As the Pittsburgh zoning board decides whether to approve a controversial eight-story apartment building in Squirrel Hill South, changes to zoning rules could unlock smaller-scale development in the neighborhood and other parts of the East End on land already designated for that purpose.
A key roadblock is the large amount of property required per apartment — at least 1,800 square feet, adding to 7,200 square feet for a four-apartment building. Only a few dozen of the hundreds of properties in Squirrel Hill zoned for multifamily housing — and could but don’t already have four or more apartments — clear the hurdle and other, more basic requirements.
Other parts of the city that have land with the same zoning designation, known formally as RM-M, face a similar problem. In Homewood, only about 10% of properties meet per-apartment property size requirements. In the Middle Hill, the figure is 31%.
The requirement is a tall bar to clear in a city such as Pittsburgh where few single pieces of land are large enough on their own to satisfy it, and existing buildings were often built on much smaller properties before the current rules were written. Property owners would have to obtain special permission from the zoning board, such as with the proposed Irish Centre redevelopment, if they wanted to proceed with new construction on a property smaller than what’s allowed under the current rules.
A city study released last year identified the rule as one that could be changed to allow for additional housing, as officials try to deal with a shortage of affordable housing pushing poorer residents out of the city. Aside from any other potential restrictions on development, such as the four-story height limit or land for setbacks or parking, the Union Progress calculated that entirely removing the per-apartment property size requirement for the RM-M zoning district could produce about 8,800 new apartments across the city — including 2,100 in Squirrel Hill — if at least four are built on each property that doesn’t already have an apartment building on it.
City Councilor Barb Warwick, D-Greenfield, told the Union Progress that she is in favor of reforming property size requirements and other “low-hanging fruit,” such as minimum parking requirements, in the zoning code.
“There’s lots of little things we can do to make it easier to add a little extra space,” she said, “without forcing people to sweat it out through the zoning board hearing process, which is a very stressful process.”
Warwick added that it is important for all neighborhoods, including Squirrel Hill, to pitch in and help deal with the city’s housing crisis.
“I believe that people of all incomes deserve to live in the neighborhoods with the nice amenities, with the movie theaters and the restaurants and nice schools and all of those things,” she said. “I would like to see, eventually, zoning changes like upzoning in Squirrel Hill that allow for more people to live in those communities.”
It’s possible that city officials will revise the requirement as part of larger zoning changes stemming from the upcoming multiyear process to create Pittsburgh’s first-ever comprehensive plan, a high-level document to guide development through 2050. Officials might decide in future years to expand the RM-M zoning designation to more parts of the city — it’s currently the largest multifamily zoning district by number of properties — but strict requirements could put a damper on the number of apartments actually constructed.
The city planning department did not respond to requests for comment about the upcoming comprehensive plan, and zoning changes it might consider in the short or long term.
A representative for the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, the nonprofit serving as the neighborhood’s registered community organization, giving it an enhanced role in city land-use processes, did not respond to requests for comment.
Local governments around the country are giving their zoning rules, often geared toward car-centric sprawl, a new look as the nation faces a housing shortage. Pittsburgh isn’t a stranger to fine-tuning its rules — the city late last year scrapped per-apartment property size requirements in Downtown that had allowed only one apartment per 110 square feet of property area.
M. Nolan Gray, who recently published a book on zoning and leads research at the advocacy group California YIMBY, told the Union Progress that it is “pretty typical” for restrictive rules such as minimum property size requirements to create roadblocks that prevent multifamily housing from being built in areas where it is technically allowed.
“They don’t really serve any health or safety function whatsoever,” he said. “Minimum lot sizes make sense in a context where you don’t have water or sewer installed, in a context where you actually need units to be separate to be safe, so you don’t have your septic and your well water side by side. In an urban context, they essentially just serve the function of blocking infill housing.”
Studies have shown that new construction reduces housing costs, something Gray said Pittsburghers should keep in mind when evaluating the potential toll of current zoning rules.
“The way some of our most affluent neighborhoods remained affordable over time is by incrementally getting denser, and incrementally adding more affordable housing, inherently affordable housing,” he said. “The reason gentrification happens is because high-opportunity neighborhoods block new housing from being built, which forces nearly all of the cost pressure onto less-affluent neighborhoods.”
Warwick said she doesn’t view changes to zoning rules as the “be all and end all” to encouraging development but thinks they can make an impact and also potentially give the city an opportunity to add affordability requirements on new buildings.
“It’s an exchange right? Build higher, build more, make more money — but in exchange for this,” she said. “You’ve got to have all the players at the table to have these conversations for what would work, and make everyone more or less happy with the result.”
“We all want the same thing, right, which is a city where you can afford to live and where people of different economic backgrounds and otherwise can live in the same neighborhood and have access to the same amenities,” she added.