Mixed-use neighborhoods finding a place in Western Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Kevin Dougherty frequently drove by a swath of untouched McCandless land as a teen growing up in the North Hills. Two decades ago, he began dreaming of developing that stretch of McKnight Road.

His dream grew in size and scope and became realized in McCandless Crossing, which is what is known as a mixed-used project.

The design nationally has been a trend for more than decade but has spurted in recent years across Western Pennsylvania's suburban communities, particularly as the Great Recession began to wind down.

Subdivisions and sprawl are giving way to higher-density developments that combine commercial, retail and residential features in close proximity, such as those found in urban neighborhoods.

These projects often tap features many urban residents say they love about their lifestyles: Public plazas, parks and sidewalks.

“People want to be with people. They don't want to be isolated,” said Dougherty, owner of AdVenture Development LLC in Selma, N.C.

“I don't think the days of suburban sprawl are out there anymore.”

In addition to the $100 million, 130-acre McCandless Crossing, which started in 2009, other live-work-play projects under way include Newbury in South Fayette and Park Place in Cranberry.

In the wings is one of the largest projects, Cool Valley, a 900-acre development proposed for Cecil that could cost about $1 billion to build. Its developer has an option to buy most of the land but has not yet closed on it.

Smaller projects include retail stores and apartments proposed for the Castle Shannon light rail station, and Siena at St. Clair, an office and retail center paired with a residential neighborhood planned for the former Consol property in Upper St. Clair.

The trend of mixed-use developments — sometimes called traditional neighborhood developments — started in the mid-1990s in places around Washington, Chicago, New York, Seattle and other large metropolitan areas, said Chris Leinberger, a visiting fellow for metropolitan policy with the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank based in Washington.

“Much of the urbanization of the next generation is going to be seen in the suburbs,” said Leinberger, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business who has studied suburban urbanization around the country. “This is being driven by the market. We have overbuilt driveable suburban places. We just have too many of them.”

A 2011 survey by the National Association of Realtors found that nearly six out of 10 home buyers surveyed preferred mixed-use neighborhoods, where they can walk to stores and businesses.

Sixty percent of future growth in Western Pennsylvania will take place in the suburbs, Leinberger predicts.

Adam McGurk, assistant township manager and planning director in Moon, said mixed-use developments may well drive other growth.

Moon officials created a village-style overlay district to help inject high-density residential components, such as apartments or townhomes to its busy main commercial area along Beaver Grade Road. It is an option some communities are using to transform traffic-dependent commercial areas to fit a more modern planning mode.

“When you look at communities like Moon, they were built years ago and relied on the automobile,” McGurk said. “This gives us a chance to create little pockets of mixed-use.”

“I look at these projects as potentially triggering other development,” McGurk said. “It can be the best of both worlds to some extent, creating an urban feel without city living.”

In Cranberry, Don Rodgers started planning Park Place about 10 years ago, when township officials began showing interest in increasing residential density as a way to bolster revenues and tax base but using less land than required through traditional development.

Marketing materials for Cranberry's Park Place tout it as a “throwback to small towns of the 1940s and 1950s.”

Single-family homes and townhouses on tree-lined streets will mix around a Main Street featuring street-level retail shops with upper-floor apartment units in the 195-acre village that abuts Graham Park.

Phase I will feature 80 single-family homes, for which 85 percent of the lots have been sold, he said. Homes start around $300,000.

Infrastructure work has started on Phase II, which will include street-level retail spaces with apartments above and a community clubhouse.

“This will be a place where neighbors know their neighbors,” Rodgers said. “You're creating a community within itself.”

More mixed-use developments could be around the corner, Rodgers said.

“Once the economy turns and bank regulations change, these types of developments will become more popular,” he said.

T&R Properties of Dublin, Ohio, hopes Cool Valley can become what's known as a “regionally significant” development — one that meets the urban-suburban vibe while drawing in others.

The public-private partnership for the project has slowed since a $10 million grant earmarked by former Gov. Ed Rendell didn't materialized. Representatives of the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett could not be reached for comment.

“We've been prepared to move forward for four years,” said Tamra Potts, the development company's chief operating officer.

Potts' company continues to work with county officials to move the project forward.

An initial phase covering 250 acres would include office buildings, retail stores and a hotel/conference center. Later phases would include 1,400 residences and a Main Street aspect.

“We want to create a ‘wow' factor,” Potts said. “This is going to be great for Washington County.”

Doughtery hopes McCandless Crossing will have a similar impact on the North Hills. In the fourth phase now under construction, restaurants and more than 50 residential units are being added, as is a town center.

That will serve as a “downtown McCandless,” he said.

“I was never an artist,” Dougherty said, “but this was one creative outlet I was able to develop.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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