High-wire act: Council must leverage the best project for the Strip

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City Council has an unusually thin tightrope to walk today.

If it approves creation of a special zoning designation for a proposed development in the Strip District by the Buncher Co., it risks setting in motion a plan fraught with potential risks, including inadequate river access.

If it doesn't approve it, council risks walking away from the possibility of a vast improvement over the current use of prime waterfront property and even the prospect that an adverse development would result.

So what should council do?

If it cannot step carefully, it should step back, just like a performer who decides more preparation is necessary before putting a toe on that thin wire stretched above an enrapt audience.

The question members face today is whether to declare as a special zoning district a 55-acre parcel fronting the Allegheny River, from the Veterans Bridge to 21st Street. Doing so would allow Buncher to move ahead on plans for housing and other development.

That designation would remove some of the public processes and regulatory hurdles that normally are required for such projects.

Councilman Patrick Dowd is proposing several changes that would address some of the questions raised about the plan. One would require the building line to move 95 feet back from the Allegheny, an idea favored by Riverlife and other advocates. Another would hold the plan in abeyance until a right-of-way dispute with the Allegheny Valley Railroad is resolved, because important parts of the plan could not go forward if a lawsuit filed by the railway is successful.

Council should be sure this plan is the best the city can get before approving the overall concept. Yes, the property is privately owned and Buncher could decide to walk away from its proposal, leave the land undeveloped or, worse, utilize its current zoning, which allows for industrial use. But that doesn't mean council members don't have considerable leverage.

Buncher is looking for accommodations. It wants to purchase the Pittsburgh Produce Terminal, which is owned by the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, and tear down part of the 80-year-old building. It wants a $50 million tax increment financing plan. Third, and most important at this stage, the real estate company wants the special zoning designation.

Whether through amendments or delay, council must use the influence it still has today to persuade Buncher to transform this key property into the kind of enviable, urban residential neighborhood that Pittsburgh and the Strip deserve.

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