The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is going ahead with plans to build an urgent-care center on Centre Avenue, despite neighborhood opposition and concerns about the legality of what some view as an expansion of UPMC Shadyside.
The city briefly shut down the project in September, due to concerns about its compliance with zoning rules, but reinstated its building permit after a UPMC lawyer threatened to sue. The building in question, 5231 Centre Ave., was a source of tension with the community two years ago when UPMC housed drug convicts there.
At a city Planning Commission hearing yesterday, William Sittig, an attorney for UPMC, denied that the hospital needs to submit to a public hearing to turn a former assisted living center into a medical building.
"We will be open on Dec. 14," he told the commission. However, UPMC will submit to a hearing on Dec. 8 at the request of Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko, said John Krolicki, vice president of facilities and support services for UPMC.
Mr. Krolicki said the proposed facility would take a load off the emergency room by being open for people who have the flu or a screaming kid with an ear ache.
City Councilman William Peduto, who represents the area, said the facility needs a thorough public process before opening because it is an expansion of the main hospital. City code requires hospital campus expansions to be part of a master plan, which the urgent care center is not, he said.
"There's a process in place for any development, and there's even greater scrutiny within the Baum-Centre corridor," Mr. Peduto said, noting the "delicate balance" between institutions, businesses and homes there. He said the medical giant may have benefitted from "a wink-and-a-nod relationship with the administration" that "is not helping in terms of their relationships with the community."
UPMC's rush to open the facility apparently started around the same time that Baum-Med Group, a partnership, began trying to develop a MedExpress urgent care facility a block away, at 5201 Baum Blvd.
That for-profit development group began negotiating a site plan with city zoning officials in June, but does not expect to open until February.
Attorney Jonathan Kamin, who represents Baum-Med Group, said his clients made "significant renovations ... at significant cost" to comply with city zoning rules.
Mr. Kamin and Mr. Krolicki each say their project started first.
UPMC filed for zoning and building permits on June 29, saying it wanted to build an "office." Permission was granted.
Two years ago, UPMC got city approval to operate an "assisted living" center in the same building, then operated a program for criminal offenders with mental illness and substance abuse issues. Incensed community groups appealed, and UPMC won the case but moved the facility anyway.
This time, community concerns reached Ms. Tymoczko, who revoked zoning approval on Sept. 18, based on the "nature of the use and scope of the project," as she wrote in a letter to the Bureau of Building Inspection. That bureau then yanked the building permit.
Six days later, Mr. Sittig wrote to Ms. Tymoczko demanding that the permit be "promptly re-instated," and threatening "to file mandamus action" -- a legal demand that the city perform a duty.
The permit was promptly reinstated.
Mr. Sittig maintains that the building permit was revoked because the city mistakenly interpreted the proposed use as an extension of UPMC Shadyside. He said it will be a doctor's office building.
"When we cleared it up, they reinstated the permit," he said yesterday.
Mr. Peduto sees the urgent care facility -- dubbed UPMC Shadyside-Urgent Care Center in site plans -- as a hospital expansion, subject to an involved public process.
The Baum-Centre Initiative, an umbrella organization that represents numerous neighborhood groups as their interests pertain to the Baum-Centre corridor, has asked that the matter go through a process, including a final review by City Council.
In a letter to the Planning Commission, Lenore Williams, the initiative's chairwoman, wrote that an "urgent care facility located directly across the street from the entire UPMC Shadyside campus is clearly an expansion of the hospital use," beyond the zoning district that would allow it.
Peggy Ott, a spokeswoman for the Shadyside Action Coalition, a group represented by the initiative, said her group's overall concern "is that UPMC is expanding without going through the proper procedures."
Mr. Peduto charged that the city allows UPMC to make its own rules, which has created "a great division between the neighborhood and the institution."