Photo courtesy of Ryan Deto
LG Reality Advisors' president Lawrence Gumberg (right) and principal Brian Gumberg (left) at a planning commission meeting for the rezoning of Penn Plaza.
After almost two hours of resident testimony and multiple speeches by representatives from Penn Plaza owners and the mayor’s office, Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission narrowly approved the rezoning of the privately-owned Penn Plaza property and the city-owned Enright Parklet in East Liberty by a 4-3 vote.
The zoning code for the properties will change from residential to mixed-use (commercial and residential) to accommodate the owners plans to construct buildings with bottom-floor retail and upper-floor residential units.
Residents of Penn Plaza, one of the last remaining below-market rate apartment complexes in the area, were handed 90-day eviction notices
by the owners, LG Realty Advisors, this July. The city then stepped in and eventually negotiated an agreement
that provides residents with move-out costs paid by LG Realty and a commitment to affordable housing percentages in the area, and in turn allowed the owners to move forward with plans develop the property into a mix of retail and residential.
However, the agreement also mentioned the possible conveyance of the city-owned Enright Parklet
, which sits adjacent to the Penn Plaza property. This issue reignited the community at large. More than 20 residents spoke in opposition to the rezoning of the property, including a 7-year-old boy who told the commissioners he spends many hours at the park every week. (Lawrence Gumberg, President of LG Reality, made a rare public appearance and even cracked a smile when the young boy spoke.)
Ultimately, the vote was approved with conditions that require the developers and the city to go through a community process before making any changes to the park and Penn Plaza property.
Sallyann Kluz, who lives close to the park and spoke in opposition to the rezoning at the meeting, was not overly surprised with the outcome. She says she was pleased with the conditions but would liked to have seen a copy of the conditions before the vote.
“We need to set the time table,” says Kluz, “and we need to bring it back into community, so that people who cannot attend [planning commission] meetings can have an input.”
Ryan England, who also spoke in opposition of rezoning, feels that commissioners were “obviously” under political pressure to vote yes. England says that “normally, a lot of developers would start with the planning process” and speak with the community before applying for a zoning change.
He says the Gumberg’s practices were “incredibly effective,” but he questioned their tactics. “They definitely know how to get a lot of stuff they want.”
Even the Urban Redevelopment Authority chair Kevin Acklin acknowledged how the city was always behind the eight ball in terms of helping the residents of Penn Plaza. “Ultimately, this was an emergency situation, and we inserted ourselves in,” said Acklin of the city’s response to the Penn Plaza evictions at the meeting.
But Kluz says that the emergency was only started because the Gumbergs sent out the evictions.
“It was crisis for the tenants, but it was a crisis created by the property owners,” says Kluz.
The Gumbergs’ lawyer Jonathan Kamin defended the owners and reminded the commissioners that the owners were “not required” to come an agreement between the city and the tenants of Penn Plaza. “[The owners] could go and build 300 new units on their property,” said Kamin at the meeting. “[They] could have done none of this.”
Kamin says that the zoning change is just the front end of the process, and that they don’t know what changes they can make to the property until it goes through.
“In terms of appropriately planning, you need to see what is legally possible before you can move forward,” says Kamin.
Planning commissioner chair Christine Mondor, who hesitated and grimaced before voting yes for the zoning change, said this “topsy-turvy” process is not typical. “[The Penn Plaza development] doesn’t happen through us until it happens through [the community],” she said.
Mondor, along with commissioners LaShawn Burton-Faulk, Dina Blackwell and Holly Dick voted in favor of the zoning change with conditions, while Fred Brown, Julie Butcher Pezzino and Sabina Deitrick opposed the change.
Deitrick questioned why the Gumbergs and city did not reach out to the community before coming to the planning commission. She voiced her ire at the plan to potentially convey a park that many people in the community want see remain the same. "It is not good enough to do the right thing for the Penn Plaza residents and a bad thing for the other neighborhood residents."
Acklin said at the meeting that a rigorous community process for Enright Park is still to come.