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Duquesne puts zone ordinance on hold

| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 4:36 a.m.

Duquesne council will not act on a proposed neighborhood zoning ordinance until city officials learn more about revised plans to redevelop the Burns Heights housing project.

Mayor Phil Krivacek read correspondence from the city's planning commission during Wednesday's council meeting and voiced his objection to approving an ordinance that defines a “Traditional Neighborhood Overlay District” within a residentially zoned area.

The planning commission recommended the ordinance in order to prevent the city from having to grant variances, such as yard and setback requirements, for the construction of Allegheny Housing Authority-managed townhomes.

Krivacek's problem was not with yard or setback requirements, but rather the vague reference to other “minor variances” that could arise with the project.

“That line tells me that this is like writing an open check,” Krivacek said.

Officials from the housing authority and contracted landscape architect and engineering firm Fahringer, McCarty, Grey Inc. attended Wednesday's meeting to address council's concerns.

“I'm not blaming you,” Krivacek told project manager Brian Almeter. “I'm just telling you what I see in this letter.”

When city officials began discussing the redevelopment of Burns Heights, an Allegheny County Housing Authority project located behind Crawford Avenue, the plans were different, Krivacek said. Private developer Ralph A. Falbo Inc. toured the site roughly eight years ago and entered talks with the city and housing authority. The complex was demolished five years ago, and plans have undergone a series of revisions.

City officials understood from initial talks that Falbo's company would manage the property once it was developed, and today's plan has the property under housing authority management.

“The only reason we as a council approved it was because we thought we were going to get some sort of tax base,” Krivacek said. “I think someone took for granted that we don't know what we're doing here. Well, we know what we are doing here.”

Housing authority development director Jack McGraw said the plan hasn't changed since he's been involved, and he was unaware that the nature of the project was not adequately explained to city officials.

“I can't answer all of your questions here tonight, but the commitment is here,” McGraw said. “We aren't trying to change the deal. We tried to keep you aware of the plans.”

Councilman Timothy Petrisko said the city can't afford to be held financially captive by a federally subsidized development.

“At 55 percent, we have one of the highest rental property rates in Allegheny County,” Petrisko said. “One thing we don't need is more rental property and more Section 8.”

The previous plan was to be funded under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's defunct Hope VI program, which was intended to redevelop the nation's worst housing projects.

Now the plan is to be funded by tax credits through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Having another housing authority-managed project in place of Burns Heights means no financial benefit to a city fighting to free itself from Act 47 municipal bankruptcy, Krivacek said.

The city's prior administrations had agreements with the housing authority to receive 10 percent of income generated by the rental units.

“They never got a dime, and that puts doubt in my mind,” Krivacek said.

Council hopes to have its questions answered and a new plan drafted in coming months.

The revision process will begin with Duquesne's planning commission, set to meet on Feb. 24.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or