Here’s Something to Think About By Raymond N. Baum, President Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition info@SHUC.org What is the future of Squirrel Hill’s commercial district? What do we want it to be? What can we do about it? Are we missing out on opportunities to attract and hold businesses and residents? I think that it’s time for us to gather the data and convene the community and city government for a serious and forward looking discussion. The core business district includes Forbes Avenue from Wightman to Denniston, Murray Avenue from Forbes all the way to Morrowfield and Forward Avenue southwest from Shady to lower Beechwood. Most of the buildings are old. Some are just stuck onto the fronts of old houses and while many buildings are in good condition and worthy of preservation, many others are not. Almost nothing new has been constructed in this area for over forty years without a zoning variance. Many of the challenges reported in the Murray Forward Conditions Report (on our website at www.shuc.org ) discussed on our last issue apply to the entire business district. The Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition’s 1990 Master Plan (also on our website), called for denser use of our commercial district’s transit corridors with a mix of retail and professional space and more mid to high-rise multi-family developments. Based on this and the community’s desire to promote commerce, employment and quality of life, the Coalition has supported new residential and commercial developments even when zoning variances were needed. The challenges to new construction in our commercial district are many and are substantial: Zoning is restrictive and inflexible. Most properties are small, shallow and difficult to develop without the assembly of multiple parcels. Real Estate is expensive and assembly of multiple parcels exponentially more expensive. Site development costs continue to rise. Parking is in short supply and very few properties can support on-site parking. Stormwater causes flooding and sewage backups plague most of the commercial district. Most of the business district is zoned Local Neighborhood Commercial (LNC). Only the Maxon Tower site is zoned for a multifamily high-rise. Parts of lower Forward are zoned Park and Open Space. With the exception of the 1660 Murray Avenue Condominium (behind the Sixth Presbyterian Church), there are no special planning districts that provide planning flexibility like those that have helped parts of East Liberty, Oakland and Downtown accommodate planned development. Under LNC, most new development in our commercial district simply isn’t feasible. While LNC permits a wide range of uses (running from hotels to most office, business, medical, apartment and community purposes) the restrictions are stifling: Maximum height is three stories (up to 45 feet) Maximum floor area to land ratio (FAR) is 2:1 Only 90% of the land can be covered Set-backs are required Significant off street parking must be provided by the owner on site or very nearby In our commercial district, LNC fights the existing urban and financial realities. Most buildings along Forbes, Murray and Forward were built under prior zoning and don’t comply with current zoning. Most, if not all, financially feasible new development requires zoning variances, a process that is challenging, expensive, time consuming and unpredictable. Developers are leery about investing the time and money necessary to obtain an option to purchase the site, obtain environmental studies, pay for plans and then throw themselves upon the mercy of the Zoning Hearing Board and then, if a neighbor appeals a variance, the courts. Variances are, by law, difficult to obtain. Our Zoning Board is enlightened and reasonable and our community is generally supportive, but variance applications are still an expensive crap shoot. If we want to attract new investment, provide rental and condominium apartment options to new residents and those moving out of larger houses, increase our businesses customer base and enhance the business mix, we need a plan. To come up with an effective plan and have it reflected in our zoning code and the City of Pittsburgh’s capital budget, we need data, including studies on parking, traffic, transportation, consumer demand, housing supply and demand, storm and sanitary sewers, and stormwater solutions. I think it’s time to convene all constituencies to work together to determine what we want and how to get it. Who wants to join in? Your thoughts are welcome on our web site or emailed to info@SHUC.org.