Thursday, April 23, 2009

Happy Hour's Over. Or: The Mayor's "Committment to Green"

It has been almost five months since the Mayor's stated intention to green up and make more energy-efficient the City-County Building.

He held a press conference inside it at the time to highlight what an energy hog it is -- furnaces and air conditioners sometimes active at the same time, for example, necessitating open windows. He seemed to suggested that a thorough energy audit was "being conducted."

Yes, he may have gotten a little over-enthused about the reach-goal of energy-generating wind turbines, but the major impression left was that a specific problem, both practical and symbolic, had been marked for solving: our waste on 414 Grant Street. So we were told Pittsburgh would submit bids to private firms to conduct an energy audit.

Almost five months later, and there are no plans to seek proposals for the audit -- nominally because of the wait on federal stimulus dollars. This I don't understand.

Stimulus money we are told is going toward "shovel-ready projects"; and yes, the actual physical overhaul of the building will be expensive and an excellent candidate for stimulus money. But we know we have to examine the building first -- one way or the other we need the information to figure out what to ask for and thereby become shovel-ready. The lengthy delay to simply release an RFP and begin compiling proposals in a file cabinet is not understandable yet.

(Speaking of delaying RFPs -- I sit here in the Hill District branch of Carnegie Library, waiting for a political party to occur outside in celebration of an intent to shortly release a planning RFP, though that RFP might just as easily have gone out many, many months ago as well. But that's another story.)


Meanwhile, we are actively awarding grants to help build buildings that are not LEED-certified Gold, Silver, Bronze, or Aluminum -- nothing at all.

LEED-certified failures.

But state Sen. Jim Ferlo, a URA board member, objected to the change.

"I'm worried that if this is approved without the LEED certification it is going to set a bad example [for other developers in the city]," he said. "I'm not willing to do that."

Nonetheless, board Chairman Yarone Zober, chief of staff to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, urged his colleagues to approve the grant. He warned that forcing the developer to spend more money in such a tough economic environment could jeopardize the entire project.

"I don't want to end up with a LEED-certified nothing," he said. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Not what one might call "progressivism".

Building "nothing" has one advantage; it provides the space and the opportunity for building something even better. You never know if a developer will go back to the drawing board and come back with something better after all. Or the setback could be a needed indication that market conditions still need to improve a little.

Maybe it's not fair to pin this one on Mayor Ravenstahl. It is true that during the daytime, Zober is Ravenstahl's chief of staff, and then at night he is also chairman of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority. So he might have been going off on his own there.

In that case, we have to ask -- where was Lindsay Baxter, the city's Sustainability Coordinator? She should have muscled her way into that URA meeting and made certain the board understood just exactly how seriously Luke Ravenstahl takes this sustainability business.


Finally, there was the solar panel. One has to wonder how long Pittsburgh's one solar panel is going to get carted around the city like the Arc of the Covenant.

One can't be too hard on Mayor Ravenstahl for getting into the weeds a little bit when discussing the impact of the solar panel on the day's rally. Obviously it was not actively "providing" energy to the speakers. Obviously it did not on that rainy day accumulate and process energy for the Earth Day event, although he did say "even on a day like today, we have enough energy".

One does have visions of the Mayor's staff frantically purchasing sun lamps the day before to shine on the solar panel overnight, but that's all besides the point. It was good symbolism.

The point is, he seems to have more specific excitement about solar energy than any other environmentalist avenue. I think that's because solar energy is the Mayor's kind of green: big, shiny and expensive. Just like a sports arena. It even kind of looks like an LED screen.

(Which also reminds me; we know the dreaded Lamar LED on the GSTC was to be furnished at Lamar's expense. Where did all those other neon bells and whistles come from, and the flashing checkerboard background? At whose expense did the rest of the electronic Christmas tree come, and who got paid for it? But that's another story.)

I want to applaud Mayor Ravenstahl's evident interest in environmentalism, I really do. I just think he really needs to keep at it, learning more about it from a diversity of sources. Earthy, crunchy, granola-y sources. And I'd like him to move forward with the City-County Building, or explain better why that very practical, money-saving, and quietly historic project has been abandoned.


  1. Rage Against the Democratic MachineApril 24, 2009 at 7:57 AM

    First, it's unfair to blame Lindsay Baxter for not "muscling" into the URA Meeting. If she wasn't invited, then her involvement will result in nothing more than an early exit from city government. The Mayor -- through his right-hand man -- should have demonstrated how serious he is about the sustainability business.

    Leaders support creative initiatives by actions, not by speeches in Market Square on Earth Day during the silly season. The Boy Mayor can talk all he wants about green, but the administration's commitment, as you accurately noted, is to tie grants to the development the city desires -- not the mantra of "I don't want to end up with a LEED-certified nothing". Yes, I blame the Mayor on this one. It's a microcosm of this administration. He'll talk and coop cutting-edge issues during an election year, but the bottom line is he is an empty suit when the tough decisions matter.

  2. I'm in agreement with RATDM. The mayor hired a Duquesne U. grad student to be the city's sustainability because it would be a relatively cheap hire ($40k salary) that would make him look good without him having to hire somebody who would aggressively push for big changes. Last I heard from her she was working on some low hanging fruit items like recycling and energy efficiency. Important stuff, but not groundbreaking, especially when we are way behind other cities. She seems knowledgeable but may only have a limited impact since green isn't really a priority for the mayor.