Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Editorial: Planning Board Needs to Step It Up

Our previous visits to the City Planning Commission (here, here, and here) led us to take a strong liking to one caustic and active board member in particular, whom we later discovered to be one Barbara Ernsberger.

Although we admire the intelligence and professionalism of all members, we were especially impressed by Ernberger's willingness to ask uncomfortable questions, demand due diligence, and constructively challenge chairwoman Wrenna Watson.

So it came as no surprise to read that Ernsberer cast the lone "no" vote on UPMC's do-over on the matter of advertsing on the USX Tower.

"I do feel this sign does counteract the historic presence of what used to be the U.S. Steel Building, which was certainly significant in our Pittsburgh history and also to some extent in our national history. So I think that UPMC really ought to consider whether it needs to place a sign on top of the U.S. Steel building," she said. (Mark Belko, P-G)

The skyscraper is, in fact, a uniquely designed architectural landmark, which absolutely merits the attention of the Historic Review Commission, if it is not too late.

Left unstated, however, is that allowing a huge advertisement on the city's tallest building, for a company with a less-then-enlightened sense of corporate responsibility, can be considered plain bad taste.

Why the change of heart? Although it is obvious that UPMC brought its overwhelming resources and influence to bear, the official rationale went like so:

They did so after Pat Ford, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's director of economic and community development, told them that the decision to reject the sign put the city on "some very shaky legal ground" given that UPMC had met all of the legal requirements in the city zoning code.

What is this nonsense? Can we replace the City Planning Commission with a stack of 3 x 5 notecards? Our civic framers surely recognized that all development propositions are unique, and it takes the educated judgement of an active panel of feeling humans to chart a course for the city that is has its consistency, yet responds to nuance in each case.

It would be worthwhile to go to court to establish that truth now.

The Planning Commission's reluctance to act decisively is also playing out to the detriment of the casino and the science center.

In this case, Ernsberger rightly inquired if the Commission had the power to adjudicate and enforce a settlement to protect the viability of all parties; a course she plainly would have favored. The result was an embarrassed silence from her fellow board members, and later an incredulous outburst from officials with Carnegie Museums.

North Shore casino developer Don Barden offered concessions to the Carnegie Science Center in an 11th-hour bid to get an agreement over issues relating to bus access and lighting.

But the science center's director, Joanna Haas, said last night the moves proposed by Mr. Barden do not solve transportation problems and in fact may make them worse.

Ms. Haas said center officials are moving ahead with their plans to file an appeal to the state Supreme Court over the city's master plan, which was approved last month. (Mark Belko, P-G)

Another board member actually suggested that their primary responsibility was to expedite business, and stay out of the way. The result of this institutional timidity, we all now realize, is legal wrangling that may delay casino revenues even further -- to say nothing of possible damage to an important cultural institution.

The City Planning Commission is charged with the responsibility -- and is in fact invested with the power -- to do much more good for our community than they dare now to attempt. The board could use many more members like Barbara Ernsberger, who have the gumption to actively assert our collective interests.


  1. Good post. Barbara Ernsberger is an asset to the commission.

    As for Ford, who gave him his legal advice, Zober? Funny, Attorney Ernsberger did NOT agree with Ford's tricks.

  2. I'd like to see more bloggers covering the Planning Commission, the URA, the Sports and Exhibition Authority,Housing Authority, etc. (and name names like Ernsberger of members who are actually asking questions rather than just voting yes). A lot more goes on in these authorities than is ever reported to the public by the MSM.

  3. Nice Work.

    Have you heard any updates on the URA scandal? The MSM/bloggers have dropped it all together. It looks as if nobody will be held accountable. Edelstein and Co. are going to walk away with over 400k in taxpayer money.

  4. I have no news on the URA scandal. It is overwhelming how many issues could use continuing attention.

    Anonymous of 7:06 is right -- it would be great to live in a civilization so rife with bloggers that every board and subcommittee meeting at every level of government could be examined from multiple and diverse perspectives. Perhaps the generation now in grade school will have that capability.