Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In Pittsburgh, population 305,704 (2010), the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, a public-private partnership, works with the City to advance local arts and cultural activities. In the early 1980s, the Trust wanted to restore an old movie theater into a performing arts center. To make this possible, the City adopted a code change in 1983 which allows transfer of development rights as a means of preserving historic structures and promoting the creation of performing arts centers. Unused residential and commercial development rights can be transferred between sites within the Golden Triangle Area and between sites within those portions of the Downtown Riverfront District which are adjacent to the Golden Triangle.

Pittsburgh’s 2011 zoning code retains the provisions of the original TDR program although the downtown zoning districts have been renamed. Consequently, this case study duplicates the profile that appeared in Beyond Takings and Givings in 2003.


In the Pittsburgh program, potential sending sites are lots containing City-designated historic structures or not-for-profit performing arts facilities in the Golden Triangle Area (C5) or adjacent parts of the Downtown Riverfront District (C6). The part of the C6 zone across the Allegheny River is called Northshore and the portion across the Monongahela River is called Southshore.

In Pittsburgh, the City can designate a building as a historic structure with or without the consent of the property owner. Once designated, a historic structure cannot be altered or destroyed without the approval of the City’s Historic Review Commission.

The program offers a one-to-one transfer ratio: the amount of development available for transfer is the difference between the existing amount of development on the sending site and the maximum amount of development which would be allowed on that sending site under the zoning code.

When the project proposed on the receiving site is a commercial development, floor area rights from sending sites in the C5 can only be transferred to zoning lots that are also in the C5 and transfers from lots in the adjacent C6 districts can only be made to other C6 properties. However, when the receiving site development is residential, development rights may be transferred from any other zoning lot in the C5 or C6 districts.

If the sending and receiving sites are adjacent, the maximum amount of development allowed on the receiving site can be double the amount allowed as a matter of right by the zoning code. If the lots are not adjacent, the receiving site development can be increased only 20 percent more than the density allowed by the base zoning.

In addition to density increases, for residential receiving site projects, TDR allows exemptions from certain development requirements; specifically, the standards for minimum lot area and open space per dwelling unit do not apply to the transferred units.

When approving a transfer, six findings must be made.

– Circulation and access on the receiving site must be adequate.

– The streets providing access to the receiving site must be capable of accommodating the additional traffic generated by the transferred develop-ment.

– Except when sending and receiving sites are abutting or adjacent, transferred development rights can only be used to increase the receiving site density by a maximum of 20 percent over the density allowed by base zoning.

– When sending and receiving sites are adjacent or abutting, the receiving site must have an allowable floor area at least equal to the floor area proposed to be transferred.

–   Documents establishing the restrictions on the sending site and the additional development on the receiving site must be executed and filed with the City.

–   Prior to approving a transfer, a plan must be prepared showing how the historic structure or performing arts center will be rehabilitated and/or maintained for a period of at least 40 years.

Program Status

According to Michael D. Eversmeyer, Principal Planner, Pittsburgh’s TDR code section was only used on one receiving site project since its adoption in 1983. As mentioned above, this was the project that served as the impetus for the TDR ordinance. An old movie theater was purchased by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and restored into the Benedum Performing Arts Center. The unused development rights from the theater were transferred to an adjacent site to gain approval for extra density in a proposed twin office tower complex.

However, there were at least two other circumstances in which TDRs were severed from historic sending properties. In one instance, the City bought a rail depot and deed restricted it, holding the TDRs that resulted for possible later use. In the other case, a property owner was interested in rehabilitating a historic commercial arcade building. However, to receive the tax benefits from this rehabilitation, the value of the rehabilitation had to equal the market value of the property. The owner ultimately deed restricted the property and created TDRs for potential later use. More importantly, the severance of the TDRs reduced the value of the property to the point where the planned rehabilitation met the tax benefit criteria.

The program has not been of great interest to potential receiving site developers primarily because the pace of commercial development in Pittsburgh has not generated enough demand to justify the acquisition of additional development capacity. In fact, there is a considerable amount of vacant commercial space, reducing the demand for new development in general. In addition, the base zoning allows millions of square feet of future development without the need for discretionary approvals. Consequently, Pittsburgh developers have little motivation to use the TDR ordinance.