A massive 37-acre residential and office development in the Strip District won the approval of the city planning commission Tuesday despite the objections of some merchants who raised concerns about its impact on one of the city's most distinctive neighborhoods.
The commission voted unanimously to recommend the creation of a specially planned district to guide development on the Allegheny riverfront tract, turning back a bid by some of its opponents for a delay so that they and others could have more input into the project.
"I don't want to lose what the Strip is," said attorney Harvey Robins, who owns property on Penn Avenue. "From looking at this I get the impression the Strip is going to be overrun by this. You're going to lose the Strip."
Jim Wholey, who runs Wholey's Market on Penn, feared that the Buncher Co. development could disrupt parking and the "fragile nature of the Strip District and all the merchants."
"I would like a little more information from this development," he said. "I'm nervous with the free hand that Buncher would have in developing that property."
Buncher is proposing at least 750 units of housing, a mix of apartments and townhouses, plus retail and office development, as part of the Riverfront Landing project. It also plans to demolish the western third of the historic produce terminal to clear a path to extend 17th Street to the river.
The rest of the terminal would be redeveloped into retail and office space. The three remaining produce wholesalers, once the terminal's lifeblood, probably will be moved elsewhere.
Despite the concerns, commission members refused to delay their vote to allow for another public meeting on the project. They said Buncher and the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority already have conducted numerous meetings on the development, including a lengthy historic review process over the future of the produce terminal.
"At some point, it's time to move forward," commission member John Valentine said.
Another member, Kirk Burkley, noted that Buncher will have to come before the planning commission again to get approval of individual projects within the specially planned district and that there would be opportunities for additional input at those times.
"This to me looks like a wonderful project," he added.
In addition, Michael Kutzer, Buncher vice president of real estate, said he's open to more meetings with the community and, in fact, anticipates them.
Under the plan, Buncher hopes to build 40 to 55 townhouses or apartments directly behind the produce terminal. But most of the housing would be located in larger buildings ranging from four to 15 stories in height, a handful of them near the river. Apartment or office buildings closer to Smallman could be four to 20 stories high.
Lisa Schroeder, Riverlife president and CEO, expressed concern that the proposed riverfront buildings were set back only 50 to 70 feet from the river. She said a minimum of 95 feet is required to reverse deteriorating riverbanks between the Veterans Bridge and 21st Street. She noted that the average setback between the water and buildings on the North Shore is 200 feet.
"A 95-foot setback will ensure enough room to repair and restore failing riverbanks while leaving space for landscaping that creates natural habitat, manages stormwater runoff and incorporates public amenities," she said.
But the commission did not act on her suggestion. Mr. Kutzer said that increasing the distance buildings are set back from the river could force Buncher to build even taller structures on the land because of the tight space.
Some commission members didn't seem to think that was a bad idea, saying riverfront high-rises could add vibrancy and energy to the Strip. But others urged Buncher to exercise restraint.
"The Strip is a very iconic thing," member Jim Costello said. "We do need to maintain the flavor of the Strip and the whole atmosphere."
The commission's recommendation for the creation of a specially planned district now goes before city council for action. At that level, Councilman Patrick Dowd has been holding up legislation to create a tax-increment financing district of up to $50 million for the project until Mayor Luke Ravenstahl explains how the money would be used and provides details on "interlocking agreements and obligations" between the city and Buncher surrounding the development.
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262. First Published June 13, 2012 4:30 AM