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Variances OK'd for Strip project

| Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

Pittsburgh City Council on Wednesday likely ended a six-month standoff with Buncher Co. over zoning for a $400 million development proposed for the Strip District.

Council gave preliminary approval to legislation that would permit Buncher to exceed building density and height limitations, among other things, on its 55-acre property. The site consists mainly of vacant parking lots between 11th and 21st streets, from Smallman Street to the Allegheny River.

“We're pleased that it passed, but it's only one step in a long process,” said Thomas J. Balestrieri, Buncher's president and CEO.

The legislation resolves a point of controversy over how much space Buncher should provide between the development and the Allegheny River. A compromise amendment proposed with Buncher's blessing requires the company to provide 70 feet of space — 75 feet between the Veterans Bridge and 16th Street.

City regulations require just 50 feet, although critics wanted the company to provide 95 feet, saying that would allow restoration of the river edge to its natural gradual slope and provide enough room for a park, walking trail and wildlife habitat.

Buncher plans 11 structures including residential, office and retail space with landscaping, the trail and park, and a wide boulevard along 17th Street, ending at a riverfront plaza the size of Market Square. It also includes partial demolition and renovation of the historic Produce Terminal on Smallman.

Council split on the legislation 5-4 with Patrick Dowd, Natalia Rudiak, Bruce Kraus and Bill Peduto voting no.

In an impassioned speech, Dowd urged council to reject the bill, calling the development the “essence of mediocrity.”

“It is nothing more than a gated community in the Strip District that blocks public access,” he said. “We are accepting nothing more than mediocre.”

Council President Darlene Harris, who voted for the bill, said she hoped to persuade Buncher to provide more space along the river for public use.

“This property does not belong to the city of Pittsburgh. This property belongs to the Buncher Co.,” she said. “I wish we could have had 95 feet. We can't force them into what maybe we would like.”

Council is expected to approve the legislation in a final vote next week, but that won't end the controversy over the development.

Buncher is seeking a $50 million tax-increment financing plan in which the city would use extra property taxes generated by the development to repay loans for such items as water and sewer lines.

Dowd has refused to introduce TIF legislation. The legislation falls under the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which Dowd chairs.

“I'm still holding the TIF (bill),” Dowd said. Buncher hasn't said whether the TIF is a deal-breaker.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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