Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The City Planning Meeting: Let's Go Pens!

Hill District residents and community leaders cited surface parking concerns, traffic flow, and actual historic tragedy in justifying demands for a signed community benefits agreement with the Pittsburgh Penguins, regarding construction of the new arena.

Commission Chair Wrenna Watson clarified that no action would be taken during the meeting. Later on in January, the Commission will meet on whether or not to approve the new Master Development Plan relating to the Golden Triangle District.

The 40-50 residents bearing "One Hill" stickers, to a man, demanded that vote be delayed until a C.B.A. is in place. Several echoed the sentiments of George Moses of the Hill District Consensus Group, one of two individuals officially representing the One Hill C.B.A. Coalition.

"This must be seen as the gateway to the Hill District; not enhancing Downtown." He also insisted that that the new construction "must correct the injustices of the past."


Don Carter, President of Urban Design Associates, represented for the Penguins as a consultant and kicked things off.

Carter spoke of previous organized solicitation of community input; he said between 500 and 600 individuals took part. As a preface, he also asserted that "Many of the things" the commission would hear today "are outside your regulatory purview."

He then took a laser pointer and gave an exhaustive presentation of the interior and exterior of the new facility. His presentation identified local access and egress concerns, as well as assurances that changes in traffic impacts are certain to be minimal.

Any pretensions of a "multi-purpose arena" evaporated quickly; the ice and other features were emblazoned with the official Penguins logo.

Due to the topography, the proposed arena will feature entrances on three different levels. The Penguins offices will have "glass onto Fifth Avenue," and efforts have been made to visually blend the new edifice with nearby Epiphany Church in a pleasing manner. A whole series of amenities and diverse food and beverage concessions were explored.


During the lengthy public commentary that followed, several community members noted darkly that all external pleasantries of the proposed facility are turned toward Fifth Avenue and Downtown.

Evan Frasier, CEO of the Hill House CDC, claimed that "there's no beauty facing the Hill District".

Carl Redwood, Chair of the One Hill Coalition, underlined Frazier's point in commenting that there were no drawings of the view from the Hill District. "Only walls and fences."

Comments from the many speakers ranged widely, but all insisted that the Planning Commission delay their approval until a C.B.A. is in place. No division in the ranks was even noticeable -- until one speaker called upon the media specifically to report that "the community is not divided."

Even to a skeptical and learned ear, the dim outlines of some factions within the coalition were only somewhat on display. Mostly this was apparent in whether or not a speaker would gently urge the commission to "delay the vote", or whether he or she would boldly demand that no C.B.A. means "No deal."

The most evident example of this, on the one side, was Carmen Pace -- representing officially on behalf of City Councilwoman Tonya Payne. She said that Payne "has always been supportive of the One Hill Coalition's initiative."

Chairwoman Watson asked if that meant she was "in favor of" or "opposed to" the passage of the proposed master plan. A loud murmur arose from the ranks, "opposed!", but Ms. Pace would not go that far.

An uncharitable account would say she hemmed and hawed -- a more generous account would say she struggled to outline an approach that is more cooperative rather than confrontational.

On the other extreme, Dr. Kimberly Ellis, AKA Dr. Goddess, called the Pens' planning efforts "poor, callous, and indiscriminate."

"It turns the Hill District into their parking lot," she asserted, among other things. As Ellis continued commenting ever louder and with increasing rapidity, she greatly overextended her alloted time. Disregarding the beeper, she eventually became the only speaker with the dubious honor of being gavelled-down by Chairwoman Watson.

The Reverend Grayson, waiting in line to speak after her, gently rapped her on the back with his spectacles out of disapproval -- even as Ellis was backing away reluctantly from the lectern, still finishing her thoughts. Upon finally assuming the mic, Grayson began with, "I'm not going to whoop."

Although he took a different approach, the Reverend Grayson delivered the lines of the day. He called upon the Penguins not only to offer a "tithe" to the community out of the public subsidy allocated for the development -- but furthermore, "Tithe would be 10 percent. Now how about the offering?"

As he continued, growing louder and ministerially more dramatic in his own right, the Rev. caught himself short with a chuckle. "I said I wasn't going to whoop." He quickly wrapped things up.

Bomani Howze, son of Sala Udin and Vice-Chair of the One Hill CBA Coalition, spoke at length concerning the present and proposed street grid. He held up small maps with red and green symbolism to indicate blocked thoroughfares related to the land currently occupied by the Mellon Arena and its surface lots.

The Comet simply cannot resist reporting that Howze speaks with a timbre and cadence strikingly similar to that of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Whether or not this came about by happenstance, or by conscious design, is anybody's guess. Next time he should bring bigger posters, though, and his own laser pointer.

The clock approached 5:00 just before the first non-African American commenter was given a chance to speak. Although he plead for a slight extension, to offer some comments from "a different perspective," Commission Chair Watson urged him (and the remaining dozen or so speakers) to return for an extension of the comment period at January's meeting.


After adjournment, we spoke briefly with Don Carter of Urban Design Associates. We asked him to clarify whether or not this discussion of a C.B.A. fell under what he alluded was outside the Planning Commission's purview.

"Yes it is," he said, also contending it was also outside the purview of "any other body."

Carter indicated that such any such contract would be a matter strictly between the Hill community, and the Penguins organization.


  1. Bram,

    Thanks for covering the hearing from your vantage point. I'm sure folks who were not there appreciate it. For the record, I consider it an honor to have been gavelled down by Wrenna Watson and she was well within her right to do so, except that it was announced at the beginning of the meeting that elected officials and heads of organizations received 5 minutes time and all other citizens received 3. Not only did I announce myself as the head of TWO organizations at the time; but I was only given 3 minutes. Further, although my statement was typed, well-prepared and even rehearsed (hey, we're makin' history here), I had to add on some impromptu comments after Don Carter said the arena was not being built with local dollars and/or public dollars. Whatever he said, it was inaccurate. So, I was recounting all of the public subsidy, got to my *last* sentence and to thank them when I was gavelled. Considering all that I had to do---again, it was an honor. I'll blog on it myself shortly.

    By the way, Rev. Grayson can rap me with his spectacles anytime and Bomani always speaks like a preacher when giving public speeches. It's just in his blood. We are children of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.

  2. Our understanding at the outset was that elected officials and reps of any organization each got five minutes, whereas "individuals" got three. ALSO it was that the One Hill coalition is the only "organization" presently lodging comments (unity!) ... and as such are entitled to two five minute speakers. One Hill chose Evan Frasier and Carl Redwood. Correct?

    Besides those two, electeds were the only others given five minutes. Payne's rep declined from the outset to take that long.

    Everyone else was considered individuals -- regardless of any actual organizations they may lead or otherwise represent within the One Hill CBA Coalition.

    Now, if you think it shouldn't be that way, Dr. Ellis -- that's a whole 'nother can of worms. Thanks for reading.

  3. Bram, you clearly heard what I heard and I also clearly announced myself as the rep of an organization. I was not speaking as an individual. When I made that clear after the meeting, Noor told me that I should have announced myself as an organizational rep. I did and told her so, which is why she offered more minutes at the next meeting. For example, I think B-PEP and some other organizations received 5 minutes. You know good and well that not all of the organizations were under One Hill. And, again, I am just clarifying because I have the distinct honor of being gaveled down. It just needs to be clear that had I simply been given my alloted time, I would have been well under the buzzer. Thanks for listening to my meanderings about the city egg timer!

  4. "For example, I think B-PEP and some other organizations received 5 minutes."

    I was unaware of that.

    "You know good and well that not all of the organizations were under One Hill."

    Sorry, I did not. I guess I found the stickers very persuasive.

    "When I made that clear after the meeting, Noor told me that I should have announced myself as an organizational rep. I did and told her so, which is why she offered more minutes at the next meeting."

    Well, that's checkmate. Good job.

    Would like to see some other organizations getting involved in this, from other parts of town and with diverse missions.

  5. Don Carter can complain all he wants about how a community benefits agreement is outside the purview of the Planning Commission. Technically, it may be. But outside of venues like the Planning Commission, community members have no way of holding big developers accountable to community demands. If One Hill/Pittsburgh UNITED/et. al. can use the Planning Commission process to delay arena construction and thereby gain some advantage over the Penguins in negotiating a community benefits agreement, then more power to them.

    Whether they can generate enough political juice with the mayor (who really controls the Planning Commission) for a long enough period of time is the big question.

  6. Yes, she should have had 5 minutes as the representative of an organization, which she did clearly identify herself as. Only the One Hill CBA coalition organizations were considered included under the one speaker per org umbrella. All other organizations that were not part of the coalition should have had 5. At least that is how I understood it. I wasn't timing but I think several other folks got 5 minutes. But my sense of time is shakey so I could be wrong.

  7. Well I guess I should have continued reading ALL the comments before I responded since all I did was reiterate what had all ready been clarified. Sorry.

  8. F-Dzerzh said, "But outside of venues like the Planning Commission, community members have no way of holding big developers accountable to community demands."

    I was pretty sure City Council was another venue for this, but evidently the Penguins have a different take.

  9. Bram: City Council votes on both Planning Commission and URA decisions, yes. Either way, it's an issue of political power rather than strict law. Yes, technically speaking, the Planning Commission can only rule on design issues, which is why Carter gave a lengthy presentation on that. But One Hill can force the issue of a CBA by holding up the whole deal at points like the Planning Commission process -- if the political power is there.