Buncher's Strip District riverfront plan: Go for greatness

Do we want better or do we want the best?

We've seen a remarkable transformation of Pittsburgh's riverfronts in the past couple of decades. It's reached the point that when tourists tell us how pretty the city looks, we no longer argue. But there remains a certain timidity about development.

Somebody wants to build something big and a part of us still says, wow, really? We're too ready to settle for better instead of the best.

That's the worry in the Strip District now. The Buncher Co., the developer that already owns more than a million square feet in the neighborhood, is planning a statement project: apartments and offices on a 55-acre site it owns between the Veterans Bridge and 21st Street. That's great news. Trading a massive, pug-ugly parking lot for that is exactly the kind of 21st-century makeover this city needs.

We ought to make that happen -- in the best possible way.

So we need to get the basics right before the Urban Redevelopment Authority agrees to up to $55 million in tax-increment financing. Councilman Patrick Dowd, a political rival of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, has been blocking that legislation. Mr. Dowd sees too many deviations from the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan. That's the detailed paper that's topped with Mr. Ravenstahl's photo and his pep talk about "an international model of sustainable riverfront development.''

Mr. Dowd is on the board of Riverlife, the organization that has orchestrated the revitalization of more than 10 miles of Pittsburgh's riverside in the past dozen years, and which sees the current URA-backed Buncher plan as a fixable mistake. When Riverlife officials offered to meet me at the site, I made the half-hour walk from my Downtown office through Point State Park to 24th Street, using riverfront trail all the way.

Lisa Schroeder, the Riverlife president, and Stephan Bontrager, its director of communications, were waiting under umbrellas. The proposed development is so close to the river, they said, that further erosion could one day lead to a permanent gap in the trail. As this site isn't squeezed by roadways or rail, it could leave more wiggle room. The Riverfront Vision Plan calls for a 200-foot buffer to prevent unnatural erosion, but even a 95-foot buffer would beat the 50 to 70 feet now in the Buncher plan.

They and Mr. Dowd also worry about one plan that includes a traffic gate at the extensions of 18th and 20th streets into the new residential area. Why? Washington's Landing, less than a mile upriver, shows high-end development can be fully accessible. And anyone who remembers this city's failed pedestrian malls knows that cutting off car traffic can leave a place more isolated and less safe.

Mr. Dowd also points out that the allowance of buildings as high as 15 to 20 stories is well above the six to eight stories other neighborhood stakeholders suggested to protect river views.

The mayor's people are just as sure this is a good deal. Paul Svoboda, special projects manager for the URA, said a 95-foot setback from the river is unrealistic. Fifty feet is the minimum by law, so getting to 70 was a victory and more than what exists for at least one building at SouthSide Works. He also thinks the market will stem any need for tall buildings; Buncher has committed to only 75 to 104 units in its first residential structure.

The URA is saying, in effect, that this beats what's there now, which is private property anyway. Buncher could just build another boring warehouse under current zoning if it chose to do so.

While that's true, when plans call for special tax districts and dabble with closing public streets, the city can make reasonable requests. Council decided this past week to postpone for two weeks any decision on the special zoning district. Amendments seem likely.

"Ten years ago, as a community," Ms. Schroeder of Riverlife said, "we set the goal to make our riverfronts the best. Not to make them better, but really to set a new standard and create a park that would be beautiful and accessible and contribute to economic development.''

I wish all sides wisdom. If setback, access and other questions are resolved, this Buncher development should be a smash. It includes a piazza at the river end of an extended 17th Street that's the size of Market Square. I envision myself going all Marcello Mastroianni over a cup of strong coffee there someday, and I'd like to be surrounded by happy people.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947. First Published November 4, 2012 4:00 AM


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