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Port Authority moves forward with Castle Shannon apartment plan

| Friday, March 18, 2016, 3:36 p.m.

Alethea Sims remembers attending Westinghouse High School decades ago, when then-U.S. Rep. William Moorhead talked about plans for a light-rail system connecting the city of Pittsburgh to the South Hills suburbs.

Sims, 60, a member of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty, recalled a classmate asking why it wasn't going to connect to more populated parts of the city. Moorhead said the goal was to foster an economically healthy community.

“Isn't it more important to have a people-healthy community first?” the classmate asked.

Sims repeated that question to board members of the Port Authority of Allegheny County during their meeting Friday. The board agreed to enter into a lease with Shannon Transit Village for a 152-apartment building and mixed-use complex at the Castle Shannon light rail park-and-ride stop.

The project will get $12 million in public funding to help build the public parking garage that will be included, but the plan doesn't include affordable housing. Units will be priced at market rates of up to $1,800 a month.

Before the vote, about 15 county residents urged the agency to consider a policy that would require affordable housing at such developments moving forward. Speakers identified a problem that has been percolating for decades — how residents are forced to move to areas without easy transit access when they are priced out of the better-connected city.

“Change is good,” Sims said. “We see the bigger picture. But we see ourselves cut out of that picture as low- to moderate-income residents of that community.”

The agency next month will release guidelines that will spell out affordable housing recommendations at developments on its land along the light rail or busways. But without a policy, the developers won't be required to include them.

Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean said the guidelines are a starting point in conversations about how to develop land and housing. Around the state and country, there is “a vacuum” of how to tackle the issue of transit-oriented development, she said.

Affordable housing will be one piece of the guidelines, she said, which will also address walkability. The agency wants to be “proactive” about how land around its busways and light rail is used, she said.

“Our role and our interest is to maintain our ridership,” she said. “We know our riders live around transit and use it for access to school, to work, to doctor's appointments, and we just want to preserve that.”

The city is experiencing a forced flight of lower-income people from neighborhoods that are undergoing development, said Antonio Lodico, executive director of the social activist organization Thomas Merton Center. The places they are going where they can find affordable housing, such as Penn Hills or McKeesport, don't have the same transit service as the city.

“People are making it a higher priority to live in communities that are more connected,” Lodico said. “These connected places are becoming increasingly expensive — prohibitively expensive.”

He urged the board to tackle the issue by requiring affordable housing in its transit-oriented development contracts.

“Make a statement,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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