Former Pittsburgh mayor tells council to rethink Strip District river project

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Buncher Co.'s proposed Strip District project falls well short of Pittsburgh's world-class standards for riverfront development, former Mayor Tom Murphy said Wednesday, urging the company and city to return to the drawing board and work on a plan that builds on the Downtown, North Shore and South Side success stories that he helped to write.

Mr. Murphy, who made re-imagining the riverfronts a priority as mayor from 1994 to 2006, made a rare return to city hall to speak to city council on legislation that would create a special zoning district for Buncher's 55-acre mixed-use Riverfront Landing. Councilman Patrick Dowd circulated 15 proposed amendments, and council postponed a vote for one week.

"This is a good beginning, but it does not get to where I believe Pittsburgh should be in terms of development," Mr. Murphy, who now works for the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, said of Buncher's proposal.

Former mayor takes issue with Strip District project

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy stepped back into the spotlight today to take issue with a proposed Strip District project he says is not "world class." (Video by Andrew Rush; 12/5/2012)

Mr. Murphy's objections included riverfront parking lots, lack of amenities to draw people to the river, gated streets and a lack of public space. "Barely 10 percent of the development is public space," he said.

Outside council chambers, Mr. Murphy said, "The quality of this development ought to be raised up, and I think council has an opportunity to do that." Noting that much of the site would appear to be used for parking lots, he said, "I think that's the absolute worst use of riverfront property."

Buncher vice president Michael Kutzer, who attended the meeting, declined comment except to say he hoped to see the zoning legislation passed next week.

Yarone Zober, chairman of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chief of staff, said Buncher's plan would create more public access to the river than likely ever has existed on the site.

Part of the site now is used for parking lots, and public access is limited to a crumbling riverfront trail. Mr. Zober said Buncher would provide additional public space and build roads to get people there.

"We can always debate about whether that's enough, but the fact of the matter is, it's 55 acres of privately owned land," Mr. Zober said.

Council members received Mr. Murphy favorably, but it remains to be seen whether his comments will prompt their support for Mr. Dowd's amendments, which would require Buncher to develop the site in accordance with the city's 2011 Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan. The vision plan requires greater access to the river than Buncher has proposed -- no gated streets, for example -- and also would force the developer to create a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly environment.

The amendments also would suspend enactment of the special zoning district until Buncher resolves a legal dispute with Allegheny Valley Railroad, which claims an easement across the project site.

Riverfront Landing would stretch from the Veterans Bridge to 21st Street between Smallman Street and the Allegheny River. Buncher has asked council not only for a special zoning district but for a tax-increment financing plan of up to $50 million, which would be used to build roads and other infrastructure.

Mr. Dowd, who has raised numerous concerns about the project, said he invited Mr. Murphy to give context to the city's efforts to reinvent the riverfronts.

As a boy, Mr. Murphy said, his mother sent him out with instructions to be home by nightfall and avoid the polluted rivers. "We looked at the rivers in Pittsburgh as just something to get across," he said. "We built a lot of bridges to do that."

As mayor, he said, he worked to make the rivers the touchstone of the city's economic and aesthetic transformation. He said he and others pushed to have high-profile developments -- including PNC Park, David L. Lawrence Convention Center and corporate offices -- face the riverfronts.

Mr. Murphy said he goaded the Steelers and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center into moving South Side projects back from the Monongahela River to facilitate development of a public recreational trail. The Steelers have a training complex on the South Side, and UPMC has its Sports Performance Complex there.

The compromise did not come easily, Mr. Murphy said, noting discussions with Steelers and UPMC executives became so heated during a Duquesne Club tete-a-tete that the waiter told them to simmer down. After observing public use of the Mon riverfront years later, Mr. Murphy said, Steelers owner Dan Rooney called him and said: "We did the right thing, didn't we?"

"That's what you need to do now," Mr. Murphy told council.

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Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548. First Published December 6, 2012 5:00 AM


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