Shawn Gallagher, shareholder in the firm’s Real Estate and Energy practice groups, was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, “Of time and space: Carnegie Science Center asks to keep 450-space parking lot until 2031.”
After failing to get a deal to redevelop the site, the Carnegie Science Center wants to extend the life of a key North Shore parking lot for another seven years.
Representatives of the science center argued before the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment Thursday that extra time is needed while it tries to come up with another strategy for developing the 450-space lot adjacent to the Allegheny light rail transit station.
But zoning board chairwoman Alice Mitinger pushed back against the length of the request, saying it “seems like an awfully long time.”
A 2016 variance gave the center the right to use the North Lot for parking until 2024. It was needed at the time because the zoning code limited surface parking in that area to 150 spaces. That has since been reduced to 75 spaces.
The new request, if granted, would extend the variance until 2031, giving the center use of the parking lot for another seven years beyond the current expiration date.
In arguing for the additional time, science center attorney Shawn Gallagher said the COVID-19 pandemic “has changed the landscape of development and the need for parking generally.”
The science center, he explained, “made a good faith effort” to bring the lot into compliance with the code by seeking developers through a 2019 request for proposals.
Although he did not state it, that likely would have included structured parking, which is not as limited by the code as surface parking is.
At one point, the center was “pretty far along” in negotiations on an agreement with a preferred developer when the pandemic hit.
“Things kind of fell apart after COVID. So we’re right now back at ground zero, so to speak, and we’re relooking at the planning efforts, what’s the best use of this property,” Mr. Gallagher said.
The center, Mr. Gallagher added, wants to maintain the lot until it can find a developer to help bring the property into compliance. That may involve another request for proposals and a planning process with neighbors.
Jason Brown, the center’s director, said officials are trying to determine the highest and best use for the property, which is across the street from Heinz Field.
“Knowing that we’re dependent on a developer to assist with this, we’re concerned about committing to a development given the dynamic change on the North Side that’s going on,” he said.
The 2019 request for proposals produced six viable opportunities but only one that met “minimum requirements” of maintaining about 500 parking spaces, Mr. Brown said.
“While we don’t use all of those spaces every day, there are times during the year, our busiest times, when we absolutely require all of them. So we have to make sure we maintain those to keep our visitation where it needs to be and meet the demands of the community for our science center,” he said.
The venue, he noted, will be undertaking a master plan this fall looking at the visitor experience, exhibits and the overall campus.
“We want to make sure whatever ultimately ends up there serves the North Side community,” Mr. Brown said.
Mr. Gallagher said the goal is to develop the site within the next 10 years. The proposed extension — in essence a decade counting from 2021 — “seems like a comfortable period of time,” he insisted.
However, Ms. Mitinger wasn’t sold on the length of the extension.
“The [zoning] board is not typically asked to have such an open-ended kind of provision in place. Again, it’s a long time,” she said.
Mr. Gallagher countered that it was the science center itself that proposed an end to the variance in 2024, adding there are “changed circumstances” that necessitate the need for more time.
“This is the primary parking for the science center. I think it’s in the public interest to make sure that one of our great public institutions doesn’t go under because it doesn’t have parking,” he said.
Ms. Mitinger is a member of the Carnegie Museums board of trustees and zoning board member LaShawn Burton-Faulk serves on the museum advisory panel.
For Thursday’s hearing, Ms. Burton-Faulk recused herself while Ms. Mitinger, with the applicant’s agreement, sat in for the purpose of providing a quorum for the three-member zoning board.
Alison Keating, a Manchester-Chateau resident, testified against the request for the new variance, saying the parking creates pollution and harms the community.
She disputed the center’s contention that the lot is the primary one used for parking, arguing that it’s more for commercial purposes.
On the busiest days, it could contract with surrounding parking garages to handle the overflow, she maintained. Keeping it for parking is not the highest and best use of the land, she said.
The zoning board has 45 days to issue a decision.