Riverlife Task Force takes casino to court

Group is asking state Supreme Court to stop North Shore garage

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The Riverlife Task Force is taking its battle over the size of the parking garage for the Majestic Star casino to the state Supreme Court, drawing a sharp rebuke from casino developer Don Barden.

The task force and two North Side residents, Randy Zotter and Robert Blackwell, appealed the Jan. 14 city planning commission approval of the casino and garage design to the high court, listing a host of procedural and design-related issues.

They are asking the court to either reverse and vacate the commission's decision and stop building permits from being issued for the 3,800-space garage or to appoint a special master to determine whether the design complies with city zoning requirements.

In a statement, Lisa Schroeder, Riverlife executive director, said the 10-level garage varied from the original design, which showed part of the structure underground. In the final design, all 10 levels are above ground. And the garage, at 119 feet, is nearly twice as high as the casino.

"This is not the project that was publicly depicted and is a significant change which violates the Pittsburgh Zoning Code. We believe we have no choice but to go directly to the Supreme Court," she said.

But Mr. Barden, who broke ground on the casino Dec. 11 after a year's worth of delays, which included battles with his North Shore neighbors, blasted the move, calling it "unreasonable and off base." He accused Riverlife of using "all kinds of underhanded tactics to derail us" just because it doesn't like the look of the garage.

"They want to be a super-government authority under this guise of a non-profit and I don't think that's their role. The government has a role for planning -- the city, the county and the state -- and I think they're trying to usurp" that, he said.

Mr. Barden said he did not know what impact the appeal would have on construction or the casino's May 1, 2009, opening date until he conferred with his attorneys.

"Right now, weather permitting, we're still proceeding at this moment. But who knows what the impact of this will be until we can assess it," he said.

In an effort to expedite casino-related appeals, the state Legislature provided for direct review by the state Supreme Court. Mr. Barden already has been through that once with traffic-related appeals filed by the Steelers and the Pirates, which took about four months to resolve.

As for the garage, Riverlife and others in the local design community fear the massive structure has the potential to overwhelm the glass and steel casino and mar views from Mount Washington, the South Side, and other locations.

In response to criticism, Mr. Barden and his company PITG Gaming agreed to install decorative screening on the south side of the garage facing the Ohio River at a cost of about $1 million.

In its appeal, Riverlife said the elimination of two underground levels of the garage represented a 300 percent change in the relationship between the height of the structure and the casino itself.

It also argued the planning commission erred in not calling the garage an accessory structure, which is limited to 20 feet in height under city zoning laws without a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko has said the casino and garage were considered one structure and, because of that, the garage could be higher and was in compliance with city requirements.

Riverlife also accused the planning commission of a number of procedural violations, including failure to give proper notice for earlier casino-related hearings. It asserted approvals for casino demolition, foundation and structural steel work should be voided as a result.

Responded Planning Commission Chairwoman Wrenna Watson, "I feel confident the decision we made was the appropriate decision to be made."

Mr. Barden accused Riverlife of "sensationalizing" concerns about the garage, saying the structure and the casino met all building, zoning and height requirements. He said nearby Heinz Field was "taller and not as aesthetically attractive" as his development.

"So I think it's a very biased approach they are taking," he said.

As the garage battle heads for court, architects unveiled plans yesterday for a brick promenade, at least 20 feet wide, that will run in front of casino and serve as an extension of the North Shore riverfront trail.

The promenade will be open at all times to trail users, who will share the space with casino patrons. Architect Michael Stern said there was not enough room to create separate sections for trail users and patrons, as one commission member suggested.

"Our strategy is to create an urban type of shared space," he said.

Some commission members also raised concerns about plans to play recorded music from speakers situated along the promenade and the amount of decorative light to emanate from a 90-foot drum atrium, the casino's centerpiece, and its effects on residents Downtown and elsewhere.

Mr. Stern said all lighting will meet Dark Sky requirements so it doesn't interfere with the Carnegie Science Center observatory next door.

Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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