project web presence should be established that incorporates an interactive 3D model of the project and context, allowing the public to more fully understand the ramifications of the proposed design.
• The process – specifically, public meetings – should be facilitated by Department of City Planning staff, not by developers. The primary obligation of the professional planner is to serve the public interest – this includes taking non-biased approaches to development. DCP staff should be able to answer the tough questions developers are too eager to avoid. Just as important, staff should have the power to ensure proposed projects adhere to adopted plans conceived through the public process, in this case the recently completed Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan and the in-process Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard Plan.
Riverfront Landing has the opportunity to provide a model of how we develop the river’s edge and the Strip District – a legacy project not just for Buncher, but for the city. To their credit, Buncher has stated that they feel something special can be created in the Strip. But it is up to us to make sure the Planning Commission establishes development provisions and regulations ensuring that Buncher delivers on this promise.
Looking for a way to comment on this project? Attend the Planning Commission meeting at 2:00 PM Tuesday, June 12th, at the Robin Civic Building 200 Ross Street.