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Former Pittsburgh mayor wants Strip District redevelopment to provide more public access to riverbank

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy talks with media after addressing council on Wednesday about the Buncher Co.'s plans for $400 million in development in the Strip District.

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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 12:56 p.m.
 

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, credited with putting public parks on refuse-laden riverbanks while in office, said on Wednesday that a $400 million plan to redevelop part of the Strip District lacks enough public access to the Allegheny River.

Murphy appeared in City Hall for the first time since leaving office in 2005 to tell City Council that Buncher Co.'s plan for 55 acres it owns contains too many parking lots and too little room for public enjoyment. He described the project as an “OK deal” but urged City Council to push Buncher for a “world-class” development.

“The quality of this development ought to be raised up, and I think council has an opportunity to do that,” Murphy said. “You need to get this development to be world-class.”

Michael Kutzer, vice president of real estate for Buncher, said only: “We're one step closer, and hopefully next week this thing will move forward.”

Thomas J. Balestrieri, president and CEO, could not be reached. Council next week could introduce legislation to rezone the land for development.

Yarone Zober, chief of staff for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said the mayor disagrees with Murphy.

“Under this development there will be access to the riverfront that isn't available now,” Zober said.

Buncher and council have been at a standoff for months over zoning changes and tax-increment financing to develop mostly vacant parking lots between 11th and 21st streets, from Smallman Street to the river. The financing plan would use extra tax money generated by the development to repay loans for such items as water and sewer lines.

The company proposes residential, office and retail space with landscaping, a riverfront trail and a wide boulevard along 17th Street, ending at a riverfront plaza the size of Market Square. Some merchants and neighbors, however, are worried that the partial demolition of the landmark Produce Terminal could change the dynamic of one of Pittsburgh's signature neighborhoods.

Critics also say the public space between the river and buildings in Buncher's plan is too small. They want 95 feet, as recommended in the mayor's Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan; Buncher proposed 70 feet, but that includes 20 feet of lawn for residents.

Lisa Schroeder, CEO of the environmental group Riverlife, said the riverbank is in danger of collapse and that an expanded buffer would provide room for the public and wildlife habitat, including a species of weasel.

“We have been working with all parties to try to hold to the 95-foot recommendation. ... It would allow for a riverfront park and trail with the kind of amenities people are asking for from this development,” Schroeder said.

Amenities include fishing piers, wading pools, lawns and stabilization of the riverbank.

Councilman Patrick Dowd proposed amendments to Buncher's rezoning requests that would require it to follow the Riverfront Vision Plan.

Murphy, who lives in the North Side and works as consultant for the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, believes the riverfronts should serve as city gateways. The Buncher plan falls short of that, he said, noting that his administration opened public access to the rivers at the stadiums, Downtown and at the former LTV Steel site in the South Side.

“He turned this city back toward the riverfronts,” Dowd said. “He got us to see the rivers not as something to cross and avoid, but something to cherish and something that makes us unique.”

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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