District 7 and neighborhood groups state their concerns at zoning hearing for proposed social club

On Thursday, January 17, PHCA staff member Leslie Clague and board members Alexis Miller and Mark Knobil, the executive director of Lawrencevile United, Lauren Byrne, and District 7 Councilman Patrick Dowd attended a zoning hearing to state their concerns about the application by the Social Association of Pittsburgh Professionals (SAPP) for a zoning variance to open a social club at 0 Sassafras Street, just inside the northern border of Polish Hill.

SAPP would rent around 4,000 square feet on the second floor of the large blue building near the corner of Liberty Ave. and 33rd St, just a few hundred feet from the intersection of Liberty Avenue and Herron Avenue. The site is also the intersection of four neighborhoods – Polish Hill, the Strip District, Lawrenceville and Bloomfield. (in the photo above, the building is the large blue structure on the right, Herron Bridge is to the left, and Polish Hill is in the background)

Community groups from all four neighborhoods have taken an interest in the application and have been working together to communicate with the board and president of SAPP, Unrico Abbondanza. Neighbors in the Strip and Bloomfield Development Corporation were not able to send representatives to the zoning hearing, but empowered PHCA President Alexis Miller to speak on their behalf.

The community representatives at the hearing stated their opposition to the application, based on concerns due to the lack of specifics and lack of a willingness to put limits on their operations. The main concerns expressed at the hearing included operating hours, types of events, security at the events, and traffic concerns. There were also additional questions about parameters of regular and associate membership, how many events would be held, what types of events would be permitted, and staffing of the club. This zoning variance and the liquor license — a separate application — would legally allow SAPP to be open and serve alcohol from 7 a.m. – 3 a.m., 7 days a week.

SAPP stated that despite their ability to operate during these hours, which in effect would allow them to potentially operate an after-hours club every day of the week, their intention was to have just a few events a month. SAPP representatives noted possible events like fundraisers for charities, or weddings, but stated that all of their members (currently approximately 200) would be allowed to host any sort of event they wanted. During the public meeting last week, attendees noted that SAPP repeatedly indicated that they didn’t want to accept any limitations on their activities.

The community representatives stated that they wanted SAPP to agree to conditions limiting their activities and hours of operation. Having conditions upon use would give the community some power in the event that the use of the building and the hours of operation expanded to a point where it was causing a negative impact on surrounding communities.

This zoning variance will impact the use of the building not only for SAPP, but for the long term. If SAPP discontinues use of the space, the social club zoning will stay with the building as long as no more than a year passes before a new tenant moves in.

The Zoning Board will now look at all the testimony and evidence presented, and come up with a decision in 45 days. Diana Nelson-Jones of the Post- Gazette was present at the hearing — read her article here.

12 thoughts on “District 7 and neighborhood groups state their concerns at zoning hearing for proposed social club

  1. I don’t see a problem with this social club existing in this space. The president of this social club is a public school teacher and the vice president is the superintendent of West Mifflin School District. It doesn’t seem like the type of organization that is going to cause major problems.

  2. Virginia,

    Yes, and another officer of SAPP owns the building that SAPP hopes to have their club in. A zoning variance like this increases the value of his building — which does have a For Sale sign on it — quite a bit.

    What worries the community groups and Councilman Dowd, all of whom have met with SAPP repeatedly and listened carefully to what they have said, is that these gentlemen were essentially saying “just trust us”, and at the same time, resisting any limits on what they might do there.

    The people who have been meeting most closely with the men you mention have gotten more concerned, not less — based on what these gentlemen are saying. Our community can’t afford to give anyone a blank check to do whatever they want with a space that is legally zoned to be open 7 days a week, 20 hours a day.

    Even if they are completely “upscale” and “classy” (those are the words they used), the SAPP officers aren’t going to be managing this club — and they couldn’t tell us who would. And, as they told us, membership isn’t limited to professionals, it can be anyone — white collar, blue collar — anyone. And as they told us, they don’t want to put any limits on what anyone can do there, or who their members can invite. That leaves the question of what will happen here — and how often, and who will be there — wide open. And that’s not acceptable to the people who live near here.

    All the communities are asking for is for SAPP to agree — on paper — to some limitations. Because even if the SAPP effort works out fine, if they leave, this zoning variance remains. We are looking not just at SAPP, but also far ahead — that’s our job. Because our neighborhood will have to live with any negative consequences that result for years to come.

  3. Posted from Facebook:

    Don Orkoskey
    Thank you everyone who made sure this didn’t slip by without letting the public express their concerns and for taking those concerns to zoning for us all! Saturday at 2:07pm

  4. Posted from Facebook:

    Virginia Paul
    I’m a Polish Hill resident and I don’t see a problem with this social club existing in this space. The president of this social club is a public school teacher and the vice president is the superintendent of West Mifflin School District. It doesn’t seem like the type of organization that is going to cause major problems. In fact, I’d like to live close to this social club. Am I missing something? Saturday at 2:27pm

  5. Posted from Facebook:

    Don Orkoskey

    @Virginia – did you come to the public meeting? If not then yes, you missed them being very evasive and refusing to give the community guarantees that this wouldn’t end up as an after-hours club (seeing as how the liquor license they’re applying for goes from 7 am to 3 am) or something other than what they say it will be.

    The variance would transfer with the location even if they go out of business for up to a year. When the former strip club closed where Cheerleaders is the variance was just weeks from expiring when Cheerleaders rented the space. They’ve proved to be OK neighbors but there was nothing that we could have done if they were not.

    There are concerns with that intersection which is already the site of a lot of accidents being crowded with intoxicated drivers making a dangerous situation worse.

    There are concerns that this could adversely effect the other development that is happening near there like the IC site and the new campus that the Ballet is building just down Liberty.

    Lastly one of these upstanding gentlemen who works in education called to ask if anyone had seen his Altoids box that he was very concerned with having lost. I don’t think one has to think very hard about what someone might keep in an Altoids container (other than mints) which could lead to them being so concerned about having lost it.

    Nobody is 100% against these guys opening what they’ve said they want to open but those who’ve expressed concern want something other than their word – we want assurances because we’ve been burned before and as I said the variance could transfer so even if these guys are great and honest and upstanding folks the next folks that want to open a business there might not be.
    Saturday at 2:44pm

  6. Posted from Facebook:

    Virginia Paul

    No I wasn’t at the meeting and I appreciate your report-back. It’s possible that the organization wasn’t expecting such opposition and was unprepared to answer all of the questions from the community. I agree, they absolutely should provide answers.

    While I do think they need to provide a clear picture of the activity that will take place there, I highly doubt the superintendent of West Mifflin Area School District is planning to operate some unruly night club. I think this has the potential to be a great space for people to socialize and hold events.

    I don’t think it’s fair to insinuate that a school teacher was keeping drugs in an Altoids box. Even if someone did lose their box of weed at a meeting, they sure as hell aren’t going to call the organizers to see if anyone found it. People keep all sorts of things in small containers. Perhaps he kept medication or photos in it.
    Saturday at 3:33pm via mobile

  7. Posted from Facebook:

    Don Orkoskey

    I didn’t assume there was weed in there but I’ve never known anyone to keep legal “medication” in an Altoids tin but I do remember a fair number of heads who kept other things in there when I was in school (and they were not pictures).
    Saturday at 3:36pm

  8. Posted from Facebook:

    Virginia Paul

    We don’t have to agree, thats fine. I’d just like it to be know that I own a house in Polish Hill and I would be happy if this social club came to fruition.
    Saturday at 3:42pm

  9. Posted from Facebook:

    Don Orkoskey

    Like I said – I’m not opposed to what they said they want to open (though I am concerned about drunk driving near that part of Liberty). The objections that were raised are just means of assuring that what they say will happen is what happens and nothing more.
    Saturday at 3:47pm

  10. Posted from Facebook:

    Paul J. Laure

    Well, Dan, even though I join Virginia in disagreeing with you I do want to take this opportunity to thank you very much for showing so much concern about our neighborhood and going to this meeting to fill the rest of us in on the details. It’s not very easy for pedestrians to access the residential areas of Polish Hill from Sassafras Way, so I highly doubt we’ll see an influx of drunks errantly stumbling up the hill and causing problems. I actually want to see MORE businesses fill in along Sassafras Way and the Iron City site to help increase the amenities within walking distance of our homes. Yes, I do regularly walk to the Strip District, Downtown, and Oakland, but it would be nice to say some evening “I want a burger” and NOT have to either have a very long walk or hop into the car.
    Saturday at 4:26pm

  11. Paul,

    This is a complicated situation, with a lot of details — more than can be listed in a blog post. I would like to assure you that the opposition to this club is not frivolous or uninformed. The leaders of four different community groups, and our councilman, have listened carefully to SAPP during multiple meetings, and asked a lot of questions. The responses they have gotten have them very concerned. The residents and business owners who attended the public meeting were able to ask question of the SAPP officers also came away feeling uneasy.

    Just to clarify: This is not a public establishment, not a restaurant or a bar where anyone could just walk in. SAPP told us that the reason people would join their organization was to have access to a place where they could host any sort of event or private party they wanted (regular after-parties for boxing events was an example they gave the zoning board).

    More businesses would be great — if those are things we need here. But SAPP isn’t a business — it’s a 501c7, a private organization.

    I should also clarify…the concern isn’t about drunks stumbling up the hill — few, if any, of the members of this fraternal organization live nearby; they will not be coming on foot. We are worried about drivers under the influence, on Liberty and at that Liberty – Herron intersection. According to the City, that is the most dangerous intersection in the City — the most accidents. And the traffic study done by the Strip District for their planning showed that Liberty was the most dangerous road in the city. We’re worried about people leaving this private club intoxicated, and driving through the neighborhoods on their way home — especially on Herron.

    Like I said…it’s complex, and it goes far beyond whether what these gentlemen are promising will really happen.

  12. Posted from Facebook:

    Don Orkoskey

    That’s the reason that the neighborhood groups have done all they’ve done – to make sure that that area can be the future home of great stuff and that development isn’t stifled by other businesses not wanting to open there.

    Look at how long the Northside had to deal with the area around Federal and North being blighted because of the Garden Theater. I don’t expect that these guys will put in a porn theater but as I said – that variance can be transferred so even if they’re great, if they can’t stay open then someone else has the ability to use that variance to use that building however the variance allows.

    They said they might want to rent it out for weddings or other events. Ok, great but they’ve used that as a reason for why they won’t limit the hours that it’s open. That doesn’t fly. I’ve photographed more weddings than I can count and I’ll tell you that every reception location from cultural locations to fire-halls have an established time for when the events they hold must end. Refusing to agree to do that makes me (and others) suspicious that what they want to do is have after-hour events there.

    If these guys really want to do what they’ve said then great, if they’re so committed to what they’ve laid out then why the push-back on a CLA? Why not agree to what the community has asked for since it doesn’t effect the business they’ve said they want to run.

    Also the concern isn’t that drunk people will stumble up the steps into PH, it’s that they’ll leave in cars along Liberty, a road that is already the road with the most fatalities in the city, near an intersection that is one of the worst on that most dangerous road and that they’ll do so while intoxicated.

    The bottom line is this – nobody is trying to outright stop them from opening what they said they want to open but Coucilman Dowd’s office and the community groups have asked for reassurances and that’s all people want. If they want to do what they say they’re going to do then they shouldn’t have any issue sticking to that or agreeing to things that will prevent them from not doing those things.
    Saturday at 10:23pm

Comments are closed.