The Zoning Board of Adjustment held a hearing on TREK Development’s proposal for the Garden Theater Block. The proposed project requires variances for height and floor area ratio, along with a special exception to provide parking off-site. The hearing was well attended by community members, and we would like to thank those that came to the hearing in person, as well as those who sent letters of support for the project. TREK Development Group and their partners at Q Development also asked that we extend their thanks as well.
There have been several media articles about the zoning hearing. Others have posted fairly comprehensive notes. We’ll provide a brief recap for those who weren’t in attendance.
In a request for a variance, the applicant must present the legal case for granting the variance. In order to do this, the development team called a number of third party experts including a structural engineer, the project architect, and a traffic engineer to provide testimony. The testimony centered primarily around the condition of the existing buildings and the engineering and economic challenges of re-using them. After the development team concluded its case, the Zoning Board allowed organizations to testify. A number of organizations did, and ACCA provided a letter of support that was authorized at our last General Membership meeting.
The Zoning Board then allowed testimony from individuals and organizations opposed to the granting of the requested variances. Most of those who testified in opposition or with concerns sited parking and the building height. Another issue that was raised was a concern that granting of the variance would set a precedent to allow other taller buildings around Allegheny Commons, although the Chair of the Zoning Board addressed this issue by stating that each case is considered on its own merits and that no precedent would be established based on this particular case.
The Chair then asked if anyone else would like to testify to any points that had not been previously raised. By that time, the hearing had been going on for more than ninety minutes and had covered a broad range of relevant evidence. The Chair closed the hearing by stating that the Board would accept legal briefs or additional evidence for a period of two weeks. After that window closes, the Board has 45 days in which to issue a decision.
Many have asked us what they can do now to support the project. As we understand it, the window for letters of support to be entered into the record for the Zoning Case has closed. That said, we think it is still important that we communicate with our elected officials the importance of this project. Other aspects of the development are ongoing, as City of Asylum is working to close on their financing and start construction on the Masonic Building. You may have read that TREK Development has an agreement to purchase the Garden Theater. This will help move that building forward, and we are pleased at the commitment that TREK and the URA have made to restore the vertical Garden sign.
Although it may be two months until we learn the Zoning Board’s decision, we will provide other project updates as we have them. We are encouraged by how many community members have participated in recent project meetings, and we are also pleased with the commitment of TREK and Q Development to engage the community. The professionalism and experience that they have brought to this project, provides a level of confidence this project has lacked in the past.
If the buildings can’t be saved, tear them down and build something in conformance with existing zoning. That is not a justification for the extreme variances requested. Re-zoning of a site is done by the Planning Commission and City Council, not by the granting of extreme variances. If the Board is allowed to abuse their authority in this case it would weaken or eliminate zoning protection for all City neighborhoods. And, contrary to popular belief, zoning is not a popularity contest.
The Garden Block sitting undone as it has for many years, and now having this out of character restoration of one of our Northside’s central living areas, begs the URA to take over the project. The URA has a larger staff than any of our neighborhoods and can deal with this mage project. Personally, I think the project should have been done one building at a time. Get income from developing one and move on to the next one. Doing an entire block of dis-similar buildings is unworkable for even the best developer.