Wexford Science + Technology, a real estate firm that specializes in researched-oriented development that is working with the University of Pittsburgh, revealed its rough draft ambitions for its first project in Oakland, a 13-story office proposal to replace the Murdoch Building at 3440 Forbes Avenue.

The Baltimore-based company presented a plan for the site, a development proposal to neighbor a new nine-story office building under construction now across Coltart Street on Forbes, before a public meeting of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation in the neighborhood on Wednesday evening.

“Our goal is to build community in partnership with universities,” said Joe Reagan, a senior vice president and principal of Wexford, introducing his firm to an audience of Oakland residents and other stakeholders. He emphasized that the firm strives to be a long-term holder of the projects it develops and to become part of the community.

It’s a partnership and a project that has the potential to be the first of others in working with the University of Pittsburgh.

Working solely in university-related development, Wexford already is partnering with the university on its redevelopment of the former Ford Motor Building on Baum Boulevard into a new UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center, and the university has identified the potential for six new office buildings along Forbes, at least three of them proposed to be more than 10 stories, as part of the neighborhood’s new innovation district.

Still an early stage plan yet to be scheduled to go before the city for zoning and planning approvals, Wexford outlined a projected with the working title of “District Hall” expected to offer 200,000 to 250,000 square feet of office space, including both dry and wet lab spaces, along with three stories of parking totaling 160 to 175 spaces, and plans for ample restaurant and community meeting space.

Pete Cramer, a director of development for Wexford who gave part of the presentation, described a hybrid approach in which a restaurant or cafe is combined with a conference center and “you smoosh it all together to make it seem like one space.”

Working with downtown-based Strada Architecture LLC on the project, Wexford expects to need a number of zoning variances for its current proposal, including for floor area ratio, among others with some gray areas the development team hopes to get guidance on from the city.

Perhaps the biggest variance Wexford seeks will be for building height, proposing District Hall to reach 187 feet, 59 higher than the contextual height limit allowed when compared to other neighboring buildings, and 85 feet taller than the “by right” height of 102 feet.

The scale of the project elicited some concerns and criticism from residents about a project reaching well beyond current zoning limits, echoing complaints from a meeting a few months ago at which Walnut Capital Partners presented a plan for a nearby site on Fifth Avenue also proposed to stretch well above established zoning requirements.

Parking, as always in Oakland, also was a prevailing concern for the gathered audience.

The site is owned by Murland Associates Limited Partnership, the business entity of the Murdoch family, one of Oakland’s longest-standing property owners and the developer of the nine-story office building under construction next door, into which the established CVS store will move upon completion from its current location on which Wexford plans to build.

Reagan told the meeting attendees that Wexford plans to establish a 99-year ground lease with Murland on which it would develop and own the new building.

After the meeting, Reagan detailed more of Wexford’s plan and approach for the site.

The company is working with the University of Pittsburgh after it was a finalist twice in a selection process by Carnegie Mellon University to build new development on a former gas station site on Forbes Avenue near its campus for which the university opted to pursue other plans.

Reagan emphasized that Wexford is working within a larger plan and goal by the city.

“This is a city initiative, not a Wexford initiative,” he said of the innovation district strategy for Oakland, based on a report by the Brookings Institution. “We’re just a part of that process.”

He said that Wexford consults with the University of Pittsburgh and has conferred with them over other sites and expects it will have a tenant presence in District Hall.

But Reagan said the company typically seeks a varied mix of tenants for such a project, looking to provide incubator-style space for new startups as well as ones that have matured into more established companies along with major conglomerates better able to help pay rents typically higher for such specialized space.

With limited lab space in the city, Wexford’s general strategy is to provide the kind of alternative private sector space that serves as a compliment to the researchers who also have ties to the universities and hospitals typically a few blocks away.

Wexford comes to Pittsburgh after developing significant projects near universities such as Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, Harvard in Cambridge, and, somewhat closer to home, the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, among other places.

By contrast, Reagan expects the development Wexford pursues in Oakland should be relatively comparable in terms of difficulty.

“I don’t think this is anymore or less challenging than other places we have developed,” he said.

Source: Pittsburgh Business Journal by Tim Schooley | March 28, 2019