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Munhall residents resist rezoning for new shop

| Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 5:16 a.m.

Despite vehement opposition from a handful of E. Ninth Avenue residents during a public rezoning hearing on Wednesday, Munhall officials said they largely support the efforts of a developer trying to open a sandwich shop in the former St. Michael's Parochial School.

Interim borough manager Tim Little said developer Walter Viola requested a change in the zoning status of the property adjacent to the vacant St. Michael's Church from residential to business. Viola already owns the school, the former church rectory and convent, and many houses along E. Ninth and Eighth avenues.

There was confusion during the hearing about which areas are being considered for rezoning.

“Mr. Viola had requested a rezoning of the property of the old St. Michael's School for apartments and a sandwich shop,” Little said. “He went to the planning commission under the municipality's planning code and the commission recommended to council to rezone the whole area from McClure Street to Andrew Street on the north side of Ninth Avenue.”

But that was far more than Viola was asking for, and council reportedly nixed that amended plan during a previous meeting when it was decided that commercial rezoning needed to apply only to the south side of Boon Way — the alley behind E. Ninth Avenue where the entrance to the proposed sandwich shop would be.

“I never petitioned for Ninth Avenue,” Viola said. “Only Boon Way.”

That didn't stop some residents from speaking out against the gentrification plan.

“None of the residents has any say-so whatsoever as to whether or not we want this to happen to our street,” Ninth Avenue resident Ronald Lapko said. “When I bought my property, I knew that I was living in a residential area and that's why I bought it. I didn't buy it for it to be zoned commercial.”

Betty Ann Ogg of Ninth Avenue said there are properties already zoned for commercial use in different parts of Munhall that would serve Viola's purposes.

“My family has been living here all our lives and we aren't ready for a change,” she said. “Why are you coming into a residential area? It's just not necessary.”

Viola maintains he has been operating with Munhall's best interests in mind since he began buying and renovating borough properties in 2009.

“When I came to Ninth Avenue, there was a rectory that was chained up for nine years, a convent with all the windows busted out and a school that was collapsing in on itself,” he said. “Then as I went down the block, I found most of the houses abandoned. I found drug addicts and squatters. Now I'm being told I'm destroying the culture of Munhall? You can walk down Ninth Avenue now and go in the park. That's not the way I found it.”

Viola said if there is continued opposition to development, E. Ninth Avenue could continue on a downward spiral.

“Go down Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg,” he said. “That's what you'll have on Ninth Avenue in 10 years.”

After the hearing, council president Joe Ballas said he believes in Viola's vision.

“The guy wants to do good for the neighborhood,” Ballas said. “He doesn't want to tear it apart. I know change is tough. I went to grade school (at St. Michael's Parochial School) and I think that building has to be used. Otherwise, it's just going to collapse.”

Little said council has 45 days to submit its decision to the county planning agency, but no decision has been reached yet.

He said council likely would need to reject the apparent proposal to rezone the north side of E. Ninth Avenue and encourage Viola to apply for a zoning variance.

Viola said he had planned to open the sandwich shop this month but will have to continue to keep its doors closed.

“There's a change in culture happening here,” he said. “And it needs to be embraced.”

The issue most likely will be on the agenda for next week's regular council meeting.

Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1970, or tkaran@tribweb.com.

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