"No Frick’n way”: Neighbors oppose transforming former Irish Centre into high-end apartments | Pittsburgh City Paper

“No Frick’n way”: Neighbors oppose transforming former Irish Centre into high-end apartments

click to enlarge “No Frick’n way”: Neighbors oppose transforming former Irish Centre into high-end apartments
Screen Capture: Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Appeals
A rendering showing a proposed eight-story apartment complex on the edge of Frick Park

Plans to build an eight-story apartment complex on the cusp of Frick Park have united nearby residents in fierce opposition.

Billed as the Frick Park Friends, a collective of disgruntled neighbors cite environmental, safety, and aesthetic concerns with the 160-unit structure proposed to replace the former Irish Centre of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill South near its border with Swisshelm Park. As of Thursday, the group said they’ve collected more than 1,700 signatures opposing the development.

But with a zoning board hearing slated for next month, the group is gearing up for a tough face-off with Toronto-based Craft Development Corporation and its local supporters.

“I believe the next month is going to be a propaganda arms race,” Sean Crist, a Frick Park Friends supporter, tells Pittsburgh City Paper.

For the proposal to move ahead, Craft must obtain multiple variances from the city. The horseshoe-shaped parcel where the building currently stands is zoned as park space, which prohibits residential developments or the construction of any building taller than 40 feet.

On Tuesday night, East End Brewing hosted Frick Park Friends and Upstream PGH for a community listening session where the groups met with residents to persuade them of their concerns.

Among them, Christina Cerkevich, says she moved to Swisshelm Park around 2014 after several years in Nashville. While living in Tennessee’s state capital, she says she witnessed housing prices soar as its population surged and homebuilders constructed frantically.

“I see this as the start of that here,” Cerkevich says of the Irish Centre proposal.

Others are concerned by environmental and traffic safety considerations. The property looms over Nine Mile Run in an area prone to flooding and landslides. The only access comes via Forward Avenue, which forms a sharp loop as it joins with Commercial Street in front of the existing building.

“My concern is that someone will get hurt if they build this,” Sarah Bartholomew-Fisher of Swisshelm Park tells City Paper.

Bartholomew-Fisher also points to nearby developments, including Walnut Tower and Summerset townhouse development, where landslides have occurred after construction.

For many, though, the biggest consideration is the aesthetic impact of constructing a large apartment block on the edge of a park.

“It’s like putting a big apartment building in the middle of Yellowstone,” Vicki Yann, a lifelong Swisshelm Park resident tells CP.

click to enlarge “No Frick’n way”: Neighbors oppose transforming former Irish Centre into high-end apartments
Screen Capture: Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Appeals

Representing Craft, attorney Ray Baum argues many of the groups’ concerns are misguided. He notes there are environmental and traffic issues with the site, but argues these can only be remedied if a developer steps in and takes ownership.

“It’s a bad situation now, but it needs to be improved regardless,” Baum tells CP. “So I don’t think it will be improved unless this goes ahead.”

Baum says the apartment complex will include green roofs and underground storage tanks that would mitigate runoff into the creek during intense rainfall. He says his client has also offered to fund traffic improvements, and points to a preliminary traffic report stating the development would not “materially” add to the surrounding traffic issues.

Ultimately, these issues will be put to the Zoning Board of Appeals next month. A hearing had initially been set for July, however, Baum says his client is working to secure the support of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition beforehand, so requested a delay. Coalition members met earlier this week and agreed to support two of the three variance requests, but withheld support for a variance concerning building density.

While the majority of local sentiment leans against the development, the resistance is not unanimous. David Vatz, a Squirrel Hill resident and founder of Pro-Housing Pittsburgh, says even though the apartments are not billed as affordable, generating more housing within city limits will help dampen housing costs by adding to the supply. He also says dense urban housing creates much lower environmental costs than single family built homes further out.

“If you don’t build it in the city, it will just get built in the exurbs, where the carbon footprint will be higher,” Vatz tells CP.

Vatz describes Pro-Housing Pittsburgh as a “grassroots” affiliation united around a belief that more housing is crucial to keeping markets in check.

“All of the studies that have come of this essentially say the same thing: If you don’t build more housing, prices are coming up,” Vatz says.

Although the developers say scaling down the project would make it financially unviable, many of those objecting to the development say they would welcome a more modest residential structure at the Irish Centre site.

“We are not NIMBYS,” Terri Devereaux tells CP. We are not anti-development, whenever it’s ethically, legally, and environmentally sound.”

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