For decades, the University of Pittsburgh’s expanding presence in Oakland has been a source of growth and growing pains.
There are the loud parties some long-term residents say come with students living next door. Ask the city and county controllers, and they’d fret about Pitt’s $1.5 billion in tax-exempt property. But beyond those concerns, there’s a broader, long-standing dynamic at play in the neighborhood: What should the Oakland of the future look like, and who has the power to shape that vision?
Oakland, the neighborhood fueling Pittsburgh’s “eds and meds” renaissance, is now at a critical juncture in charting its future. And the city that’s reaping both the benefits and the costs of ballooning nonprofit institutions is deciding the extent to which it should allow an entire neighborhood’s future to conform around that foundation.
The city is moving forward with a 10-year development plan for Oakland, which aligns with Pitt’s vision under its campus master plan, after about 100 community meetings over more than two years. In its Oakland Crossings project, developer Walnut Capital is looking to reconstruct 13 blocks of South and Central Oakland to create denser housing for non-student residents and provide a full-service grocery store. Pitt-owned property is included in the project.
And last year, the city approved Pitt’s most recent institutional master plan [IMP], outlining 22 sites for development, renovation and redevelopment within at least the next decade. The city requires institutions with large landholdings — including UPMC and Carnegie Mellon University — to submit IMPs every 10 years.
“It’s one thing to sort of be able to look back and say, ‘OK, over 30 years, these are all of the slow changes that might have changed the character of a neighborhood,’” said Jamie Ducar, executive director of the engaged campus at Pitt. “What folks are experiencing now is like, ‘OK, in the next 10 years, this neighborhood might look very different.’”
Proponents, including university and city officials, view development in Oakland as propelling needed growth that creates jobs, meets the area’s housing needs and fosters a vibrant, diverse neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s second downtown. Both the Oakland Plan’s related zoning proposals and Oakland Crossings have drawn questions and ire from some long-term residents concerned with potential building sizes.
What do community members think of Oakland’s ongoing development and expanding university presence, and how do both impact them? PublicSource spoke with long-term residents and students as well as university, city and business officials who make up the neighborhood.
The young family and the proposed shadow in their backyard
In February, Jessica Collins and her family moved to Coltart Avenue, a sloping street in Central Oakland. The move allowed their sons, who are 7 and 11, to continue attending their K-8 school in Greenfield, and the family likes the neighborhood’s proximity to attractions. In the mornings, Collins walks her sons to the Carnegie Museums, where they attend summer camp.
While 43% of households in Pittsburgh were made up of families as of October 2020, only 19% in Oakland were. In their short time living here, the Collins family has interacted with the student and long-term residents who make up the street. “One day I just look out, and I’m like, ‘Where are they?’” Collins said of her children. “They’re throwing a football around with students across the street.”
The family purchased their home knowing that a new development was set to be built behind their backyard, but they figured that was a concern for a later day. That day is near. Walnut Capital plans to build a 12-story, 426-unit apartment building and grocery on the site of a former Quality Inn, owned by Pitt. The developer aims to begin demolition of the inn in early 2023.
Though new developments bring the typical challenges of noisy construction and road closures, Collins questioned whether a building of that height would fit in with the neighborhood.
“Initially, hearing about how many stories they had planned to build this building, it seemed kind of a little out of place,” she said. “And obviously, living right here, it’ll be like, ‘Oh, there’ll be no more sky. It’ll just be a building.’”
The longtime residents grappling with long-term change
Kathy Boykowycz has lived on Parkview Avenue since 1973. In her first years in the house, she participated in a neighborhood-driven effort to create a master plan for Oakland — one that was in opposition to Pitt’s master plan.
By the late 1970s, the presence of Oakland’s nonprofit colleges and hospitals were contributing to now-familiar challenges to the neighborhood. The number of commuters outpaced the number of residents; chain stores catering to a growing student population replaced neighborhood businesses; and real estate interests converted owner-occupied homes into student apartments.
The neighborhood plan, published in 1980, struck an optimistic tone of collaboration. But Kathy, now 81, doesn’t share that outlook. She criticized the subsequent university planning processes she attended as lacking in transparency and proactive community input.
“We were just always reacting to something that came at us, and they had felt no need to involve us in actually preserving the neighborhood at all,” Kathy recalled. “It’s just always been eyewash, and I’m not sure why we even participated.”
Out of the 1980 endeavor sprung the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation [OPDC], now a registered community organization where her daughter, Andrea, serves as assistant director. The group and the university are sometimes at odds, but their relationship isn’t entirely adversarial. Pitt provided OPDC with $133,000 in funding for programs between fiscal years 2015 and 2019, in addition to $362,500 in no-interest loans and support for operating costs.
Ducar said she’s made it her mission to be present and visible at community meetings, not just to offer the university’s perspective, but to listen to residents.
“We recognize that there’s inherent tensions that come in with having a large institution in a small landlocked footprint, and we want to, wherever possible, start to build greater opportunity for us to work together,” Ducar said.
As part of its most recent IMP, the university met with neighborhood groups and held eight public meetings throughout 2019. The plan’s neighborhood enhancement strategy includes supporting “community-led strategies for neighborhood stabilization and housing affordability.”
Andrea, though, said OPDC must still exert itself against the force of university expansion in its commitment to strengthening Oakland’s residential community.
“It’s hard for many members of the community to know what the end game is for the university’s expansion,” Andrea said. “Is there a scenario in which the university will not talk about growth in the future? Will that be regarded as a failure, if the university can’t continue to grow?”
The business booster says Oakland isn’t really a town-gown neighborhood
Georgia Petropoulos doesn’t use the phrase “town and gown” to describe Oakland — to her, that feels very ’80s. Today, the neighborhood’s residents and institutions are wholly intertwined and inseparable, she said.
“A resident of Oakland also could be an employee of the university. A resident of Oakland could own a business in Oakland, could own commercial property in Oakland. Or they can actually be in leadership levels of these, quote, ‘institutions,’” Petropoulos said. “In my world, there’s no us-and-them boundary.”
Petropoulos heads the Oakland Business Improvement District [OBID]. Oakland has always been a job center — including for her parents, who immigrated from Greece — and its “eds and meds” are now critical to the vitality of Pittsburgh and the region, she said. Pitt has estimated that its annual economic impact to the state stands at $4.2 billion.
OBID wants Oakland’s universities to remain some of the neighborhood’s leading employers, so the organization supports their need for growth and density. She thinks that the universities have made a significant effort to engage the community in their development plans.
“There’s always opportunity for access to the university, always opportunity for providing input,” but they don’t have to agree, she said.
Students like the neighbors, not the landlord
On a stifling July evening, four current and former Pitt students stood on the sidewalk on Atwood Street, complaining about their landlord. The four friends have lived in the same off-campus house for two years, and in that time, they claim they’ve dealt with a flooded basement and leaking ceiling, among other issues.
“The landlords take advantage of the fact that we’re college kids needing a place to live,” said Victoria Martin, who graduated from Pitt this year. “They think we don’t know stuff or we’re not going to argue.”
Much of Oakland’s housing market is targeted toward high-turnover student rentals, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described Oakland as “the ultimate symbol of Pittsburgh’s rental housing woes” in a June investigation of the city’s inability to enforce rental quality. “There, entire blocks are rife with code violations, leaving students and parents frustrated and angry,” the Post-Gazette wrote.
Pitt plans to create more on-campus beds under its IMP, highlighting that students have moved off campus in recent years partly because dormitories can’t accommodate them. The university has also committed to fund the hiring of a full-time code enforcement officer for the neighborhood.
“We can’t continue to sort of let folks jam students in, not invest in their properties, have them sometimes even be somewhat dangerous,” Ducar said. “That means investing very visibly in Oakland.”
The friends wanted to move off campus partly because it offered more freedom than on-campus living. Despite the problems, they’ve enjoyed their time in the house.
Martin estimated that Atwood Street and nearby Meyran Avenue have the most student parties — “I think it’s pretty fun,” she said — and she gets the sense that the street’s long-term residents understand the loud gatherings come with the territory. Mallika Matharu, a rising senior, said the neighborhood’s older residents are “generally really nice.”
“They only dislike you if you’re rowdy and disturbing them,” Matharu said. “Which is fair, because they were here first.”
Neighbors look to Pitt for help with the students next door
Having 20-something students as neighbors may come with the following sights and sounds: Trash strewn about. Screams at 2 a.m. Cars parked in the yard. Students urinating over a guardrail.
This occurs even in what Jeff Maurin calls “a quiet enclave.” He and his wife, Kate, graduated from Pitt and have lived in the same house in Oakland Square for 13 years. The couple now have fewer long-term neighbors, and he said living near students has brought quality of life challenges.
“I just think it’s very different when you have people who want to get up and go to work in the morning versus people who don’t have class on Friday, so Thursday night is a great time to bring the stereo outside and have a big party on your porch,” Jeff said.
He’d like the university to further educate its students on what it means to be a good neighbor and provide greater enforcement off campus.
Ducar said that, for months, Pitt’s community affairs team specific to Oakland has consisted of just her. The university is expanding the team and is looking to prioritize addressing litter and concerns with property upkeep, she said.
Over on North Dithridge Street, long-term resident Kathy Gallagher said campus police regularly stop by the area, help get large parties under control and visit students the day after she’s had problems with them.
She said the relationship between Pitt and the Oakland community has improved over the years and is now “excellent.” She referenced Pitt’s “Be a Good Neighbor Block Parties,” held annually to foster relationships between students and long-term residents.
“Each year, we have students that come and say, ‘We didn’t know regular people lived here,’” said Gallagher, who is president of the Bellefield Area Citizens Association. “So I think the university and the community have done a better job of making known to both students and residents that yes, we both live here. And we both have a community.”
The councilor brings city power to the Oakland of the future
Oakland’s housing, parking and traffic needs necessitate more density, but single-family, owner-occupied homes still have a place in the neighborhood, said City Councilor Erika Strassburger, who represents parts of Oakland. Change in the neighborhood should be considerate of long-term residents’ concerns, to an extent, she said.
“My fear, on the flip side, is that the desire to see no change, or very little change, to the current built environment in Oakland will mean that every new development, every new project, is fought so hard that it drives up costs,” she said. “We just won’t be able to get to the bigger, holistic issues because we’ll be fighting all these little fires.”
To foster a more harmonious relationship between Pitt and the Oakland community, she said the city needs to exercise its power better. She’s optimistic that the city will finally be able to implement its long-delayed rental registration program, and that the resurgence of the disruptive properties program will force landlords to contend with the behavior of their student tenants.
University administrators, she said, truly care about being a good neighbor to Oakland, particularly when it comes to development. In shaping the future of the neighborhood, the university should be present, engaged and on equal footing with residents and businesses, she said.
“Because they’re a part of it, but they’re not all of it.”
The advocate asks: What should affordable housing look like in Oakland?
Generations of Teireik Williams’ family have called South Oakland home, and he’s found his passion for serving the community here. Williams, who works at CMU, is president of the South Oakland Neighborhood Group [SONG], an organization that aims to improve the quality of life in the area.
He envisions a neighborhood where long-term residents feel they have the same opportunities to shape their futures as the students who live here.
“You’re walking down the same street with somebody who’s 22, and the world is in front of them, and they feel like they can do anything in the world,” Williams said. “I want to create those same feelings in my neighbors.”
One of the neighborhood’s biggest challenges is a lack of affordable housing, Williams said. A 2020 report from the city cited students renting by the bedroom as likely contributing to comparatively higher prices in multi-bedroom homes.
Early this year, Mayor Ed Gainey called for two 30-day pauses on the Oakland Crossings project amid concerns that it could increase the cost of living and push out residents of color, WESA reported. Walnut Capital has since pledged to make 10% of the project’s housing affordable to people earning less than half the region’s median income. The City Planning Commission then approved the plan.
Still, Williams believes the project doesn’t match residents’ vision for the neighborhood, referencing the height of the proposed buildings.
“Development is something that we have to be sensitive to all the time because it is such a hot market,” Williams said. “People will come and develop things that are not in the best interest of the people that make up this neighborhood.”
The environmentalist in favor of dense development
The front yards of homes along Coltart Avenue are modest in size, but Michael Sobkowiak’s is noticeably green and lush. Walking around the perimeter of his home, he pointed out the tomatoes, raspberries and blueberries, plus the trees growing peaches and plums.
How has the neighborhood changed over the years? “I’ve got two trees growing in my front yard,” he said.
“I don’t think much has really changed.”
Sobkowiak, 56, has lived in Oakland for 25 years and on Coltart for about six. He believes that Oakland’s future will only continue to be geared toward students — who are residents, too, he said — and shaping the neighborhood in that vision makes sense.
“I really think that we could turn this into a far better student community, and then the residents who don’t mind living in that mix, live in it,” he said. “This is not going to be some leafy, green suburban community anymore. Right? It’s a college town. So why not make it the best college town possible?”
Beyond his garden, Oakland is surrounded by proposed development. Sobkowiak studied natural resources management at Cornell University and previously worked for the Green Building Alliance. His background leads him to prefer density over suburban sprawl. Many people want to live and work in Oakland, so the neighborhood should build to meet that need, he said.
Where does that leave Sobkowiak, a long-term resident himself?
“If you came and offered me a good number on the house, OK, I’ll move. But if they build behind me, I’ll stay,” he said. “I enjoy living here. I’ll continue to enjoy living here. But if someone said, ‘Hey, we’re redeveloping this whole six-block-area,’ OK, well, Plan B.”
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Ashanti McLaurin.