Proposed addition to Squirrel Hill building raises concerns on parking

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When construction of a three-story building was approved for the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues in Squirrel Hill in 2002, the zoning code required 100 parking spaces for its 63,000 square feet of space.

An underground garage was never built, but the building was. It has a small surface lot for customers of the storefront Rite Aid.

When the zoning board of adjustment last year approved an expansion to five stories without additional parking, several neighborhood stakeholders appealed. A hearing in Common Pleas Court is pending.

The opponents say the building is already out of scale with neighborhood retail and that parking challenges -- which provoke opposition to many proposals citywide -- also are real in Squirrel Hill.

Supporters of the expansion say the tenants are a desirable mix of high-tech professionals whose expanding businesses are good for the neighborhood and that two nearby public lots provide sufficient parking.

Clifford Levine was on the zoning board when the original building proposal was considered. He said exceptions in the zoning code allow the board to consider off-setting conditions as options to upholding parking minimums. The board concluded the lots under the nearby Carnegie Library branch and Jewish Community Center were sufficient, he said.

"In a dense urban area with public transit and walking," he said, "the worst thing to do is to require parking for every building" when there are nearby options.

The underground garage had been a project of the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, which he said "backed out of because it wasn't feasible" economically.

Developer Wayne Zukin bought the building from its original developer, Craig Cozza, shortly after it was built. Along with the Rite Aid, the Silk Elephant restaurant occupies storefront space. Upstairs, Mr. Zukin's tenants are M*Modal and Vivisimo -- locally grown high-tech companies that were bought by MedQuist and IBM, respectively.

"I don't want to minimize parking issues," Mr. Zukin said. "But a lot of folks in our building either walk or ride their bikes. Part of the reason they wanted to have a business in Squirrel Hill is because they live there."

M*Modal -- MedQuist's new name -- develops voice-recognition technology to make medical recording more efficient for doctors. The company has outgrown its space above the Rite Aid; 90 employees work there, and 60 work in the former Barnes & Noble across the street.

Mr. Zukin, president of Zukin Realty, said the two additional stories are proposed to accommodate M*Modal under one roof. He added that they will be set back enough to be relatively unnoticed on the street.

Joe McNamara, spokesman for M• Modal, said the expansion is not a condition of the company's Pittsburgh workers remaining in Squirrel Hill.

"If someone asked, 'Wouldn't you rather have everyone together?' we'd say, 'Well, yeah.' But in this situation, we haven't expressed a preference. We plan to expand where we are, and that's fine. We've got a lot of space in both of those buildings, and our plans call for us to terminate our growth in the space we're in."

Andrew Stewart, a principal of the Silk and Stewart Development Group, owns commercial property near the Rite Aid building and opposes its expansion, as do nine plaintiffs in the appeal.

"It is not consistent with the scale of the properties in the commercial district or reflective of the character of the neighborhood," he said. "As a real estate owner, it is unusual for me to oppose a real estate project. But I believe that adding two more stories is not in the best interest of the neighborhood, and there is not sufficient parking right now."

In 1999, 25 Squirrel Hill stakeholders formed a working group to study the original proposal. In a report to the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, they favored "a properly designed and scaled development" over the "helter-skelter traffic movements and pedestrian conflicts associated with the Gulf station" that had been on that corner.

But they reacted against the density of three stories and reached consensus that parking must be provided.

Since that time, some people remain rankled that the garage wasn't built and that landscaping in the original plan was not completed. The Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition is supporting the proposed expansion on two conditions, said Ray Baum, its president: that the owner include a green roof for stormwater mitigation and contribute to a traffic study.

If he wins the court challenge, Mr. Zukin said he will match public funding for a traffic study. He confirmed that a green roof would be part of the new design.

Mr. Baum said some coalition members are considering getting permit parking on nearby residential streets. But he said the coalition largely is convinced the addition "wouldn't be overwhelming. The whole thing came down to whether we want more people working and living and spending money in Squirrel Hill. M*Modal is the kind of company we want to attract."

neigh_city - Transportation - businessnews

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk


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