Public waterways: Buncher's project must not impede river access

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It has taken generations for Pittsburgh's rivers to improve sufficiently so that its waterfronts could become destinations for recreation and relaxation. The last thing that public officials and private developers should be doing is cutting off access.

That could happen if the city and its Urban Redevelopment Authority aren't careful with the Buncher Company's plans for a mixed-use development along the Allegheny River in the Strip District.

The latest fear raised by plans for the 55-acre site from the Veterans Bridge to 21st Street is that a portion of the residential development will turn 18th and 20th streets into private drives near the river.

One page of Buncher's preliminary land development plan appears to show private drives on both of those streets and, in doing so, City Councilman Patrick Dowd said Buncher would be creating a gated community.

That "members only" approach might be a sweet amenity for individuals who wind up living in the Strip District's proposed housing community, but it would mean repeating a mistake from Pittsburgh's industrial past. This time, instead of steel mills and railroads monopolizing riverfront property, the power to exclude would rest in the hands of those affluent enough to purchase the new homes.

In a statement, the URA defended the Buncher plan, noting that its Riverfront Landing development would provide far more access to the river than now is available in the Strip District. That's true, but cordoning off any portions of the new neighborhood is unacceptable, especially considering the tax incentives that are being proposed to assist the developers.

Council is scheduled to take a preliminary vote Wednesday to create a special zoning district for the project, but too many serious questions besides the possibility of private drives persist over the plans.

Riverlife -- a nonprofit that works to improve and preserve Pittsburgh's waterfront -- does not think the plans include enough space to accommodate walking trails in the area. Buncher has yet to prove it has total site control required for the special designation. And the Allegheny Valley Railroad Co. filed a lawsuit last month claiming the plan violates a covenant that requires continued "rail-oriented" use for the Strip's 80-year-old Pittsburgh Produce Terminal, a third of which would be demolished under the Buncher plan.

It is far more important to do this revitalization right than to do it quickly. Council needs reassurances that it will be good for the city as a whole, not just for some people, before giving its stamp of approval.

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