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North Neighborhoods
Life on the Allegheny: Region's newest riverfront development aims to be old-style neighborhood for water lovers

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

By Michael J. Dongilli

The idea is to build new neighborhoods reminiscent of traditional ones, with a mix of uses in the buildings and a mix of incomes and ages among residents, all bound by the strong social infrastructure of "the town. " In such neighborhoods, Main Street is a a real place punctuated by front porches and parks, revolving around how people really interact.

Planners call the concept new urbanism, an oxymoron of sorts since it dates back 100 years, yet an idea that has re-emerged as a better way to build.

The latest example is about to unfold along the banks of the Allegheny River in O'Hara, with the rise of Chapel Harbors at the Water.

Chapel Harbors is only the latest vision centering on the stretch of riverfront, roughly 40 acres off Freeport and Old Freeport roads, sandwiched between the river and the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks.

For years it sat desolate, dominated by the industrial scape around it. The river access inspired dreamers, but the dreams dissipated, popped by ill-conceived ideas or the inability to finance the ones with merit.

In the early 1990s, one plan finally got as far as the preliminary approval of the O'Hara Planning Commission. Local developer Richard Stern wanted to build a $30 million hybrid community -- retail, residential and commercial -- called Riverside, which would finally make beautiful almost a half mile of prime river frontage.

That plan foundered on financial shoals, but Eugene Zambrano, president of Zambrano Corp. of Sharpsburg and the intended construction manager for the project, emerged with a vision for what might be termed a "shore" thing.

When the property came up for sheriff's sale in 1999, Zambrano staked a claim. A year later, he closed the deal at a cost of $2.75 million.

Chapel Harbors was hardly smooth sailing from there, as the township and the developers spent a year in give and take over the plans. But when O'Hara council voted 5-1 in favor on June 11, river living was set to ride a whole new wave.

Welcome to Walt's World

Zambrano would hardly equate himself with Walt Disney, but he certainly feels a connection with Celebration, Fla.

Celebration, planned and developed from the ground up by the Walt Disney Co., brought modern urbanism back to the forefront when it was in the planning stages a decade ago, and is still considered the country's premier example of the philosophy.

The town, near Disney World, draws accolades for its pre-1940s architecture and pedestrian-friendly layout.

Of course, Celebration is planned as a complete town, with 8,000 housing units on 4,900 acres surrounded by 4,700 more acres of green space.

Chapel Harbors obviously won't come anywhere near that total, but it will, its planners hope, share Celebration's sense of space and incorporate the nostalgic enhancements that have given new urbanism its increasing popularity.

At $60 million to build, Chapel Harbors is no Mickey Mouse commitment financially. Next to the Waterfront in Homestead, it represents the second largest development on Pittsburgh's expansive but barren -- in terms of housing, anyway -- riverbanks.

But Zambrano has more than just profits in mind -- he said he also wants "to build a lasting legacy for our family in our hometown."

Already, two other communities have recently capitalized on the new urbanism trend: Washington's Landing, a riverfront neighborhood on Herr's Island; and Crawford Square, which has brought new life to the Hill District.

Both are sold out and thriving, which has Zambrano and his partner, EQA Landmark Communities, hopeful that Chapel Harbors, which is twice as large as the other two, will also succeed.

Old charm made new

Great neighborhoods have one primary feature in common, according to Paul Ostergaard of Urban Design Associates, the master planners and architects for Crawford Square.

Great neighborhoods "accommodate a whole variety of different people -- from single professionals to families to senior citizens -- and a tremendous range of incomes," Ostergaard said.

"One of the problems of the modern subdivisions is builders build one type of house basically for one specific price point, but that sort of excludes a whole class of people."

Developments like Chapel Harbors, although their layouts borrow from the past, don't just imitate old towns. Typically, the footprint is a new urbanism adaptation sometimes referred to as "neo-traditional," balancing the things that make neighborhoods great with the modern "must haves."

In the Harbors, 180 rental townhouses and 46 others for sale, a 52-unit midrise condominium building and a 170-room independent living facility owned by UPMC will divide the living space and create the housing diversity Ostergaard described.

From an architectural perspective, the buildings will reflect what Harbors master planner Jack LaQuatra, a principal in the landscape architect firm of LaQuatra Bonci Associates, calls Pittsburgh vernacular -- classical styles ranging from colonial to Victorian.

"Wherever we're working, we go into that city and take pictures and study the precedent architectural styles," LaQuatra said. "This determines and ensures that the [structural] products fit the area."

Facades and materials may mirror a period long ago, but inside amenities such as open floor plans, first-floor master bedrooms, spacious kitchens and great rooms remind everyone of lifestyles now.

Getting there

This talk of architecture and community philosophy, however, means nothing if you can't get to the site.

"The key to the property as it was shaping was always the access," Zambrano said. The problem with access was Norfolk Southern, whose trains and tracks lay between the road and the property.

The answer is a 40-foot tunnel, offering an at-grade, no-gate, no-signal railroad crossing.

Zambrano said when he approached Norfolk Southern officials about the tunnel, a leftover idea from the Stern plan, they not only approved, "they applauded it, under one condition -- [that it] replace the at-grade crossing near the Portec building," one of the site's industrial neighbors.

The decision solved a major problem with the site, and gave Zambrano an alluring entrance into the village.

His vision is that residents will experience instant charm as they exit the tunnel, greeted by a harmonious landscape with tailored, tree-lined, streets with secure paths for walking and cycling.

A linear park will traverse the complex, peppered with overlooks, walking trails and benches, making the site's most enviable element -- the Allegheny -- a front-yard spectacle for all.

A second water feature, an existing inland harbor at the east end of the project, is a natural focal point that LaQuatra calls a rare find in any development. The condominiums and for-sale townhouses will be clustered around it.

There's also an existing wetland area that will be undisturbed and worked into the landscape.

Situated among the housing is a 40,000-square-foot professional and retail building to bring services and gathering places such as a coffee shop within walking distance.

"The whole concept of new urbanism isn't just getting the product mix right," LaQuatra said, "but also providing for useable green space, park links and creating an amenity package that actually enhances the quality of life."

OK, with conditions

If the plan has a fault, it doesn't lie in the aesthetics or concept. But an argument could be made for the compromises the township had to make to get there.

The final resolution, in which O'Hara council approved the plan, contained a list of 38 conditions and various departures from the township's zoning ordinance.

Many of those departures had sparked debate over potential precedents being set.

One of them was the fact that residential buildings are much larger than allowed by ordinance -- the maximum allowed is 17,500 square feet; the UPMC facility is 39,000 square feet, the largest building in the plan.

Also noteworthy is a substantial reduction in the landscape screen between residential and industrial borders -- from the required 55 feet wide to a minimum of 21 feet at certain pinch points.

Zambrano said a majority of the smaller landscape screen is actually 30 feet wide with a seven-foot mounded sound wall shielding the back yards of residents from the noise from trains.

A third major issue was the plan to subdivide the parcel into lots of less than 10 acres, which was not the township's intention when it established its riverfront regulations.

But weighed against the blighted, vacant expanse there now -- and against roughly a quarter of a century of futile proposals for the site -- O'Hara Councilman Jim Zaenger believes the exceptions made sense.

"My own feeling is that the departures for the building size are substantial and I wish that they weren't so great." Zaenger said. "But there are probably really three important factors that are associated with this.

"One is riverfront parks and the access to them, and [those at Chapel Harbors] are remaining tax-paying land that will be maintained by the property owners. These parks are coming to us at no cost."

Zaenger's second point is traffic. "The development is primarily residential, and the average impacts on traffic are substantially less than the kind you would get from commercial developments which have been proposed fairly often in the past."

His third point is ambiance. "That area there, let's say defined by Fox Chapel and Freeport Roads, is a pretty eclectic mixture -- residential, commercial, industrial, all within a few baseball throws of each other and generally living together reasonably well. I don't believe that this is going to upset that balance at all."

When viewed next to established structures like the city's water treatment plant, the Papercraft and Portec industrial buildings and the Fox Chapel Yacht Club, Zaenger suggested the building sizes in Chapel Harbors, even though they are beyond what's called for in the ordinance, will fit in. "I don't think it's out of scale at all," he said.

Mitigating the problems with any development and satisfying all parties is always a balancing act, Zaenger said. But he believes O'Hara Council handled it well with Chapel Harbors, and believes 99 percent of O'Hara residents will welcome the development once completed.

LaQuatra is equally confident of the end result.

"It's going to look like a new, old town that belongs in Pittsburgh, not like we imported it from Florida," he said. "Hopefully we'll create a unique place with a timeless image so that in 100 years somebody will say, 'Boy, they did this right.' "


Michael J. Dongilli is a free-lance writer.

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