Pittsburgh will soon begin a two-year process to answer one question: What should the city look like in 2050?
Different levels of government across the country have worked in recent years to create long-term development plans, with cities such as Minneapolis and Houston, and states including California, Oregon and Washington, helping shape a changing national dialogue. Pittsburgh has the opportunity to learn from them as it creates its first-ever citywide comprehensive plan, crafting high-level goals to be implemented later through changes to local development ordinances.
The city is in the process of evaluating bids for the two contracts that will create the plan — one to actually write it, and the other for soliciting the community input that will help determine its contents. City Council has a briefing tentatively scheduled for mid-September on the initiative.
A previous comprehensive planning effort called ForgingPGH had been launched under former Mayor Bill Peduto, though it later stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition in 2021 between mayors. Initial work completed will be incorporated in the plan solicited by the Gainey administration.
The city has said in contract documents that it wants to engage with residents across all 90 neighborhoods, gathering input about topics ranging from parks to stormwater management to transportation. The Union Progress spoke with leading experts to understand the kind of issues that residents and policymakers may wrestle with during the planning process, many of which are not unique to Pittsburgh.
The creation of a comprehensive plan helps residents go through a process of determining “what they want the city to look like,” according to Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Brookings Institution.
“It gets people starting to think about developing a plan for what the city will look like, how we’re going to use our land, what kind of development happens where,” she told the Union Progress.
Planning in the city has historically been done at the neighborhood level, with plans recently completed for Uptown, Hazelwood and Oakland. The lack of a citywide plan was not lost on the mayor’s transition team, which wrote in a report issued last year that it has “allowed for decades of piecemeal decision-making driven by outside developer interests rather than community input.”
Schuetz cautioned that creating one plan that addresses all 90 neighborhoods could be challenging for planners.
“You’ve got to look at all of the neighborhoods separately, in context. Pittsburgh has historically been a pretty affordable city, and that’s one of the drivers why people are moving there from elsewhere, so I think it’s important for the city to retain that,” she said. “But on the other hand, figuring how to accommodate higher-income households moving in, without pushing out people who have been there for a long time, this is a really delicate balancing act.”
Different viewpoints often emerge during a planning process, but Schuetz said finding ways to merge them and gather support for a cohesive plan can help its implementation succeed.
“If the engagement process is done well and thoughtfully, and people feel like they’ve been heard, this is an opportunity to get buy-in,” she said. “So that once the plan is adopted you can move faster with the other updates, and once the redevelopment happens, people know that it’s going to happen and they’re ready for it.”
The main way that the broad strokes of a comprehensive plan turn into reality is through changes to the zoning code. On the table could be changes to the number of housing units permitted on a property, known as upzoning; maximum building heights; the minimum required number of parking spaces; and more.
Schuetz said the comprehensive plan and zoning code should be “designed to fit together.”
“The plan is more high-level, and the zoning law is much more granular and is the one that actually drives development decisions,” she said. “When someone goes to build something on a piece of land, it has to be consistent with the zoning.”
Pittsburgh’s modern zoning code was enacted in 1958, with its last major revisions in 1999. It restricts construction in a significant part of the city to only single-family homes, including the northern and southern reaches, as well as wealthier sections of the East End. Areas available for multifamily housing have steadily been reduced.
Schuetz said city officials generally have two options on how to upzone, or increase the number of housing units that can be automatically built by right on a property. They could target specific areas such as commercial corridors and allow for taller buildings there, or change the rules across a much larger area and allow for “infill” development throughout.
“The best thing is for the city to think about increasing … a sort of envelope — what are you allowed to build, what’s there now,” she said. “Try to raise that envelope to create some extra capacity, and you may not raise it by the same amount everywhere.”
As the city has seen an increase in development, it has made piecemeal changes to the zoning code. New row houses are no longer required to have an off-street parking space. A practice called inclusionary zoning, where a percentage of housing units must be made affordable for a set amount of time, has been implemented in Lawrenceville, Central and South Oakland, Bloomfield and Polish Hill.
Emily Hamilton, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, told the Union Progress that there is “no reason” to wait for a finalized comprehensive plan before making zoning changes that present “clear benefits.” Individual projects must get approval from the three-person zoning board in order to deviate from requirements in the zoning code.
Hamilton noted many cities have removed often onerous and costly parking requirements for new housing, instead allowing property owners to determine on their own what the right number of spaces should be. Almost every new home or apartment in Pittsburgh must have one off-street parking spot under the current rules.
“Some of the benefits of parking requirement reform are evident from the places that have already done that,” she said.
Hamilton added that city officials should also review minimum lot size requirements, or the smallest amount of land that the zoning code requires to construct a new home or apartment. A study released last year by the city found that as many as 81% of residential properties in some parts of the city are too small to be able to construct a single-family home under the current rules. It also found a similar share of properties designated for multi-family housing are too small under the current rules to construct a building with four apartments.
“It’s really important to consider the big picture and some opportunities that might be available to deliver more units,” she said.
Schuetz said city officials should look more generally at rules that might be expensive to meet or are creating difficulties for developers, and determine whether they are “essential” for health and safety.
“It’s a great chance to look at all of that, and figure out what you really need or what you want,” she said.
Creating a comprehensive plan is an “exciting” process, Schuetz said, and could lead to new ways of thinking about the city and what its future holds.
“It’s good to be a city in demand; it’s good to be a city where people want to move to and more people want to become your neighbors. Pittsburgh certainly knows what it’s like not to be in that situation,” she said. “Going from ‘We’re shrinking’ to ‘We’re growing’ does require a change in mindset, and it may take a while for people just to wrap their heads around what it’s going to look like.”