Hazard zone: Council is making mischief on city planning

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Two things that are not needed in city government are politics and bureaucracy. Yet more of both are likely to follow if zoning changes proposed in City Council last week are approved.

On Tuesday, the Rev. Ricky Burgess slipped in five measures that he said are intended to restore the proper oversight role of the nine council members. He said his interest in the need for change was triggered when the UPMC Health System put a crisis center in his East End district despite community objections.

The changes he proposed, though, would have broad application, potentially hurting new development across the city. They'd apply to districts zoned for industrial or education-medical uses and require both planning commission and council action on top of approval from zoning administrators or the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The impact could be felt by just about any business in industrial or ed-med districts that wanted to change the use of land or an existing building, unless their intentions are specifically permitted, such as classroom space by universities. And that's just the collateral damage.

The true targets of the legislation are the city's educational and medical institutions. How else to explain that one of the measures would rezone most of the Chatham University campus to bring it under the regulations, a change that even could affect private residences on the East End property?

It is no coincidence that these proposals come as city officials attempt to win financial support from the city's largest tax-exempt property owners. City universities and other post-secondary schools have mobilized against an attempt by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to impose a surcharge on tuition, and the city's major nonprofits, which made voluntary payments of $14 million from 2005 to 2007, have offered significantly less going forward.

For city officials to respond by threatening more burdensome regulation is wrong.

City administrators are justified in seeking a greater level of support for city services from tax-exempt institutions, and the tuition fee proposed by the mayor is not excessive. But the city's zoning code should not be a weapon in a fight that has nothing to do with the proper regulation of land and building use, especially because the potential for harm extends so widely.

Council should reject these spiteful measures that will make mischief when the city instead should be helping businesses that want to build or expand in Pittsburgh.


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