Proposed Apartment Complex Near Frick Park Attracts Opposition

A Pittsburgh zoning hearing on Aug. 3 will determine if the 160-unit apartment complex can be built in Squirrel Hill.
Forward Avenue Rendering Courtesy Indovina Associates Architects


(Updated June 27, 2023: The Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting on this project has been moved from July 6 to Aug. 3.)

A proposed apartment complex will be evaluated in a zoning hearing on Aug. 3 after weeks of complaints from community members and disagreements between local organizations have swept through Pittsburgh neighborhoods. 

If the developers are granted the four variances they have requested, the 8-story, 160-unit building will be constructed at 6886 Forward Ave., the site of the closed Irish Centre social hall, directly adjacent to Frick Park and its Nine Mile Run trail system. The property, which includes 4.25 acres in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, has long been out of use, was put up for sale a few years ago and has been repeatedly considered for housing developments. 

Toronto-based Craft Development Corporation, known locally for its successful “Mews on Butler” condominium project in Lawrenceville, publicly unveiled plans on May 17 to raze the abandoned Irish Centre and build mostly one and two-bedroom units, more than 180 parking spaces and other apartment amenities. However, the sale of the property to the developer is contingent on approval from Pittsburgh’s Zoning Board of Adjustment

The zoning hearing, originally scheduled for June 1, was pushed back by City Councilmember Barb Warwick, whose district includes Squirrel Hill South and Regent Square, when she realized how many people had concerns regarding the proposed project. She wanted to create more time for people to ask questions and work toward compromises between the initial Development Activities Meeting in May and the hearing in which the fate of the project will be determined. 

“I think things might have gone a little more smoothly had the community engagement happened sooner,” Warwick said in a phone interview. “Now, I am just trying my best to make sure that everyone knows the process and is able to participate if they so choose.”

UpstreamPgh, a nonprofit with the mission to promote healthy ecology and restore and protect the Nine Mile Run watershed, has been leading opposition to the proposed project. In a statement on May 31, UpstreamPgh said the development could have “direct and detrimental impacts” on Nine Mile Run, which flows through the property. The statement includes a list of concerns regarding the building, including its ability to jeopardize the restoration of the watershed, change the scenic landscape of Frick Park, increase traffic on the windy, two-lane road, add to roadway pollution and cause disasters on the landslide-prone slope it would be built on.

UpstreamPgh Executive Director Michael Hiller said in a phone interview that, of the locals he’s talked to, the community’s main concern is that the apartment complex will tower over Frick Park and invade the serene space, one which is commonly seen as an escape from the city. That is one of UpstreamPgh’s main concerns too. 

“Our No. 1 issue is protecting the stream. But our No. 2 issue is that this development would forever change the character of the park,” Hiller says. 

Hiller and other UpstreamPgh leaders attached a petition to the statement, asking the city to deny the developer’s proposed variances. The petition has close to 2,000 signatures already, Hiller says. 

Raymond Baum, who is representing Craft Development Corporation, said in a phone interview that groups like UpstreamPgh have no need to worry because the new building would help protect the watershed. He says that because the site is currently abandoned, stormwater runoff isn’t being controlled and is dragging debris across the park. When a new building is erected, builders will be required by law to control stormwater, which will protect Nine Mile Run from disruption.

Hiller says that the developer’s claims to protect the watershed are “presumptuous.” 

“There’s absolutely going to be negative impact to the stream with the development that close to it,” he says.

Baum says that the development would not only protect the watershed but also encourage city leaders to add speed bumps, crosswalks and other road safety measures on Forward Avenue. He also said there should be no changes to traffic in the area, citing a study the developer conducted with traffic engineers that found there will be no “observable increase” in delays or congestion when the apartment building becomes part of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Overall, Baum says he thinks the property is “the perfect place” for the apartments, mainly due to its proximity to Frick Park and its scenic trails. He is optimistic despite the opposition; after advising clients on real estate development and operations issues for years, Baum says backlash from community members is common. 

“I’ve seen it so many times. People don’t like change. People are afraid of change,” he says. “The argument is ‘we live here so we don’t need anybody else sharing our space, sharing our roads, sharing our parks.’”

Baum says he’s looking past the opposition to focus on an even bigger concern: because Pittsburgh’s population has shrunk from about 675,000 people in 1950 to just under 300,000 today, the city needs taxpayers and tax-paying properties now more than ever. The proposed “not luxury, but not affordable” apartment units, as Baum describes them, could be one step toward a solution for helping more people live in the city. 

David Vatz, founder of Pro-Housing Pittsburgh, an organization that advocates for abundant city housing and reforms to zoning and permitting laws, said in a phone interview that the proposed apartments could create a “positive feedback loop” that Pittsburgh needs. Building new housing not only increases supply and reduces costs of housing overall, Vatz says, but also brings in tax money that can improve transit systems, support infrastructure developments and fund bridge and street repairs.

Vatz also says the apartment building will be an environmentally friendly housing option, citing the fact that high-density housing, like multi-story apartment complexes, is less carbon intensive than plots of single family homes. Because of this, he says he sees arguments by environmentally conscious groups like UpstreamPgh “confusing.”

“Their mentality is that a big building must be bad and hurting the environment. When the reality is the opposite,” he says. “Just being able to see the building doesn’t hurt the environment.”

Irish Center Site Protest


But environmental grassroots groups, such as Frick Park Friends, aren’t planning on backing down. The organization has covered neighborhoods with signs that say “No Frick’n Way” and has distributed petitions of its own to protect the park from urban development.

With these disagreements spiraling in the city, Councilwoman Warwick organized a task force on June 15 to bring together citizens from local neighborhoods and organizations, along with representatives from the developer and architect of the proposed project, to provide a forum for discussion and education. 

Warwick says one of her goals for the meeting was to help everyone understand the four variances, which will be voted on at the July hearing, that are needed for the project to continue — the site’s current park zoning district must be changed to a multi-unit residential district, and the site’s current allowed building height, retaining wall height and floor area maximums must all be increased. The developer must prove a “reason for hardship” for each variance, meaning a reason why the special conditions of the building and the location make strict conformity to the zoning laws unreasonable, before the zoning board can approve them and thus allow the developer to purchase the land and begin construction. 

Baum, who attended the task force meeting, said it generated “very reasonable conversation” and “respectful questions.” However, Hiller, who also attended the meeting, disagrees. He says there has been no “genuine engagement” between the developers and local citizens and “there hasn’t yet been any sort of productive conversation.” 

Vatz is also concerned about the community input process, saying that “the voices of renters were non-existent” at meetings regarding the proposed building. He sees this as an issue because renters are more likely to support the construction of multifamily housing options, like apartments and condos, than homeowners, according to a recent Zillow study. He says the public opposition to the proposed complex is not representative of the Squirrel Hill population as a whole, which is 47% renter-occupied.

To prepare for the hearing and give community members a final opportunity to learn about the proposed project and voice their opinions, Hiller and others from Upstream Pittsburgh, Frick Park Friends and neighborhood groups, will be hosting an event at East End Brewing in Larimer at 6 p.m. on June 27.

The zoning hearing will be held virtually on Aug. 3 and can be accessed on the Zoning Board of Adjustment website. Warwick says that if the variances are approved, she will schedule more meetings and community conversations to ensure that everyone is informed and prepared for the construction in Squirrel Hill. 

Categories: The 412