North Shore casino wins planners' OK
A key hurdle for Barden effort; Pirates, Steelers, science center still unhappy; 16 traffic conditions outlined
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
By Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Don Barden's quest to build his North Shore casino cleared a key hurdle yesterday with city planning commission approval of his master plan, but the decision did little to appease his powerful neighbors.
After a contentious three-hour hearing, the commission voted unanimously to approve PITG Gaming's casino master plan, a first step toward construction, but it came over the objections of the Steelers, the Pirates and the Carnegie Science Center.
While the decision allows Mr. Barden to continue planning for his casino, it also could set up another state Supreme Court battle if the Steelers and the science center follow through with threats of legal action.
Mr. Barden currently is awaiting a ruling from the court on appeals filed by the two losing bidders over the award of the city's casino license. Appeals of local planning and zoning issues related to the casino also bypass lower-level courts and go directly to the high court.
In recommending approval of the master plan, city planners sought to address concerns by the Steelers and Pirates over the casino's impact on games and other events at Heinz Field and PNC Park.
Among the 16 traffic-related conditions the casino must meet, one involves completion of a game day study using "the worst-case event scenario" at PNC Park and Heinz Field with the results to be used in development of a traffic and parking management plan for events.
Representatives for the two teams pressed the commission to require such a study before the master plan approval, arguing that the casino had the potential to throw the North Shore road network "into chaos," as Steelers consultant Robert Brooks put it.
Walter Heintzleman, a Pirates consultant, said the addition of casino traffic could create 90-minute delays in getting to games.
"Without an in-depth study, we could be set back some 20 years when traffic backed up on the Fort Duquesne Bridge," said Dennis DaPra, Pirates senior vice president and general manager of PNC Park.
But city transportation planner Sidney Kaikai said there wasn't time to do the study before the master plan approval. He argued that the casino might add 20 minutes to game-day waits, but added that the city is working to develop alternate routes to take gambling traffic away from the stadiums on game days.
The other major objection came from the science center, which hasn't been able to reach agreement with Mr. Barden on improvements related to bus access, lighting and pedestrian safety. The casino would be built next to its property.
The key issue is bus access, with the two sides at odds over exactly how to funnel bus traffic into the science center property from a nearby parking lot. While the two sides sniped at each other during the hearing, Mr. Kaikai told the commission he believed a compromise was possible.
"I think we're almost there," he said.
Commission members refused to adopt the science center's concerns as conditions of master plan approval. Center Director Joanna Haas said their vote "leaves us every bit as uncertain as we were coming in," adding an appeal was still an option.
But she also said the center would to try to work with Mr. Barden to get an agreement. "It's still our hope that we'll get this issue resolved because it's the right thing to do," she said.
Mark Hart, Steelers director of business, said the team would evaluate the traffic mitigation measures proposed by Mr. Kaikai before deciding its next step. That does not mean the team was happy with the result.
"We've been saying that we wanted a realistic traffic management plan, traffic impact study, and this is not what we received," he said.
He added, "Let's call it a piecemeal master plan. I think we need a comprehensive master plan for the entire North Shore and until we have that nothing's going to get solved."
Mr. DaPra said the Pirates were "extremely disappointed" with the decision. He said the requirement for a game day study before the casino opened was inadequate.
"We stand by our position that as it sits today this is a negative impact to our customers," he said.
On the other side, PITG Gaming spokesman Bob Oltmanns said the casino was "delighted" with the unanimous master plan approval. At the same time, he took some shots at casino opponents.
"This is a public process for property tax reform, and the process has been hijacked by a couple of special interests that in my opinion are an abuse of the process," he said.
Commission member Todd Reidbord urged the parties to set aside their differences and work together to find solutions. He noted the planning process for the casino was just beginning, with various approvals still needed before construction can begin.
Besides the requirement for the game-day study, other traffic-related conditions ordered as part of the approval were a casino post-opening traffic and parking impact study, signal and sign modifications to address pedestrian safety, and a design for the casino's main entrance that minimizes the impact on the science center. It must also employ a transportation coordinator to manage all casino traffic and parking issues.
Mr. Barden is proposing $10 million in traffic improvements to intersections and roads near the casino that must be completed by the opening in summer 2008.
The commission also is asking Mr. Barden to give priority to keeping the North Shore riverfront trail, which will run through his property, open and accessible at all times and to include best-practice green building initiatives in the $435 million construction.