commissioner’s report: john bendel

It is exciting to see all of the activity in Uptown (Washington Road) Mt. Lebanon—new and expanding restaurants and shops, the opening of the 108-room Springhill Suites hotel and events like ULTRAParty, Brewfest, Plein Air, First Fridays. While Uptown is already a vibrant destination place that many South Hills residents enjoy for shopping, dining out, walking/jogging and socializing, it may also get a boost from a potential new residential development.

Plans are in the very early stages for a development on the “kiss and ride” lot at Alfred Street and Shady Drive East that could create 40+ units of privately developed, market-rate housing.  The concept and location take advantage of the proximity to Uptown and the nearby T station. Ironically, this location formerly had a multi-story apartment building that was demolished as part of the trolley line development many years ago.

The planned residential project at the “kiss and ride” lot is a culmination of decades-long study, evaluation and planning to create development around Mt. Lebanon’s T station. The vision started in the early 1980s when the municipal Parking Authority purchased the air rights over the T station, which provides an opportunity for development on a platform over the train line. After many years of discussion, the vision remained but no activity occurred.

In recent years, the Commission has made Transit Oriented Development, which is development near quality public transit, a priority. In 2013, Eric Milliron, commercial districts manager, and an ad hoc committee that included representatives from the economic development council, planning board, school district and the Mt. Lebanon Partnership completed an analysis and assessment of development options. An alternative project, a higher density option to be built on a platform above the T-station, was considered, but is now viewed as a less desirable option due to the relatively high infrastructure costs. Certainly, if developers are interested in this option, the municipality would be glad to discuss it.

Pittsburgh’s relatively strong real estate market and the trend toward building near public transit are also helping move the project forward. A 2013 market study completed by Delta Development Group, Inc. concluded that there is adequate market and demand for multi-family rental housing, and possibly a mixed use development that could include small-scale retail or office space integrated into the residential development. The study noted several other planned developments in the South Hills (Dormont, South Hills Village and Castle Shannon) near public transit as evidence of the market and demand. The market study concludes that the target demographics for the Uptown development are young working professionals and as well as households that are downsizing.

The national trend of increased use of public transit, in particular light rail, is providing tail winds as well. On March 10 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Allegheny County’s light rail ridership increased by 7.5 percent last year, the second-greatest increase among cities of comparable size.

To kick off the process, the municipality held a community meeting to gather input from Mt. Lebanon residents, especially those nearby the project site, businesses and other stakeholders. Approximately 40 people attended the meeting, providing recommendations and concerns related to the project design, replacement of lost parking spaces, impact on nearby homes and businesses and possible features to enhance the area and connectivity to Uptown. If you missed this meeting, you will still have opportunities for input as the process continues.

The next step is to issue a request for proposals to developers this spring. We are hopeful to attract interest from multiple, experienced private developers from which the municipality will choose a development partner. This “public-private” partnership model relies on finding the right developer who has vision and the capacity to bring online a project that is viable and sensitive to the community interests. If all goes well a 2015 construction start is possible.

There are many reasons to be excited about Uptown and, if this new development becomes a reality it will undoubtedly further enhance the vitality of Mt. Lebanon.