Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Buncher Co. Gets Strip District Zoning it Wanted

The Vantage Point: Dr. W.J. McKibbon

Who could possibly have doubted it?

Councilman Patrick Dowd has raised numerous concerns about the project, including the possibility of gated streets in a residential part of the development and what he described as an inadequate buffer between proposed buildings and the riverfront.

He has also raised concerns about Buncher's proposed purchase of the historic produce terminal, now owned by the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority. Buncher wants to demolish one-third of the building to extend 17th Street to the river, and Mr. Dowd said Monday that the developer would use at least part of the building as a "crappy strip mall." (P-G, Joe Smydo)

In response:

"He seems to be angry about a great many things recently. He usually gets that way around election time," said Yarone Zober, the mayor's chief of staff. (Smydo, Something completely different)

This was a tough one for this blog. On one hand, the opportunity for good things to develop on those parcels was always clear and tempting. And there was an extent to which we really wanted to demonstrate that we here are more than reactionary nay-sayers.

On the other hand, as time and the public discussion wore on, that very potential started to work against the urge to move quickly. It became less about breathing fiscal life into some barren asphalt, or cramming residents into a shopping district, than it was about pivoting Downtown and setting the tone for a whole riverfront expansion of it.

The revelation about private drives did not help matters. The extent to which surface parking will be tolerated came as a surprise. Assumptions were made as to the degree to which river life and riverside recreation would ultimately be accommodated. And former Mayor Murphy's recollections about warring with the Rooneys on the North Shore yet later being thanked by them was illuminating.

Why was a majority of City Council so intent to press forward?

"I guess I just don't have as many issues with the development as you do," replied Councilman Corey O'Connor to Dowd's presentation of proposed amendments. One of the few who spoke directly to them. Because that's how these things typically work -- listen politely to all the facts and arguments provided, remain silent in response and vote the other way anyway.

I'm not quite sure how it's possible, to have no issues with the development. There was a lot to improve, and one would think, a lot of leverage to do it with.

That was the alarming part of this process.

"It's their land! We can't tell them what to do on their land!"

Well, to an extent we absolutely can. That's what zoning is. It is really, honestly nothing else but that. Every time we hand over a ton of land or development rights to a sports team or another developer -- we can't tell them what to do on it, but we should be able to tell them categorically what not to do. The extent to which the "We have no choice!" argument was cavalierly put forward was a little disconcerting.

There is no turning back, once zoning is done. If they are permitted to do something at the outset, they can do it for all time, period.

Council President Darlene Harris mentioned to the Comet how this is all going to return to discussion of the Produce Terminal. The Produce Terminal. But if the mayor's Historic Review Commission recommends demolition of it on Buncher's terms, it would take six votes on Council to gainsay that. I'm not liking those odds.

Harris also insisted that development will begin with only the northeastern-most parcel and continue east, up the river. That nothing is going to be built on the majority of the land we have been looking at for at least several years. That interpretation has been disputed.

The question remains, why negotiate so little and move so quickly? It's uncomfortable to contemplate, but was the argument that Mayor Ravenstahl couldn't get something done for the business community that terrifying, that they pulled out all the stops? Raised all the sails? Made all the deals? Frankly, given the rhetorical bombs being dropped on Buncher's vision and the lack of any vocal defense of it, I didn't see a way the thing could pass after a certain point. I underestimated them.

Dowd's many rejected amendments still exist, somewhere. On canary, or perhaps goldenrod paper. Mayor Peduto said he didn't see in them anything that came out of the "Dowd playbook" (not sure if that was an insult or a compliment) but from the Allegheny Riverfront vision and others, and supported them all. Councilor Kraus said he was deeply impressed with Dowd's work and his exhaustive knowledge of the issue. Councilor Rudiak was plainly flabbergasted that something so wonderful appeared on the Council's table.

But no more votes. Not piecemeal, not for any single one of the scores of them. Nada.

The whole affair places Dowd at an interesting political crossroads, incidentally. He has gone quite far criticizing Mayor Ravenstahl for this, not to mention for the pensions strategy implementation and on character issues, or at least leadership issues. And suddenly Council members O'Connor or possibly Harris have supplanted him as the new swing votes.

It seems Councilor Dowd can either "reset" his political posture over the new year's break, seeking to recapture the middle and all that comes with it. Or he can press forward as part of a faction whose members' style and whose strategic capacity are not everything he desires -- but where his own politics seem most naturally to belong. Stand where stands and let the chips fall around him.


I guess he's going with Option B.