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Allegheny Institute


Riverfront Zoning Proposal Much Improved

by Policy Brief
 

(May 26, 2016)--Back in March, our Policy Brief, Volume 16, Number 10
noted that the City Planning Commission was in the process of
preparing new zoning regulations for property along the riverfronts
for presentation to City Council. The Mayoral press release at that
time claimed the old zoning regulations of "urban industrial" and
"general industrial" were no longer useful for what the
administration viewed as today's mixed use development strategies.
The Brief questioned key parts of the proposed zoning changes because
of likely adverse effects on industrial users and the resulting
potential to remove water borne cargo from the rivers.

The original language of the ordinance draft under "Intent" (section
907.02.J.3) says its objective is aimed at: "Protecting existing
residential, commercial, industrial, and office uses and encourage
new uses that are complementary to the context of the mixed-use
nature of Pittsburgh's riverfronts". After the Institute Brief was
published, and subsequently included as a Sunday feature editorial in
the Tribune Review, and no doubt along with some lobbying by
industrial firms that are located on and use the waterways, the
language of this subsection was revised by the Planning Commission.

With the new language underlined it now reads: "Protecting and
preserving existing industrial, residential, commercial, and office
uses and encouraging new development that is complementary to the
range of uses of Pittsburgh's riverfronts without creating new use
restrictions". The addition of "preserving existing industrial" uses
is a major alteration in the language in that it suggests active
governmental support and encouragement of industry as opposed to
merely saying existing industry will be protected. This is a much
more positive tone that recognizes the important role played by
industry.

Then too, rewording the proposed zoning language that originally
said, "encourage new uses that are complementary to the context of
the mixed use nature of Pittsburgh's riverfronts" to read
"encouraging new development that is complementary to the range of
uses of Pittsburgh's riverfronts without creating new use
restrictions" is a major concessionary recognition that industrial
firms seeking to locate on the rivers should not face any new
restrictive zoning rules that would make it even harder to build and
operate a facility than current rules impose. Moreover, the inclusion
of "encouraging new development" in this context if adhered to by the
City would be a dramatic departure from recent emphasis.

It is worth restating the reason industrial users who make use of the
waterways are so vital to the rivers and all the rivers represent in
terms of recreation, water supply, and enhancement of the quality of
life. It must be understood that the Ohio, the Monongahela, and the
Allegheny rivers, as they exist today, are actually stable pools that
have been created by a lock and dam system designed to facilitate
waterborne transportation of goods--a system that contributed to
Pittsburgh and the region becoming an industrial power. The US Army
Corps of Engineers (USACE) maintains, rehabs, and when needed
replaces the locks and dams, which includes funding necessary repairs
or replacements.

The key factor in the USACE's decisions regarding allocating funds
(that must be approved by Federal legislation) to the upkeep and
replacement of waterways infrastructure is the tonnage of cargo
moving through the locks. That tonnage relates directly to the
transportation cost savings created by waterways shipment as compared
to other modes. Transporting goods via barge is a much cheaper
alternative to either rail or truck. One barge can haul as much as
15 railcars or 58 trucks. It is estimated that transport by barge is
54 percent cheaper on a per ton mile basis than rail and 95 percent
cheaper than truck.

Shipper cost savings produce multiplied economic benefits for the
economy and therefore, if large enough, will justify lock and dam
construction, operation and maintenance. Removing waterborne cargo
from the rivers will weaken the case for spending taxpayer funds on
the infrastructure in the Pittsburgh region. Prolonged and extensive
diminution of cargo traffic could lead to the locks not being
maintained well enough to be used and dams not repaired or replaced.
Lose the dams; lose the wonderful deep pools of water that we know as
the Three Rivers and all the benefits, other than cargo
transportation, created by the stable river pools.

Emsworth lock and dam, which keeps the water around the city at the
full pool level, was built nearly a century ago and was last
rehabilitated in 1984. The estimate to repair three locks on the
upper Ohio River (Emsworth, Dashields, and Montgomery) is $2.3
billion. While the Federal government provides funding for
infrastructure, barge companies pay a fuel tax that goes to
construction. The current tax rate is $0.29 per gallon of fuel used
by the towboats. The revenue goes toward construction and rehabs with
the Federal government providing matching funds for this tax.

An economic study conducted by the USACE notes that the region's
economy has shifted from manufacturing to education and health. The
former is very dependent upon the waterways while the latter is
clearly not. The most recent jobs data bears this out as
manufacturing jobs in the seven county Pittsburgh MSA account for
only seven percent of all nonfarm jobs. Meanwhile education and
health jobs account for twenty one percent. Note too that leisure
and hospitality jobs account for ten percent.

The crux of our position is that the City should not be tightening
its zoning regulations to the disadvantage of the industries that
rely on the rivers but should encourage those already here while
promoting new firms to enter the city. Thus, it is gratifying to see
the change in language in the new zoning proposal that clearly
recognizes the need to protect and preserve existing industry and
also proposes to encourage new development and rule out new more
restrictive zoning rules that current or prospective industrial firms
would face in building a new facility.

However we are still concerned about language in the section "Need
for Interim Zoning" (907.02.J.2) which gives neighborhood
stakeholders the ability to provide input on projects which have an
impact on the public. This may provide neighborhood groups the
ability to pressure future administrations to remove industrial firms
who no longer fit their idea of what their neighborhood should
be--e.g. Lawrenceville residents vs the McConway ~Torley foundry.
Furthermore, the desire to have a continuous riverfront trail could
come at the expense of industrial firms who need to use riverfront
property to load and unload cargo.

In short, the City has made some important revisions in the zoning
language. But a watchword in the City and surrounding area must be
that whatever can be done to ensure the future of the waterways as a
means of cargo transport should be done. Thus it is important to keep
a sharp eye out for things such as ill-considered zoning laws that
could be harmful to the volume of waterborne freight on the rivers.

Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President
Frank Gamrat, Ph.D., Sr. Research Associate

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