Thursday, September 25, 2008

On What's Been Happening

Now efforts to resolve recurrent city billboard conflicts have been overtaken by a debate over whether the Kraus measure [from April] was deliberately hijacked or merely overlooked. Either way, the city's Planning Department managed to have de facto veto power over the legislation, which should not happen, and the city failed to get moving on a policy that keeps sparking controversy.

It's time to get to the substance. (P-G, Edit Board)

Alright, if you say so.


City Councilman Ricky Burgess and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl teamed to spend $200,000 in grants to bring Kennedy's expertise in crime prevention to Pittsburgh. Kennedy will work with the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work and city and county police to systematically identify gangs and other criminal groups that are responsible for most of the violent outbursts in the city. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

This may be the only significant news to have occurred in Pittsburgh since we started blogging.

The Comet's sneak-preview of what is now the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime (PIRC) can be accessed HERE. We are told that for about fifteen minutes, it was to be called the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Violence. That was right out.

The big change since that conversation in July: it is no longer to be unfurled as a pilot program for District 9. The PIRC is to be city-wide at the very least, upon the advise of visiting experts. No sense playing cross-town whack-a-mole.

The encouraging news is that all major players on the Law & Order level who needed to buy in -- the police commanders, parole officers, probation officers, magistrates, prosecutors, executives -- have bought in. It wouldn't be getting rolled out, funded, and endorsed by academics if it were otherwise.

Pittsburgh's hardest young troublemakers will be identified, rounded up, and brought together.

They'll be told that enough is enough -- by grieving moms, neighborhood elders, ex-cons. Some will cry. Others will shrug. They'll be offered alternatives to the street life. Few will bite.

Later, someone will commit a murder, and the full force of law enforcement will crash down on the perpetrator and their friends. (P-G, Rich Lord)

"Get tough". "Crack down." The P-G's version of the story was awful heavy on the heavy aspects.

This is the root of some of the nascent opposition to the plan. It can sound punishing, although it is designed to be surgically discriminating. We suspect the P-G may have played up the harsh aspects so as not to make it sound liberal and effete.

"It's not hug-a-thug," [Prof. Kennedy] said. "We're not asking. It's going to stop."

See? Wethinks they doth protest too much -- but that's fine. As some of the police commanders themselves have indicated, you can't arrest your way out of this problem.

Pockets of grassroots opposition also have developed because some in the community have felt not quite as clued-in and consulted as one might have expected for a crime plan that relies so heavily on that community. Others feel the PIRC lacks a strong and clear enough economic development aspect.

To us, it seems like there was good sense in securing buy-in from upstairs levels before presenting the community with something with which to engage seriously. However, these are all things to pay increasing heed to moving forward. Without community buy-in, up to the level of ownership, there is no plan at all.

The Mayor's website provides additional background on plans like this that have worked elsewhere in PDF formats: I, II, III, IV.


Back to that other thing.

Both the Kraus and Burgess bills would broaden the legal definition of electronic message signs to include electrical, LED, plasma and other displays. Under the Kraus plan, City Council would have to vote on their approval, where the Burgess measure would give that authority to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

A fair and rational interpretation of our present zoning code would include electronic billboards as one species of "electronic message sign" -- and therefore prescribe conditional use approval, that is, the Council's approval.

To illustrate this: we know "tickers" do require conditional use approvals. There is no way the framers of our zoning code intended that those narrow little scrolling message signs containing time, temperature etc. should be subject to a higher level of scrutiny than far larger and more intrusive illuminated billboards. To have demanded Council's attention to the smaller thing and not the larger thing would have been absurd.

However, that was before the Ford Doctrine took effect -- which informed us that somehow, due to dubious and carefully stage-managed precedents, electronic message signs only mean ticklers, whereas electronically illuminated billboards were as yet entirely undreamt of in our philosophy.

Mr. Kraus's legislation therefore constitutes a reiteration and a restoration of the existing zoning code. Mr. Burgess's legislation weakens that code in a manner that advantages the advertising industry.

"To bring [every permit] before council would be an undue burden on both council and the applicants," [Burgess] said. There are more than 100 billboard permits on hold due to the moratorium. (P-G, Rich Lord)

The inundation of the Planning Department with troves of new applications just prior to new legislation being considered is standard industry practice; a form of intimidation and coercion. We can dispense quickly with that consideration.

The burden Kraus's legislation (i.e. the status quo) would allegedly place upon the Council is still a legitimate matter for debate -- as is the prudence of trusting the ZBA to these decisions in the context of a fiercely pro-advertising administration and an activist and well-heeled advertising lobby.

Such matters will soon be sorted out on the merits, or for other eminently rational reasons.

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