Friday, February 29, 2008

Don Carter Has The Right Idea

“Our goal,” Urban Design Associates tells its customers, “is to create beautiful places with lasting value for the communities they serve.” (Pop City Media, Abby Mendelson)

Don Carter of Urban Design Associates has been representing the Pittsburgh Penguins organization in its dealings with City Planning and the various city authorities. (See 12/12/06)

Since the Pittsburgh Comet has been so concerned about the fate of the Hill District, we had better investigate this article with great interest.

Don Carter, a gentle, gifted man, has helped guide UDA for more than 30 years, from its early days in Oakland to its present space, a 31st Floor aerie atop Downtown’s Gulf Tower. Raised in East Liberty, graduated from Peabody High School and Carnegie Mellon.

Dr. Kimberly Ellis AKA Dr. Goddess has actually been on record with the Comet suggesting that Don Carter is a good guy.


After more schmaltz...

What about this place, this city called Pittsburgh? We’re making it green, wiring it for everything. How can we make it better? How can we build the 21st-century city? Carter makes eight points:

Walking. “Don’t throw away the lessons of the past,” he says, re-stating the UDA credo. “Mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly cities, like Pittsburgh, are part of the great American tradition. The American grid meant walking to work, school, and shopping. People had to live that way, and it’s still the best model. Vibrancy can only happen with people in gathering places. People gravitate to cosmopolitan life, to a sense of place.”


Mixed use. Pedestrian-friendly. The American grid! Do we need to draw a map?


His eighth and final point:

“My fear is that we are not going to be bold enough at a time which requires extraordinary vision and commitment to change,” Carter wrote at the end of 1997. “There must be a central metaphor, an exciting concept, which will capture the minds of all the citizen of the region, as well as the attention of the world.”

Big finish.....

“I believe the key to Pittsburgh’s economic future is in recognizing the treasure trove we have in our built and natural environment,” he says. “The quality of life in the neighborhoods will attract the knowledge workers and entrepreneurs we need to drive the economy. People crave authenticity – and authenticity is in the very bones and genes of this town and its people.”

Right on, Mr. Carter. Let's get down to the table and make it happen at the very heart of the matter.

Schenley: The Fallout

Jen Lankin, Schenley parent and volunteer organizer within the Save Schenley movement, distributed a letter so moving on recent School Board actions that the Comet must reproduce it in near-entirety.

I guess it took this vote to really crystallize what I find wrong with dividing up Schenley, both the building and the kids. It's not only broken the kids apart, it will, by design it seems, pit the schools against the other.

I chose the magnet program because I believed in the idea that different kinds of kids could learn things from each other. I chose it because when I asked for changes or better choices, I wasn't asking just for my kid(s), but for the whole school, the whole concept. I wasn't in it just for my kids, but for all of their cohort, their peers.

Now, I'm in a position where fighting for the best interests of my child (in particular my 8th grader) pits me against those kids who would have been his class, his cohort at Schenley.

To demand the best teachers teach at Frick next year is to lessen the possibility of the kids at University Prep having those same teachers.

To spend the money to make this staying behind palatable is to spend money that could have been better spent on a unified school, guidance counselors, mentors, improved programs.

To demand a range of classes (CAS, PSP, mainstream, electives) at Frick is to ask for resources that will take away from the kids at University Prep and Reizenstein.

To have programs move with the Schenley kids to Reizenstein (Youth and Government, the musical, band, chorus, etc.) is to deny other kids those same opportunities or to require duplication (likely impossible with only a small school).

This division guarantees that the good and great teachers have to make choices about where to be -- and right now there's not much room for them at University Prep! I can't see how they can be fairly split in the future, either.

I don't know how to ask for what's right for my kid when it's going to hurt other people's kids, because that's not right.

Jen Lankin can be contacted at

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Interview: Marimba Milliones

(Now included are three CORRECTIONS -- search below.)

"I don't think we're much farther along than that letter," she said.

We had just asked Marimba for her take on the current state of negotiations between the city, county and Hill leaders.

That letter is the one Tonya Payne called a good document -- and that One Hill proceeded to burn.

"Per the Mayor and County Executive's commitment made in September, the Hill Faith and Justice Alliance will review the CBA before it is made official."

The alliance, formerly known as the minister's group (of which Marimba Milliones is part) acknowledges that the One Hill CBA coalition is taking the lead on the string of negotiations with government officials.

"It is our expectation that One Hill will make sure that the CBA is fair and substantive," Milliones continues. "In which case, we will happily join them in signing off." This is the substance of the joint sign-off that was discussed here.


The differences between the two groups of concerned Hill District residents are legendary and boring. Suffice for now to know that the minister's alliance arose in Jan 2007 (CORRECTION: It "arose" as early as May 2006 and was quite active by November 2006). One Hill came about later.

Milliones is quick to highlight the essential points of agreement between the two groups.

"The problem is that the Penguins are not even at the table." This dovetails exactly with the most persistent message of Carl Redwood, chairman of One Hill.

"I support One Hill, and many residents and community members who are involved in it." However, she fears that too many of them are fighting for a perceived victory.

There is a lot of pressure, as Marimba describes it, on some of the component constituencies of the One Hill CBA coalition -- unions, foundations, elected and party officials, certain institutions -- to just sign something already. To claim a victory and be done with it.

"Which in essence is a failure for the community benefits effort."


What is so objectionable about what the city and county are offering thus far? Isn't it mostly a matter of tightening the legal language?


"Reinvestment. First of all, it dictates how any '$1 million investment' will come back to the community."

She refers to URA and Penguin money for a grocery store, the major piece of progress unveiled on that day of the city and One Hill unity. Milliones acknowledges that the Hill needs a grocery store -- but questioned the need to lead with that exact item.

"Did that do that for a media victory?"


On the subject of being dictated to, we ask whether her group's initial "terms sheet", including its demand for $10 million in development funds, was not overly unspecific and in need of tighter oversight.

She happily referred us to the original document.

5. In addition to the Hill District CBA, an amount of $10 million and an annual contribution for a minimum of 30 years shall be directed to the Greater Hill District community's development interest. These funds shall be used as seed money for land banking, business and economic development. This contribution may be contributed from various sources ranging from tax credits or other public means to expected revenues from the arena and proposed development.

"Land banking," underlined Marimba. "Our estimation based on costs of vacant lots was about $9 million." Most of this fund, therefore, would be used to purchase parcels of developable land for community initiatives -- i.e. right back to the government or the Penguins.

Who gets to decide what gets to be done on that land, and who gets to own it?

"The Greater Hill District community's development interest was left purposefully vague," answered Milliones. "We didn't feel it was appropriate to steer it to any one interest."

In its original conception, according to Milliones, the investment resources would be steered from a community development corporation -- with five seats from city and county government, and four seats to represent the Hill District.

(CORRECTION: Marimba writes to us: I have never made this statement, and it wasn’t a part of our original conception. I think you are confusing the development fund with the Masterplan discussion. In fact, this is the configuration that One Hill is proposing for the Masterplan. The HFJA believes that any steering/oversight committee must be fairly monitored and directed by the appropriate Hill stakeholders. This requires participation from One Hill and the HFJA, perhaps even others.)

One Hill has fought for the same arrangement, she says, which is good -- but One Hill wants to appoint all four spots. Milliones characterizes such a thing as irresponsible and divisive; the four seats should be as wholly representative as possible.

Yet One Hill presents itself as a wholly representative group in itself, owing to its internal processes. Milliones along with several others were once full members of One Hill, but were officially excluded for having "negotiated outside" of the group -- an infraction the Comet was informed by One Hill that every member was made to forswear in writing upon joining.

Marimba shakes her head. "We never signed a document. We were never shown any rule."

(CORRECTION / CLARIFICATION: Marimba writes to us: I may have signed a membership document, and I certainly submitted one electronically. BUT that rule was not a part of the membership form. Understand, One Hill was brand new and had very loose rules and little documentation at the time. They were trying to find their way. In fact, One Hill didn’t pass an action regarding negotiating *outside* of One Hill until we joined. That was a very divisive action because they were fully aware that HFJA was working on this issue with the City, County and Pens long before they were conceived. Indeed, HFJA was responsible for securing the commitment for a CBA from all parties by April 2007. One Hill was formed in May of 2007. We could not drop the issue cold and leave it in the hands of a fragile new organization with heavy political, union and foundation influences. They were really struggling to find their way. They are a bit more stable now, but still struggle with managing these varying interests.)


Milliones does not relish having to explain any of this. She knows full well that most outsiders are viewing this as a squabble over resources and power.

However, that does not deter members of her Hill Faith and Justice Alliance from making a strong case for the concepts and initiatives of their own members -- which they insist are valid examples of genuine public benefits.

"Look -- 75% of the development corporations [in the Hill] are faith-based," she points out. "They didn't fall out of the sky."

Within the black community, the church has been the institution that has most often stayed, survived, and gotten involved. You use the resources you have.

"You want to talk about separation of church and state? What's with all the YMCA's?"

This gets us back on the topic of city and county executives "dictating" the terms of reinvestment, instead of any set-aside development funds for the community to influence. As an example of a community center, for example, Milliones asks what's wrong with utilizing the New Granada Theater.



"At one time, the Granada had 1500 seats. Our plan moving forward will be to create it into a mixed-use space: commercial, office, cultural and maybe residential. We will need to do further evaluation on what this emerging market demands."

We have a hard time wrapping our brain around this. We had always imagined the Granada Theater was an adorable and somewhat rinky-dink old theater, much like the Kelly Strayhorn in East Liberty.

"Oh no." Marimba stares at us in the eye for a long beat, and starts shaking her head. "Oh, no no no. Get that out of your mind."

She goes on to describe a huge space and community asset, that was once a vibrant locus of activity and culture in the Hill District -- that is waiting to be adapted to different uses. She says there is already a lot of foundation money pledged towards its restoration -- but it must be unlocked by additional outside investment.

Milliones offers tours of the Granada Theater -- she calls it the very heart of the Hill District. If there is going to be any significant reinvestment at all in the Hill, the pursuit of this one, in her opinion, should be a no-brainer.

The bulk of the civic development strategy, coinciding with this vast reshuffling of the landscape brought about by the Penguins, should be geared towards populations of "mixed income -- allowing more people to return" and reinvest.

Thursday: Minding the Civilization

City Solicitor George Specter stopped short of saying the arrangement complied with the city code. Trading old billboards for new "has a long history going back a number of years," he said. "And quite frankly, I'm still trying to unravel most of it."

He said he'll be able to produce a legal opinion in a few weeks. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Wow. A stumper!

"This is a process that actually began under Mayor Tom Murphy's administration, continued through Mayor O'Connor and then obviously now in my administration," [Ravenstahl] said.

Objection, irrelevant.


Mr. Roosevelt, who in October proposed closing Schenley, said that new data warrant another look at whether the building can be saved. The board last night said it wants the superintendent to make a recommendation on the building in May. (P-G, Eleanor Chute)

What new data? Really, it's very interesting.

Long story short, either way the band is breaking up for at least a couple of years.

The 174 students now in the robotics technology magnet at Pittsburgh Schenley will be included in the move to Reizenstein in Shadyside, but their magnet courses will be given at Pittsburgh Peabody High School in East Liberty.

Incoming ninth-graders in the magnet will be assigned to Peabody.
Instead of moving with the Schenley group, students entering the ninth grade in the international studies program this fall will be assigned to Pittsburgh Frick, which now serves grades six through eight in an international studies magnet.

The board also agreed to open University Prep 6-12 at the Milliones building in the Hill District this fall, starting with ninth-graders who previously would have been assigned to Schenley as their feeder pattern. This new school is not expected to be temporary.

Other grades will be phased in. The following year, grades six to eight will be added.

Everybody got that?

If the building that housed Schenley High School is to be saved, will anything like it still be preserved? Will it continue to be governed by the liberal egalitarian underpinnings that make up its DNA?

That is, will they continue to be Spartans? Will we choose to enhance or strengthen its legacy with more modern ideas?

Or will it all become a monument to something else entirely?


Four Pittsburgh Public Works supervisors collected more than $26,400 in overtime pay they weren't entitled to in 2006 and 2007, city records show. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

One set of problems at a time, Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rev. Burgess: Pretty Much Running Things

Every night, 60 city of Pittsburgh employees drive home cars bought with taxpayer dollars. Legislation proposed yesterday by Councilman Ricky Burgess would compel all but seven of those employees to prove they need the city cars for legitimate work functions, or turn them in.

Mr. Burgess presented a list of employees, from the mayor to the facilities maintenance supervisor, who take Chevy Impalas, Dodge Intrepids, Ford Explorers and other city vehicles home.

"Some of the people on the list were not necessarily on call 24 hours," he said. If cars are sometimes just perks, he suggested, they should be reassigned.

"We have a shortage of police vehicles. We need to put the emphasis on public safety first." (P-G, Rich Lord)

This is certain to upset X number of city employees; we do not yet know how much they will be upset. (RELATED UPDATE: WPXI, Rick Earle.)

Meanwhile, in a city that seems to have difficulty getting its hands on enough police and emergency vehicles, this seems like a good idea.


This is more controversial.

Pittsburgh City Council gave final approval yesterday to an ordinance launching a new effort to ensure that some city contracts go to minority- and women-owned businesses.

The legislation, by Councilman Ricky Burgess, requires that the city update an 8-year-old study on fairness in contracting and produce quarterly and annual reports on the success of efforts to get work to a diverse set of firms.

The study update, to be done this year, would cost as much as $150,000 and is necessary to provide legal justification for minority contracting measures, Mr. Burgess said. He wants the city to request proposals from researchers to conduct the updated study, but said he expects California-based Mason Tillman Associates would likely have the lowest bid, since it performed the 2000 study. (P-G, Team Effort)

Councilman Burgess questioned the strength of the legal underpinning of the city's current "sheltered market"-style program and other programs to benefit women and minority-owned contracting businesses.

He said that without updated studies demonstrating continued significant disparities, providing a compelling case for a municipal interest in remediation, all such programs are left vulnerable to inevitable legal challenges. Furthermore, he asserted that current city efforts are grossly underfunded and under-performing.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Tonya Payne and others argued that further studies would be no more than a waste of time and money. She defended the current program -- and on the issue of its legality, went so far as to ask, "Who cares about the Constitution?"

Rev. Burgess is expected also to have a hand in forthcoming legislation.


The Comet recently had an opportunity to ask the Councilman whether there is any legitimate Councilmatic role in managing a harmonious settlement in the Hill District.

"No, I really don't," he said.

He precisely echoed the thinking of Councilman Motznik -- that this is properly an issue for Tonya Payne. He went on to express grief that on the question of this development, everybody seems to be "piling on and piling on" one another.

We attempted to make our case to the Rev., expressed best here and here, on a compelling city-wide interest in restoring some portion of a street grid between the Hill and Downtown, on the Mellon Arena and / or Melody Tent site.

We repeated our assertion that such an organic connection would provide a much-needed lifeline to the Hill District -- and would in turn benefit Downtown by providing a nurturing residential partnership.

We floated the idea of a temporary "penumbra of protection" around some of the land at issue, only involving those processes and approvals which ultimately must come before Council -- for the purposes of fully reaching out to the Penguins and arranging mutually beneficial civic design accommodations.

At the words "penumbra of protection," Burgess gave a start, and his eyes flashed in keen interest -- but it passed quickly.

Although he did not correct his previous statement on the necessity of deference to Councilwoman Payne, he did begin framing the locus of civic responsibility at a different source.

"This is City Planning issue."

Wednesday: Rise and Shine

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority board did not get to vote on whether to allow an electronic billboard on the Grant Street Transportation Center, adding a possible Sunshine Act violation to the sign-related issues that will be the subject of a special Pittsburgh City Council meeting this afternoon. (P-G, Rich Lord)

If this is what a Sunshine Act does, we want more of it.


In a 3-1 vote with one abstention, the [Planning] commission decided to take no action on the proposed nomination of the former Workingmen's Savings Bank on East Ohio Street as a city historic structure after North Side groups and residents offered mixed views of the designation, with some favoring it and some opposed. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Trust us. This one only gets better and better.


Nine of 10 speakers at a public hearing yesterday on proposed city of Pittsburgh campaign finance reform favored the idea, but the lone opponent was a representative of organized labor, a powerful political force. (P-G, Rich Lord)



The show at Carnegie Science Center uses flayed, dissected and posed bodies from China without consent from the deceased or their relatives. Premier Exhibitions of Atlanta, the show's promoter, says the corpses were unclaimed and legally obtained in China, and that the people died of natural causes. But a recent ABC report alleged that some of Premier's cadavers came from executed prisoners and linked the shows to a global market of body trafficking. (P-G, Sally Kalson)

If museums are supposed to make us think, well done.


Frankly, I blame our younger generation. These kids, with their hip and their hop, their iPods and their energy drinks, don't play these games the way their parents and grandparents do. (P-G, Brian O'Neill)

That was awesome.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Ooh, We're Afraid to Go With You, Bluto!"

Reckless Spending VS Reckless Blogger

City government whistle blower, Ravenstahl administration critic, Bruce Kraus enthusiast and Barack Obama supporter Matthew Hogue (D-Extreme Makeover) raised concerns about questionable spending at the Housing authority -- concerns which prompted our Mayor Ravenstahl to respond.

The mayor was "surprised" that HACP "may have authorized expenditures that could be considered inappropriate," (emphasis ours) in light of the fact that "we've tightened our belt all across city government."

Matt H officially gives Mayor Ravenstahl kudos for taking "quick action." At the same time, he is pressing his case upstairs to the Federalies, and printing the name of Housing authority Executive Director A. Fulton Meacham Jr. in boldface type.

The Comet is less impressed and more confused by the Mayor's response. How can he claim authoritatively to have tightened our belts "across the board," and at the same time be caught off guard by a rash of frivolous expenditures going back two years?

The whole thing reminds us of Plowgate and Promotionsgate. "We are frustrated and upset. We were unaware of it until it was reported. Now thank you for reporting how frustrated and upset we are. Harrumph."

Thing is, Hogue is up on his social justice horse -- we don't see him letting HACP off the hook with an overly broad, interminable and ultimately inconclusive investigation. Stay tuned.