Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Planning Commission: Still Problematic

Quite the show yesterday!

Dozens of people packed a city planning commission meeting... (P-G, Mark Belko)

Um, maybe it would be best to rely on the Tribune-Review today.

More than 150 people crammed into the hearing in the John P. Robin Civic Building on Ross Street, Downtown, many carrying signs and wearing Northside United shirts. Others stood outside and chanted, demanding that North Shore developers agree to a Community Benefits Agreement that would ensure jobs and other benefits for residents. (Trib, Chris Togneri)

That's far more accurate in terms of scope -- and I'm not sure why the other paper found the noisy protest march around the building to be uninteresting.

"They're upset with the fact that we will not participate in a CBA," said Continental's vice president of development, Michael Hudec. (ibid)

It is true that many of the assembled knocked the developers for refusing even to meet with the community -- let alone make concessions on things like green design, labor relations and sociable city planning. Many spoke of a distinct "wall" being erected between the community and the development zone.

It must be noted that several of the assembled, though hardly a majority, seemed to oppose any corporate development whatsoever, having been discouraged by past experience.

Watson said the planning commission does not have the authority to reject the plans based on matters like Community Benefits Agreements, even if board members agree with the protesters. She said the commission can only rule on whether Continental has adhered to zoning regulations and other laws. (ibid)

Watson is flat-out wrong about this
, has been for some time, and it's pretty important already.

Under 922.10.D.2:

The Planning Commission shall approve a Master Development Plan application only if it finds that the proposal meets all of the following criteria:

(a) That the proposed development shall create an efficient, functional and attractive urban area which incorporates a high level of amenities;

(b) That the proposed development shall create a favorable environmental, social and economic impact on the City;

(c) That the proposed development shall not be injurious to other property in the immediate vicinity, nor substantially diminish or impair property values within adjacent zoning districts;

(d) That adequate utilities, road, drainage and other necessary facilities have been or shall be provided;

(e) That adequate measures have been or shall be taken to provide ingress and egress designated so as to minimize traffic congestion in the public streets; and

(f) That the proposed development complies with plans and policy documents adopted from time to time by the City.

Those are all judgment calls. Those are all the very sorts of issues a large and diverse panel would need to be convened around a table to jointly discuss and vote upon -- not an individual judge or a much smaller panel like our quasi-judicial Zoning Board of Adjustment.

If the Planning Commission declines to make the ratification of any Community Benefits Agreement a condition for Master Plan approval, that is a matter of policy and of preference, not a matter of law.

Even if we set aside the issue of formal CBAs as perhaps we should, the Commission bears the responsibility of rationally weighing the very same impacts -- environmental, social, and collateral -- that the many constituencies clamoring for CBAs have been trying to address through them.

The height of a casino garage, and the materials and shrubbery used to adorn a riverside path, were never part of the law or code -- yet they factored in mightily upon the same Commission's deliberations regarding a storied past application. Even yesterday, immediately prior to Continental's business during a hearing on a Garfield project, Commission members leisurely mulled over such minutia as the likely eventual lean of tree branches and tree roots. We know for certain they can empower themselves when so disposed.

When the Commission's chair purports to side privately with the community as she has done in the past, yet shrugs her shoulders and claims to be shackled to narrowly tailored laws, she is either being insincere or mistaken. I do not rule out mistaken, as her view is redolent of the methods by which the overseers of City Planning have sought to circumvent its processes since prior to her arrival in that chaotic dimension.

The Planning Commission can approve this thing if it likes, but it needs to man up and admit that it is electing freely to do so. This business of blaming it on laws that do not exist is nothing more than improvising political cover for unpopular decisions. It is another way, as Carmen Robinson once put it, of "hiding the ball". It is cowardly and anti-transparent.


  1. On Sunday afternoon I saw a program on QED about sustainable development. The show featured a bunch of projects in Portland, OR and something called the Natural Step.

    Folks, we've been hoodwinked. There is absolutely nothing sustainable about development in this town. Community input my ass.

    And, I believe that "decorative screening" is that exterior metal mesh they put on the Bus Station and on the Lamar HQ out near Robinson.

  2. Great post Bram. Wrenna needs to grow a pair--under her robe?--and actually lead the commission. Or is she angling for big judicial campaign donations from Walnut Capital?

  3. Wrenna is worthless on that board.

    I'm happy to see that she allowed you to use the camera in the room. I once used a video camera and the meeting stopped. She thought she was in a court room.

    If we only had the ability to have ELECTIONS of accountability -- with RETENTION VOTES for all board members, then we'd have a scratch of a chance.

  4. It should be a 'judgment' call, but it doesn't work that way. As a local township official I have seen 'judgment' calls made by planning boards only for them to be overturned by Judge James. You can't tell a property owner what to do or not do with their property if they don't break the zoning ordinance.

    If you didn't support this issue and the Planning Commission had to go to court to defend its decision you would write about the amount of tax dollars spent on the law suit.

  5. Yes, but Amnomonuss? There are requirements and ordinances for private owners of private land bought with private money, but it works quite differently when there's public land, bought with public funds by private owners, yes/no?

  6. Anon 2:43 - I wonder if the Township planning boards you reference carry as much legal muster as those boards that are part of Cities of the 2nd Class, which are granted Home Rule Powers by the state that are always to be interpreted broadly -- and have yet to be successfully challenged.

    If what you describe is correct, several huge chunks of our Charter and Code are vestigial and worthless, and have been for some time without anyone noticing. Besides which the last time Judge James weighed in on similar matters, he came down decidedly on the side of our own Code of Ordinances and the procedures they prescribe.

    Wat N'at says certainly describes a moral truth; I'm not sure if it describes anything of legal consequence. But then again if this did wind up in court and if that itself led to some kind of gray area judgment call, I think the public land / public subsidies argument could come in handy.

    In the press, Continental has been threatening to take their ball and go home more often than threatening to sue. Although I think they've done a little of both.

  7. Bram, without a doubt large parts of the city charter are obsolete, ignored or generally defunct. Not the topic at hand but my favorite section is that under the core duties of the mayor in § 204 is: The mayor shall present an annual report on the tax monies paid per capita and the citizens of the City of Pittsburgh to the federal government that is allocated to military spending. The report shall include an analysis of the impact of the military budget on the City's economy in relation to jobs and social services. The mayor shall advertise this analysis in two prominent daily newspapers in the City. Ha. Like that happens. But nobody has bothered to get rid of the section because it just does not matter.

  8. Was that some sort of anti-Vietnam guns vs. butter thing or is it even older?

  9. a 1983 referendum actually. They really did it annually until the Murphy folks just didn't bother with it. Nobody noticed.

  10. An interesting tangent about an ordinance that I'd love to see enforced actually -- but I'm confident that Sec 922 in regards to our Planning Commission ISN'T remotely that cobwebby and forgotten. It's actually been seeing regular use and is rather central to the reason we bother filling that room at 200 Ross St. with people every week.

    Sure it's been selectively overlooked lately and maybe even with increasing frequency, but it's thankfully quite far from an arcane trivia-question. I remember when the same question came up during the hockey arena proceedings -- is the Commission allowed to delay a PDP for lack of a CBA -- Solicitor George Specter was set up on hand to answer the question, "The matter of a CBA is not before you." Twice, using exactly those words both times. I found it immensely interesting he didn't just say, "No", but repeated the delicate phrase like a cat walks across the shelf of an armoire that is filled with expensive tzatzkis.

  11. Wrenna Watson? Daughter of Judge Warren Watson...

    She herself is not a Judge, correct?

    This is interesting. There is a Public Hearing concerning property recently purchased by Boilermakers Local 154. It is 1070 Banksville Road and next to Aplaprk Terrace, 1072 Banksville Road...

    The hearing concerns 'usage'. If usage is changed it will impact parking....Alpark will become parking lot needed to fullfill requierments of usage change....

    This is all to much for common folks, no wonder people don't want to fight...

    Little guys can not win if fighting takes place within system...unorthodox methods are required. And when employed the powers that be write us off as uneducated and troublemakers.

    It takes a kid on You Tube to halt Greentree development, for example...anyone get his cell number?


  12. Monk: Time and date of the hearing? Connection to Ms. Watson? She signed the Writ of Whatever, right?

    Alpark Terace is about to blow up like police officer secondary employment!!!

  13. Bram, you're killing me...'police officer secondary employment' has been bone of contention for me, for years...

    (Alpark Terrace) Hearing scheduled for June 11th @ 9am. Signed Wrenna Watson. Not for Alpark but adjoining property.

    I have nothing to wear...