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Strip developer rejects increasing setback from Allegheny River

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, 9:29 a.m.

The Buncher Co. could be flexible on aspects of its $400 million plan to remake the Strip District, but can't budge for river advocates who want a larger buffer along the Allegheny River, the company president said Wednesday.

Thomas J. Balestrieri, president and CEO, said the development won't work with a setback larger than 70 feet because there's not enough room to build otherwise.

“If there's anything that they want that we can address, we will address it. Amend it to what you want. If we can live with it, we'll live with it. If we can't, we won't do it.”

Buncher and Pittsburgh City Council have been at a standoff for months over zoning changes and tax-increment financing needed to develop 55 acres of mostly vacant parking lots between 11th and 21st streets and Smallman Street to the river.

The company has proposed a mix of residential, office and retail space with landscaping, a riverfront trail and a wide boulevard along 17th Street ending at a plaza the size of Market Square at the river.

But Councilman Patrick Dowd says the plan conflicts with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan and an ongoing study of a green boulevard running from the Strip to Highland Park. Pittsburgh earmarked more than $2 million, mostly from federal grants, for the studies.

The mayor's office referred questions to Urban Redevelopment Authority officials, who said the project meets goals laid out in the plans.

Dowd said the biggest hangup is the amount of property set aside for a riverfront buffer. The riverfront plan seeks to restore the river's edge to its natural gradual slope and create a public area with a tree-lined canopy and walking trail along the bank.

It says a 200-foot-wide buffer would be required to do that and provide room to reintroduce habitat for a return of the river's natural environment and wildlife.

But city ordinance requires only 50 feet between new buildings and the river. River advocates, including Dowd, say they will settle for a 95-foot buffer.

Balestrieri said Buncher compromised and offered 70 feet.

“This is not just for the public,” Dowd said. “We know for a fact that this adds value for the developer. This adds value to the real estate that the developer owns.”

Balestrieri, however, said 95 feet squeezes the development and makes it “impossible.”

“If somebody wants to talk about how high a building needs to be, I'll talk about that,” he said. “But if they tell me we absolutely need 95 feet along the riverfront, I would tell them that's impossible.

“I won't build it.”

He noted that Robert Rubinstein, the URA's acting director, and special projects manager Paul Svoboda said the riverfront plan calls for a development such as Buncher's in the Strip, and the city can't force a larger setback on land the company owns.

Svoboda said the company has worked with the city on “something really special. I don't think there's any way you can say with a straight face that this doesn't conform with the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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