Buncher plan would limit public access to Strip District in Pittsburgh

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Buncher Co. wants to turn part of a Strip District site into a "gated community," limiting access to the Allegheny River in a way that counters the city's vision plan for waterfront development, Pittsburgh Councilman Patrick Dowd said, raising new objections to the project ahead of a vote on zoning legislation Wednesday.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority said Mr. Dowd's assertions are "overstated." While access to a residential area would be limited, the authority said in a statement, the overall mixed-use development would replace Buncher's existing parking lots with buildings and amenities that draw people to the river.

A Buncher representative could not be reached.

Mr. Dowd said Buncher's preliminary land development plan shows gates at 18th and 20th streets that would turn those streets into "little private drives" between Waterfront Place and the river.

One page of Buncher's plan appears to show private drives at 18th and 20th streets. Another page shows a private drive at 18th and a possible private drive at 20th.

"They are literally creating a gated community in the Strip District," Mr. Dowd said.

He noted that the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan, unveiled in February 2011, emphasizes the importance of reconnecting Pittsburghers to the river after a long separation enforced by railroad lines and industrial buildings. While the riverfront blueprint calls for the river to be visible and accessible, Mr. Dowd said, Buncher would provide no access between 17th Street, where a piazza overlooking the river is planned, and 21st Street.

The vision plan makes recommendations for redeveloping a six-mile stretch of riverfront between Downtown and Highland Park, an area that includes the Riverfront Landing site. Riverlife, a group that helped write the vision plan, calls the 6-mile stretch one of the most underdeveloped urban riverfronts in the nation.

Like Mr. Dowd, Riverlife has concerns about the level of public access reflected in Buncher's preliminary land development plan. It encouraged Buncher to leave enough space at the Allegheny's edge for a "world-class" riverfront park similar to North Shore Riverfront Park with its 3 acres of lawn, water steps and public art.

The authority stressed that Buncher's plan for offices, homes, a hotel and retail establishments would create a "community" and provide far more riverfront access than currently is available in the Strip District. It noted that much of the Buncher site now is a "sea of parking" and said plans include a "gracious and expansive grand entrance" to Riverfront Landing on 17th Street.

"This is not public property that Buncher is taking from the city to turn into something private," the authority noted. "Just the opposite is true; this is private property owned by Buncher that they have gone to extensive lengths to provide public access to, so that the national/international draw of the Strip District also includes a robust riverfront experience as a significant amenity."

Riverfront Landing would stretch from the Veterans Bridge to 21st Street between Smallman Street and the river. The project is controversial partly because it would involve the authority's sale of the historic produce terminal to Buncher and the likely relocation of remaining produce vendors. Buncher would demolish one-third of the building to extend 17th Street from Smallman Street to the river.

The project also has encountered a raft of questions from Mr. Dowd, who since July has been holding up legislation for a tax-increment financing plan of up to $50 million. Mr. Dowd said he hasn't been given sufficient information about how the money would be used. He's also questioned the potential impact of Buncher's legal dispute with Allegheny Valley Railroad, which claims an easement across the project site.

In its statement, the authority stressed that approval of the tax-increment financing plan would provide the money necessary to build public infrastructure and make much of the development publicly accessible.

Without the financing plan, "it is more likely that such infrastructure, if built, would remain private," the authority said. "Same goes for the quality of the riverfront amenities/improvements that get built. If we have the money, we can ensure a high-quality riverfront design. If we don't, then we're stuck trying to raise funding from the federal government or our cash-strapped state."

Council is scheduled to take a preliminary vote Wednesday on separate legislation that would create a special zoning district for Riverfront Landing. At that meeting, Mr. Dowd will have an opportunity to air his concerns about public access to the river and what he sees as other possible departures from the riverfront master plan.

In its statement, the authority said it is speaking with consultants about how to implement bicycle and transit-related recommendations in the riverfront vision plan.

Riverlife has criticized Buncher's proposed a 70-foot development setback from the river, saying that isn't enough space to preserve an existing walking trail along the crumbling riverbank let alone restore habitat lost during the city's heavy industrial period and create a park where people can picnic, fish, launch kayaks and bicycle. Riverlife has offered a compromise.

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Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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