Mt. Lebanon is moving ahead with a zoning ordinance change intended to bring more restaurants, entertainment venues and retail businesses to its uptown business district.
During their April 23 discussion session, a majority of Mt. Lebanon commissioners agreed to pursue language in the ordinance that would place limitations on uses for first-floor commercial spaces facing Washington Road.
The revised ordinance would consider placement of new professional offices in such locations as nonconforming uses, meaning that appeals would go through the municipal Zoning Hearing Board.
Current uses would be grandfathered, according to Bill Callahan, president of the Mt. Lebanon Partnership’s executive committee.
“Obviously, we don’t want to remove anything that’s already there,” he told commissioners. “The existing condition can last as long as they want to, and only on those Washington Road storefronts.”
His organization, a nonprofit that promotes vitality and economic growth, has joined with Mt. Lebanon Economic Development Council in calling for the zoning ordinance amendment.
“Overwhelmingly, the public has expressed an interest in Uptown being a place where there is more entertainment, retail and food service,” Callahan said. “This is one tool in that effort to try to maintain and increase those activities, in response to what the public has been telling us the last eight years they want to have, through the municipality’s own planning processes.”
He cited public input for the development of the current municipal comprehensive plan and the 2015 Uptown Strategic Plan.
In August, Mt. Lebanon Planning Board voted to recommend an amendment to the zoning ordinance that would “make offices and medical clinic/medical facilities a conditional use in street-facing storefronts on the first floor within the Central Business District,” according to the minutes from the meeting.
The rationale, as board member Dennis Pittman explained during the April 23 discussion, was the belief the “decision making that goes with regulations belongs with representative peer group responsible for Main Street.”
That would include the municipality’s economic development office, planning board and ultimately the commissioners.
The discussion session included comments from opponents of amending the ordinance, including Lori Moran, whose business interests include a company that owns property and rents space along Washington Road.
“Tenant mix is crucial to the health and vitality to a shopping center and a community. No dispute there,” she told commissioners. “But limiting use, you don’t see that anywhere.”
She expressed doubts about such measures working as anticipated.
“If your goal is to revitalize and have more activity in the community, forcing a vacancy by not allowing an office to go in there does not guarantee you, nor does it facilitate, a restaurant use going in,” she said. “It means you have a vacancy that’s sitting there.”
Attorney William Pentecost Jr. of Cipriani & Werner spoke on behalf of one of the law firm’s founding partners, Gerard Cipriani, who owns the building at 650 Washington Road.
“Obviously, if we could get a retail tenant, we would. They’re the highest and best use. But if they’re not there and a certain storefront becomes designated retail only, that sort of shoots us all in the foot, that we can’t put a doctors office in or some other type of tenant in that would be of benefit,” Pentecost said. “Having arbitrary quotas, for lack of a better term, of retail versus letting the market decide just doesn’t seem to be helping anybody.”
Lee Heckman, a lifelong Mt. Lebanon resident and 35-year owner of a Beverly Road custom framing business, expressed support for measures that would promote restaurants and retail, contending that such ventures are effective in drawing potential customers.
“Every business on Beverly Road benefited from the Coffee Tree showing up,” he said, referencing the presence of the family-owned Coffee Tree Roasters.
Regarding the zoning ordinance amendment, municipal planner Ian McMeans and solicitor Philip Weis will work on the language reflecting offices as nonconforming uses, and the revisions will be submitted to Allegheny County for comment. The municipality must hold a further public hearing prior to commissioners voting on the measure.