This spring, city officials and the Buncher Company announced ambitious plans to create a whole new community -- as many as 1,000 units of housing connecting to the Allegheny riverfront, in the city's historic Strip District.
But even before the plan was announced, there was one basic problem: It's not clear who actually controls the land, which is currently occupied largely by parking lots. And a federal agency's decision late last month may have done little to resolve the dispute.
The area in question -- between 16th and 21st streets -- has been the subject of a land dispute between would-be developers and the Allegheny Valley Railroad (AVR). And at stake is what role rail transit may play in the future of the neighborhood.
"I'm still optimistic about that zone," says Rob Stephany, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. But "Buncher and AVR need to figure something out."
There's no question that the land itself belongs to Buncher. But AVR -- a freight line that operates 70 miles of track connecting New Kensington to Pittsburgh and Washington, Pa. -- purchased a rail line in the area from Conrail in 1995. Since then, it has owned an easement which gives it the right to operate rail service there ... even though the railroad track itself has disappeared.
"We don't know who removed it," says Russell Peterson, the railroad's CEO. "Maybe it's still there under the gravel."
In 1999, the railroad proposed expanding into passenger rail service. Freight trains only use the tracks at night; extending tracks deeper into the Strip, Peterson says, would allow the railroad to carry commuters from the Allegheny Valley during the daytime.
"AVR would be willing to sell the corridor to public/private ownership, with an easement to run freight at night," Peterson says.
Peterson says the railroad reached out to Buncher to ask if they were interested. Buncher did not respond to calls for comment, but Peterson says the company is disputing the railroad's easement.
The matter went to the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that oversees American railroads. Regulators began deliberating last year. So when the URA announced plans to develop the land with Buncher this spring, Peterson was surprised. "I can't go build on your backyard without you having something to say about it," Peterson says.
Buncher and the railroad disagreed on almost everything -- even the number of rail lines that once existed on the site. But in a June 11 decision, the agency sided with the railroad, finding that it "possesses an active easement across Buncher's property ... on which [AVR] can reconstruct the track."
That's not likely to end the matter, however. Peterson says "I would expect [Buncher] to appeal" the decision. And the ruling itself notes that the easement's boundaries are still in dispute -- and must be settled by a state court.
But the URA's Stephany says that there ought to be an easier way. In theory, at least, the railroad has other options for expanding passenger service.
Bringing commuters Downtown requires building a connector from the Strip District to the Steel Plaza T station. AVR has proposed above- and below-ground routes for doing so from 16th Street, and it compiled a route study to assess its options. But Stephany contends, "I don't think their route study was as robust as it could have been."
An alternate route, he says, could peel off to the south before 21st street -- skirting the proposed development site -- and approach Steel Plaza from existing rail lines along Liberty Avenue.
Peterson calls that suggestion "an idea," and says a mix of public and private officials began coalescing around it last month. Peterson himself says he fully supports the concept. But before he drops his claim to the Buncher land, he says, he'll need some very concrete guarantees about the alternative.
"When I know that transit will in fact operate to Steel Plaza, and not include the route I own -- then, and only then, would I be willing to liquidate the railroad's rights."
The outcome of this dispute may well shape the Strip District's future -- and the role transit may play in it.
Transit-oriented development -- projects that incorporate mass-transit directly into their design -- is a buzzword among planners, and officials hope the new Strip District community will incorporate the idea.
"Transit is the linchpin for the future of this project," says Pittsburgh City Councilor Patrick Dowd, who represents the area. "And this project is emblematic of the larger work we need to do in the city and the region."
But should that transit focus on connecting city neighborhoods to each other, or on linking Pittsburgh to its suburbs?
"The first thing we need to do is get transit connected in the city," Dowd says. "Let's work one piece at a time to tie up the pieces of the city." Once that is done, he says, the city can reach out to its suburbs.
In any case, Stephany says the new Strip development would be better served by a "street light-rail trolley system that can connect from Downtown out to Lawrenceville" -- with the new development situated between. And while a commuter-rail line is desirable in its own right -- "I'm not willing to prioritize those things just yet," Stephany notes -- he says it's hard to imagine incorporating it into the new project itself.
In any case, Buncher's setback carries a bit of irony.
Marilyn Skolnick, transit chair for the Sierra Club Allegheny Group, says that when the Port Authority was developing the light-rail "T" system in the South Hills, Buncher's land claims slowed the project down. Buncher owned property at key points along the route, she says, allowing the company to drive a hard bargain with transit officials.
"Buncher people, many years ago, were very smart," Skolnick says. "They picked up garbage land [that] no one wanted [and] had a vision."
Which is one reason Councilor William Peduto, a strong transit advocate, says, "If Buncher would work with AVR, then there is great potential."