Mt. Lebanon commissioners vote to rezone Castlegate Avenue property

Published Apr 29, 2014 at 8:50 am (Updated Apr 29, 2014 at 8:50 am)

The Mt. Lebanon commission voted 4-0 to re-zone a property on Castlegate Avenue near Brookline to a high-density, R-4 residential designation at its April 18 meeting. Commissioner John Bendel abstained from the vote. He is a former director of Residential Resources, which owns the property.

Brookline residents have objected strenuously to the re-zoning since the commission proposed it in January 2014. Their concerns include overburdened infrastructure, mine subsidence, traffic congestion and even a potential uptick in crime. More generally, they feel high density housing will destroy the quiet residential character of the neighborhood.

Green Development and Oxford Development intend to build 120 residential units on the property. Sixty of these will be $300,000 residential units. The other 60 will be subsidized apartment units for senior citizens, to be managed by the Allegheny County Housing Authority. Under Mt. Lebanon’s zoning regulations, the senior units require R-4 zoning.

Though Oxford has repeatedly assured residents that the subsidized facility will be for seniors only, and not subject to Section 8 vouchers, they remain skeptical.

Judy Little, who lives about a block from the property, said people in the community simply do not trust the Mt. Lebanon commission or the developers. Historically, residents have had bad experiences with many of the city authorities that will provide oversight for the development project. Little said utility and road maintenance is already inadequate, and residents have a difficult time reporting issues. People feel the problems will worsen once development is underway.

Responding to these concerns, Ben Kelley, project manager for Oxford, has repeatedly emphasized the methodical nature of the development process. “There are many more public meetings to come,” he said. “We will be doing the site plan, the traffic study and more. We look forward to proceeding in open dialogue with the neighborhood.”

Angel Gaito-Lagnese, who has helped organize Brookline residents, said regardless of the decision, she and her neighbors will continue to engage with the developers. “We’ll work with them to try and come up with something everyone can live with,” she said.

Commenting on the commission’s decision, commissioner Dave Brumfield said he felt the development would be an improvement over the present structure, the former DePaul Institute. The structure is presently abandoned and in a state of disrepair – Brumfield said it is a potential haven for criminal activity. “There’s not another option available to us at this time,” he said. “If we develop this now, I think we have a chance of improving things.”

Commissioner Kelly Fraasch also urged residents not to paint all subsidized housing with the same brush. “I live near Rollier’s and that is predominantly a rental area,” she said. “We have HUD housing there. That’s not something people typically associate with Mt. Lebanon, but we do have areas similar to what we’re talking about. We have had no increase in violence. These people have been wonderful neighbors.”

A number of residents also spoke out against the municipality’s field turf project for Middle and Wildcat fields. Key concerns were long-term maintenance costs and potential health risks associated with artificial turf.

Kimberly Schevtchuk pressed the commission to bring an independent expert to conduct an informational session on health risks.

As a unit, commissioners said they were in favor of the idea, though some seemed to waver.

“Finding that independent person is going to be a lot more difficult than you think,” Dave Brumfield said. “There is enough conflicting research out there that there will always be someone to support either viewpoint.” He also stated that he didn’t believe citizen petitions regarding the project carry much weight, since people are so easily swayed.

“I don’t want to get into signature battles,” he said. “You can say to someone, ‘are you for this?’ and they’ll sign. Then the next person comes along and says, ‘but aren’t you against this?’ They sign both. We saw that with the high school project.”

Commission president Kristen Linfante argued that commissioners had already done significant due diligence regarding the project. “I think we’re all open to seeing someone speak on health issues,” she said. “But I would like to emphasize that the discussion you see in this room is only a small part of what we do as commissioners. We have done a lot of reading and research ourselves.”

She went on to say that alternative proposals had been studied in the past and that the current proposal was the only “viable option” for addressing the community’s lack of field space.

The commission allocated $750,000 of unassigned funds for the project in November 2013. It is currently waiting for local sports groups to raise $250,000 to contribute to the project. According to commissioner John Bendel, the sports groups have raised about $165,000 to date.

A contract cannot be awarded till the sports groups raise the full $250,000, Bendel said.

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