City, Pitt, Hill finally agree on Oak Hill project

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A bitter multiyear fight over 12 acres of prime city land ended yesterday with a compromise among the University of Pittsburgh, Hill District residents and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

The deal paves the way for the $90 million development of 450 new homes in the Oak Hill community atop the Hill, and a major expansion of the university's athletic fields on some of the land residents had coveted.

It was pounded out in an hours-long meeting in the mayor's office Wednesday and phone conversations that went on until midnight, a happy ending to five years of accusations, protests and lawsuits over the land.

It also relieves anxiety among many of the 639 families of Oak Hill, who had lived in the dilapidated Allequippa Terrace public housing project that previously occupied the site. They had feared their new community would fall into similar isolation and disrepair.

"We compromised, so that in the end, we got what was promised us, and the university will get what they need," said Eloise McDonald, president of the Oak Hill Resident Council, breaking down in tears while addressing the Pittsburgh Housing Authority board.

Boston-based developer Beacon/Corcoran Jennison, or BCJ, which had sued Pitt and lost, and was headed for a legal battle with the authority, will remain in charge of building and managing Oak Hill. Construction could start in the summer of 2008.

The housing will sit on a site stretching from Oak Hill toward the Hill District's Reed and Kirkpatrick streets and Centre Avenue. It will include 195 rentals, 205 for-sale homes and 50 units the nature of which will be decided later. The development will feature a town square, small park and community center.

Because many homes will be market rate, Oak Hill will be transformed from a low-income community to a neighborhood in which most residents are middle-income or above, said Marty Jones, president of the development company.

"A low-income community is like a public housing site," said Ms. McDonald. "We don't want to live like that."

Besides adding amenities for students and taxable homes to the city, the deal provides an opportunity to connect Oak Hill with other parts of the Hill District that are being rebuilt, said Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who represents the Hill District.

Under terms of the deal, Pitt will pay $4 million for the 12-acre Robinson Court site. It will become the site of one soccer field and one baseball field, both built to NCAA regulations, and possibly a softball field.

"Our baseball team has been playing on a completely nonregulation field," said Paul Supowitz, Pitt's vice chancellor for governmental relations. The existing field, east of Robinson Court, may become a running track.

In addition to the $4 million sale price, which will help fund the housing, Pitt is committing $1 million to programs for Oak Hill residents, and around $2 million in lease payments for 20,000 square feet in commercial buildings in the new development. Pitt will use most of the commercial space for unspecified purposes and 3,000 square feet will be set aside for community use.

The total university contribution -- $7 million -- is double what Pitt had offered for the land since 2005, when it matched a $3.5 million bid several developers made in 2002.

In addition to Pitt's payments, the housing authority will invest $9 million that had long been committed to Oak Hill. The city will pay $1 million toward the homes and join with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to build $12 million in roads and sewers.

The rest of the $90 million package consists of state tax credits, money from the developer and the sale of homes.

The trade-off has Oak Hill residents receiving that rarest of commodities -- vacant land near Oakland -- and Pitt kicking in money that neither the city nor the developer could raise.

"Everybody -- BCJ, the residents of Oak Hill, Pitt, myself -- came to the realization that without a significant contribution from each, this project could not have moved forward," said Mr. Ravenstahl.

Ms. Payne credited the mayor with ending a contentious process that had residents "hitting brick walls after brick walls."

The Oak Hill Residents Council approved the arrangement Wednesday night, and the housing authority board approved it yesterday.

In 1996, the residents and authority chose Beacon/Corcoran Jennison to tear down the 1,749-unit Allequippa Terrace and build a new, mixed-income community.

Relations worsened, though, when the authority accused the developer of cost overruns, and then launched a series of efforts to sell off pieces of land that had been slated for more homes. The elected resident council first supported Pitt's position, but then swung to the developer after new members were elected.

The developer sued Pitt for allegedly interfering with its plans to develop Robinson Court, but saw the case dismissed. Last year the authority told the developer that it was terminating any agreement to build more homes and would seek another private partner.

Housing authority Executive Director A. Fulton Meachem Jr. said the deal starts "a healing process, too, between the University of Pittsburgh and the residents and the housing authority."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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