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Last month, the City of Pittsburgh Planning Commission voted to recommend approval of legislation that would eliminate existing residential density restrictions and streamline approval of multi-unit residential developments in downtown Pittsburgh. The move clears the way to encourage developers to convert underutilized office space downtown into residential dwelling units in connection with the City’s Downtown Conversion Pilot Program.

As it stands today, the City of Pittsburgh zoning code limits residential density in the City’s downtown GT – Golden Triangle Zoning Districts based upon lot area. Specifically, the zoning code permits a maximum residential density of up to one dwelling unit per 110 sq. ft. of lot area. For example, if a residential development is situated on downtown property with a lot area of 10,000 sq. ft., the building would be limited to a maximum of approximately 91 dwelling units (10,000 sq. ft./110 sq. ft.). If a developer desired to exceed that amount, it would need to either: 1) apply for a variance from the Zoning Hearing Board; or 2) purchase unused development rights from another downtown property owner and seek to have that transfer approved by City Council. Both of these options are costly and time consuming, and there is no guaranteed result.

Under the pending legislation, the residential density restriction based on lot size would be completely eliminated. This amendment would greatly reduce a major hurdle for multi-unit residential developments downtown generally. However, the removal of the density requirement is particularly advantageous for residential conversion of taller existing office buildings, rather than for residential projects requiring new construction. This is because the density of newly constructed buildings will still be limited somewhat by the zoning code’s maximum floor area ratio (FAR) requirements in the GT-Districts, which range from 6:1 to 13:1, depending on their location downtown.1 For instance, assuming that a newly constructed residential building occupied an entire lot downtown, the development would no longer be limited to a certain number of dwelling units, but the building height would be limited to six to 13 stories, depending on its location. Therefore, the overall number of dwelling units permitted in the building would still be effectively limited by the maximum permitted FAR of the building. 

However, existing office buildings that exceed and pre-date the zoning code’s maximum FAR requirements (of which there are many downtown), would not be limited by FAR, even if converted to residential use. Consequently, a developer could conceivably convert an entire 40-story office building to residential use without the need to obtain any discretionary zoning relief, all while greatly exceeding the zoning code’s current density and FAR requirements.

Additionally, the current zoning code requires a public hearing and Project Development Plan (PDP) approval by the Planning Commission for any additional residential dwelling units proposed downtown, even where no exterior changes to an existing building are contemplated. This process can be time consuming and creates uncertainty regarding project approval. Under the proposed legislation, PDP approval would no longer be required to convert non-residential space into residential dwelling units in an existing building, unless significant exterior renovations are proposed. Thus, approval for conversion of office space to residential uses should become much more ministerial in nature.

Taken together, these changes provide greater development opportunities for increased residential density downtown and present developers with a much less onerous and more certain approval process. The legislation will now be taken up by City Council, who will hold a public hearing and vote on adoption of the bill in the coming months.

  1. Floor area ratio refers to the amount of gross floor area of all principal buildings on a lot divided by the total area of the lot on which such buildings are located.