Friday, July 11, 2008

Rolling Rock: Green Lighted

A Rolling Rock beer sign should never have been hung in a Downtown historic district without the required approvals, and should be removed or at least reviewed, advocates of the Penn-Liberty corridor have told city officials.

Their 6-month-old effort has spent two months stalled in the city Law Department. There, attorneys face a conundrum: If they order removal of the sign, which was permitted without public hearings or votes, they face a lawsuit that might hinge on a meeting Mayor Luke Ravenstahl attended. (P-G, Rich Lord)

It is unclear what exists at the other end of the alleged conundrum. We suppose the Law Department could find a way to rationalize continuing the permit, prospectively, and leave the city exposed to a different lawsuit that might hinge on a meeting Mayor Luke Ravenstahl attended.

Meanwhile, city leaders appear to be taking their standard Walt Disney approach to crisis management -- store the issue in deep freeze until such time as science finds a cure.

Its site was discussed at a November 2006 dinner meeting between then-city Planning Director Pat Ford and executives of Liberty Pacific Media and Capitol Outdoor Inc. Mr. Ravenstahl stopped in at the meeting.

Washington, D.C.-based Capitol Outdoor executives left the meeting confident that sign permits for 960 Penn Ave. and 220 E. General Robinson St., on the North Shore, were valid. They bought the rights to the sites from Seattle-based Liberty Pacific for $750,000, and launched Pittsburgh Outdoor Signs.

Liberty Pacific executives later gave Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign $27,000 in contributions, placing them among his top 10 donors. The mayor said in April interviews that he didn't solicit the contributions, nor get involved in the sign permit process.

Mr. Ford's lawyer said in an e-mail yesterday that his client was not involved with the sign "in any significant manner."

Who was involved with the sign? Has permitting grown so streamlined that applicants now enjoy immaculate approvals?

Is our zoning code atrocious when it comes to signs that are unplugged, yet large? Is the code unfortunately silent on the issue of how to deal with applications from folks who write big checks?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Wednesday: Broad Visioning Strategy

Port Authority of Allegheny County will seek permission from federal officials to spend grant money typically used to improve its bus and light-rail network to cover cost overruns for the North Shore Connector. (Trib, Jim Ritchie)

We still want to hear the real story behind how we came to be blessed with this epic boondoggle from West Hades.

We know Onorato likes to call it the "Roddey Railroad", but we mean really, how did it come to pass? Our best guess is that whoever owns and operates the Giant Boring Machine wrote out about a dozen checks and laid them out across the table to county, state and federal officials like so many roulette wagers.


Legislation introduced Tuesday to City Council would give homeowners a month's notice to lodge a protest before city foresters remove hundreds of trees citywide identified as "structurally unsound." (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

You see? City Council. Doing things.

Pittsburgh City Council will discuss whether to try to charge suburbs for sewage that flows into the city's lines and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority's plant in Marshall-Shadeland, Councilwoman Darlene Harris said yesterday. (P-G, Team Effort)

Increased revenues! Fiscal policy! Quick, hose us down!


The [URA] board also will vote on whether to assist in developing a master plan for the Hill District, and whether to sign on to a community benefits agreement to guide development of 28 acres near a new arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Trib, Bonnie Pfister)

Hard to comment.

We're not wild about the tentative CBA on the table -- how any factions deemed politically undesirable were (and can continue to be) cut out of the "inclusive" community process, how the new agreement continues to be plagued with vagueness, and how it guarantees surprisingly little more than that which the rejected (and burned) city-county "proposal" did. Besides which, we have grown skeptical of how much can be accomplished by some document, particularly in the absence of inspired and committed leadership.

However, at the same time, One Hill went through all the trouble to negotiate, debate and ratify this agreement, even acting like good little neighbors by declining to protest during the playoffs. So it seems to us as though the government infrastructure should be sporting, sign onto to this thing, and prevail upon the Penguins to do same.

That much looks likely.

The master plan, [URA chairman Yarone Zober] said, will be a "broad visioning strategy" for the Hill and the 28-acre Mellon Arena site directly below it that the Penguins hope to redevelop once their new home opens before the 2010-11 season. It "puts the community in the driver's seat" in shaping the Hill's future, Mr. Zober said. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Not too broad, we hope. From the "outline" of the proposed CBA:

The Hill District Master Plan shall be developed from April 2008 to October 1, 2009. The Penguins shall not submit a Master Plan for the 28 acres until after this date.

So the Penguins still essentially get to develop the master plan for the entirety of the Lower Hill? Is that necessary? We know Ravenstahl's SEA negotiated away the development rights on that land in the arena lease and in the deal to keep the Pens in Pittsburgh, but can the city not take a more hands-on approach to determining the shape of that land?

Also from the CBA outline:

A Steering Committee of nine people will control this [Hill District Master Plan] process; four appointed by the Community, five by each of five public officials. No decision effective if there are more than 2 dissenting votes - this gives the Community veto power over any decisions.

Aside from this issue of who are the five and who are the four and how we determine that -- we can hear it now:

You'd better not veto this ... it's the best you're gonna get, and time's wasting ... if you don't approve this now, there will be no Hill District Master Plan and it'll be your fault, and the Pens will get carte blanche all over again, and you'll walk away with nothing at all ... take what you can get (which is little but the privilege of saying you're a part of this) and be thankful.

Man, it's fun to be following this story again.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Controversy Over Legal Bill Continuing To Fascinate Dozens

"I just cannot understand how we could support paying for private bills. That is at the core of this," Dowd said. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

We're still stuck conceptually at Square One on the merits, but we're moving past that aspect.

Today it is likely that the legislation that would have paid the legal bill racked up in the Lamar imbroglio will be pulled off the table and scrapped for good.

Since the city Law Department contends that Shields et al are only entitled to reimbursement for those portions of the invoice pertaining to the lawsuit filed by Lamar Advertising, and that the four members are conflicted as to the rest of it, the portion of the bill incurred from the members' protest appeal at the Zoning Board is no longer to be considered city business, according to Council President Shields.

As such, wrote Shields to Specter, no one besides those four individuals have a right to see any of those particular invoices and letters of retention.

Coucilman Dowd had asked about a week ago during a session of council to view the full set of documents. Copies were placed on file at the Law Department, according to the office of Councilman Shields, and additional copies of that which pertains to the Lamar suit were distributed to the mailboxes of all council members yesterday morning. The minor delay was attributable only to the holiday weekend, and to the difficulties of coordinating between the four stakeholders.

For his part, Dowd says that he had really been asking for those documents backstage since March, when the issue of these legal fees and the permit appeal first arose. He also felt entitled to those portions pertaining to the ZBA hearings, since he had been asked to vote on it.

Of course, such documents contain privileged attorney-client information and legal strategy. It is no great secret that Shields at least suspected Dowd of acting as a "straw man" for Lamar (a phrase that does not mean what he seems to think it means). In addition, many felt that Lamar and the mayor's office were coordinating, at least to an extent.

So what could be in those documents? Nothing? Anything? Everything?

Too bad it's no longer any of our business. Forhaps it will become so once again.

Ed Heath, 46, of Stanton Heights voted last year for Dowd in his narrow victory over then-incumbent Len Bodack.

Now Heath, who runs the blog "Cognitive Dissonance," worries Dowd's ability to get legislation passed could be hurt.

"I don't think he's picked up any alliances at all. I think he's cut himself a little hole," Heath said. "Grudges seem to be a fact of life around here. That could hamper his ability to get things done."

Depends what things.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Monday: There Goes the Neighborhood

PITTSBURGH has undergone a striking renaissance from a down-and-out smokestack to a gleaming cultural oasis. But old stereotypes die hard, and Pittsburgh probably doesn’t make many people’s short list for a cosmopolitan getaway. Too bad, because this city of 89 distinct neighborhoods is a cool and — dare I say, hip—city. (New York Times, Jeff Schlegel)


Take a breather with a cup of coffee and a mele, a fruit-filled pastry, at La Prima Espresso Company (205 21st Street; 412-565-7070), where the old men sitting at the outdoor tables look like they’ve been sipping espresso and playing cards for eternity.

There goes the neighborhood.

The Parador Inn of Pittsburgh (939 Western Avenue; 412-231-4800; is a Caribbean-themed bed-and-breakfast in an 1870s mansion on the city’s North Side. All rooms are $150 a night.



"Why are we participating in these complex deals, when the board members don't understand them, they've caused huge losses in other communities in Pennsylvania and they've led to criminal [probes] in other jurisdictions?" Mr. Lamb asked, after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette presented summaries of costs of this and other debt packages engineered by the city and its authorities since 2006. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Hence our "new council" getting all irate and sanctimonious when the Water Authority demanded last-minute approval on these deals.

(AFTERTHOUGHT: Why, if Char hit this up in April, did Our Controller muster some incredulity only after the Post-Gazette presented its packages?)

According to Jason DiMartini, a director at PNC Capital Markets, which advises the authority on financial matters, the swaps had the effect of lowering the interest on some of the debt by half a percentage point, to 3.9 percent, saving millions of dollars.

The costs of last month's package, though, don't have recent precedent, with insurers and professionals taking $12.5 million, or 3 cents on the dollar -- double what the city and its agencies have been paying on bond deals.

"Absolutely, it's high," said Mr. Lamb. He noted that part of the rationale for the 2007 deal was that it capped costs for a future package. "When they went into the swap deal, the authority was sold a bill of goods."

We can believe that. PNC needs to eat.

"There's a pay-to-play mentality" in which anyone who wants a piece of the action feels the need to make campaign contributions, said city Councilman William Peduto. He said he is working on legislation that would require the competitive bidding of all city contracts, including professional gigs that can now be doled out without any objective effort to compare competing firms. (P-G, other Rich Lord)

From Wikipedia: "In politics, pay to play refers to a system, akin to payola in the music industry, by which one pays (or must pay) money in order to become a player."

Na na na na, na na na na na. Taira Illana, el tuu nakkeja.


Both issues -- the delay in riverfront elements and the financing -- could come before the gaming board this week, although nothing had been scheduled as of late last week. Mr. Onorato said the board must give direction on both issues.

"They've got to give us some answers, some signals here," he said. (P-G, Mark Belko)

We're beginning to think the state doesn't "do" advice.

Although casino developer Don Barden has run into some serious problems of his own in Pittsburgh, the developers of SugarHouse and Foxwoods [in Philadelphia] would swap their problems for his in a heartbeat. (P-G, Tom Barnes)

Just his luck this piece ran on a Saturday.

So what's the problem in Philadelphia? Strong protests by neighborhood groups complaining the two sites are too close to houses, schools and places of worship have kept the casinos from getting necessary zoning and construction approvals.

Imagine that. Do these people not understand it is the sacred mission of municipal zoning and planning boards to move development forward?

The politicians have been listening to the protesters. Mayor Michael Nutter, some City Council members and some state legislators, including even pro-casino Sen. Vincent Fumo, a South Philadelphia Democrat, have expressed concerns about the current casino locations.

This is too bizarre for words.

Mayor Nutter is also concerned about too much traffic on local streets near the casinos, especially Columbus Boulevard, also known as Delaware Avenue.

As we all ponder the wisdom of Our Gaming Control Board handing the slots license to Don Barden on the North Shore -- dirty pictures notwithstanding -- do not forget that traaaaaafffffiiiicccc was another huge concern.

"Philadelphia is not contributing to the fund,'' said Rep. Bob Godshall, a Republican from nearby Delaware County, where the Harrah's Chester racetrack/casino is operating, about 10 miles south of Philadelphia.

The failure of the Philadelphia casinos to produce tax relief funds "is robbing the rest of us,'' he said.

See? Keeping up with the Joneses.

CRAZY: Do you see what is going on over at the P-G Casino Journal? Between this and a more chillaxed Conversation, it's as though someone at the paper is beginning to awaken to the Tao.