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North Neighborhoods
Marshall OKs Tech 21

Planners say building won't start for a year

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

By Susan Seibel

After three years of meetings that sometimes resembled tug-of-war matches, the tentative master plan for Tech 21 got the approval of Marshall supervisors Monday.

The largest development Marshall has yet seen will include 16 office and research buildings, two restaurants, a 120-room hotel and about 130 townhouses or apartments on a 223-acre wooded hillside on the corner of Warrendale Bayne and Brush Creek roads.

Since 1999, Tech 21 partners, a group of entrepreneurs seeking to develop the site, have seen the high-tech market rise and fall, encountered waves of criticism from residents, and suffered a resounding rejection last year.

But when approval finally came, Roger Pearson, the architect who salvaged the plans after they were rejected in October, wasn't even on hand to relish his success.

Pearson, of IDC Architects in Coraopolis, was in England on a matter of "homeland security," said IDC's Director of Design John Whitmire, who attended in Pearson's stead.

"Beyond that, I'm not sure what I'm at liberty to say," Whitmire said yesterday. "He felt bad about not being able to be there. He's shepherded it for a while."

IDC has in the past designed several high-tech, high-security U.S. government buildings.

Pearson approached the Tech 21 partners after the October rejection, offering to design an innovative, environmentally friendly development.

During Monday's meeting, which stretched until almost 11 p.m. before supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the plan, the supervisors, staff and developers hammered out details.

Supervisor Jack Candek voted against the plan, but didn't say why.

The approval was laden with restrictions on development.

"My primary concern ... is that we put into place the appropriate covenants and conditions to make sure that what is proposed is what is actually built," said Tom Madigan, supervisors chairman.

Most notably, the approval comes with a covenant that the developers will stop building when traffic generated by the site reaches a set limit.

Traffic concerns have been the biggest hurdle during the approval process. To get approval, the developers agreed that when there are 1,268 vehicles entering or leaving the site between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. and 1,113 vehicles between 5 and 6 p.m., they will stop building until new traffic improvements can be worked out with the township.

The plan approved Monday comes with extensive road improvements to eight intersections near the proposed development, and the creation of two intersections on Warrendale Bayne Road and Knob Road for access to the site.

The intersection that traffic experts predict will be swamped by traffic is that of Route 19 and Warrendale Bayne, which will be completely overhauled to include several lanes.

Even with Monday's approval, the developers don't expect construction to begin on buildings until fall 2003.

"With all the permits we need, we won't build until next fall," said Jack Norris of CB Richard Ellis, a real estate firm that is one of the Tech 21 partners.

Norris said one company is already interested in building a research and office building on the site. He also said several home builders have contacted the partners about the residential areas near Knob Road.

Monday's approval allows developers only to build roads, install utilities in the site, and build water retention ponds to collect storm water. Although the plans show the location of the research/office buildings, homes, restaurants and hotel, each building plan must come before the township's planning commission and supervisors for approval.

Before the supervisors voted, several residents voiced opposition to the development, unhappy about the added traffic and disruption to Marshall's rural setting.

Tech 21 partners Hal Wrigley and Francois Bitz were founders of Fore Systems, later bought by Marconi Communications. Marconi's building is on adjoining property. Bitz expressed his own frustration over the length of the process in an interview.

"We didn't have this much trouble when we built Fore Systems," Bitz said.

The approval for Tech 21 was prolonged because the township had to devise a zoning overlay for the land, which is zoned as suburban residential and planned industrial park. Township officials two years ago developed a research, residential and technology park overlay at the request of the partners.

The overlay requires heavy environmental safeguards to prevent the decimation of the hillside, and the first plans submitted by the Tech 21 partners fell far short of the restrictions.

The latest plans ask for some relief, but township planning director and zoning officer Chris Murphy felt that the modifications were reasonable.

The overlay restricts buildings to a height no greater than 1,290 feet above sea level. Letting five buildings exceed that height -- the highest by 25 feet -- allowed the developers to keep more of the land's natural contours rather than scraping away hillside to sink the 5-story buildings to the required level.

The developers are also asking that they be allowed to build on 9.4 acres of land that was to be set aside for conservation purposes. In exchange, they offer to increase the buffer zone of undisturbed trees between the development and nearby housing plans.

"It does minimize the disturbance to the conservation areas," Murphy said.

The developers also offered to contribute $235,000 to the township recreation fund, essentially paying for the use residents in the new homes will make of the township parks.

The supervisors also voted to change the zoning of a 16.5-acre plot adjacent to the site, which is owned by Wrigley and will be included in the development. The land was zoned as medium-density residential and was rezoned to suburban residential so it could be included in the zoning overlay.

The other 207 acres of the site are owned by Allegheny County.

Supervisors then approved the zoning overlay for the entire site.

Susan Seibel is a free-lance writer.

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