Friday, July 10, 2009

The Week in Review, Part II: Dollars and Sense

Continental Real Estate, the Henry Clay Frick to the Steelers' Andrew Carnegie, once again postponed its application to the City Planning Commission for approval of its proposed and creatively subsidized North Shore Uglitheater for another two weeks.

This time the application was pulled at around 10:30 AM Tuesday, the very day of its scheduled 2:00 PM hearing -- so North Side United members and other conscientious community objectors actually assembled at 200 Ross St., paying for parking, perhaps calling off of work, for nothing.

In response to general grumbling that this is probably being done intentionally in order to wear down opposition and dampen public interest, even a camera operator from the MSM declared, "They do this all the time! For everything like this!"

However, forty or so North Side United members had something else on their agenda -- a quick march around the corner to the City County Building so as to attempt "to demand that [the Mayor] intervene and make Continental come to the bargaining table."

Thanks to Comet ShakyVision, you can now experience the drama of the protest action in five acts:

1) Press Conference at 200 Ross St.
2) March Gets Started
3) Crossing the Rubicon from Bureaucrats to Electeds
4) As much waiting around as YouTube allows in one clip
5) A Final Thought

Mayor Ravenstahl was in meetings for the 20 - 30 minute duration and not available. Michael Glass of N.U. attempted to get an appointment on his schedule for some point in the next two weeks but was apparently unsuccessful.

Mr. Glass told the Comet that he has in fact spoken with the Mayor on two occasions in the past -- long enough to learn, in his words, that the Mayor firmly opposes pursuing any community benefits agreements in any neighborhoods, or in conjunction with any developments, at any time in the future, period.

Asked if the Mayor provided any sort of rationale for that position at the time, Glass said His Honor did not. Asked if the subject of the much-celebrated Hill District CBA arose as a counterexample, Glass quoted Ravenstahl as saying that the Hill situation was treated specially because of "a different set of circumstances" -- those being, said the Mayor according to Glass, "the history of how that land was taken from them."

Glass then asserted, "But the same thing was true on the North Side", which is an interesting proposition.

I asked mayoral spokesperson Joanna Doven about this alleged position of the Mayor on CBAs in general. After clarifying that she can't speak to a conversation at which she was not present, she said that although "the Mayor is open to discussions" with community groups, she knows he is "not in favor of resources" going to neighborhood groups as part of any deal.


In other news, it looks as though Walnut Capital, with the City's active assistance, is about to recieve $4 million from the State of Pennsylvania for a privately owned parking lot adjacent to its Bakery Square development.

The grant, already green-lighted by the state and by the URA, originally cleared its hurdle at City Council with a preliminary 3-1 vote with an unusual 5 abstentions -- then got "recommitted" at Final Action back to committee -- then re-won its preliminary approval by an 8-1 margin, apparently after additional urging by at least State Sen. Jim Ferlo. The politics of how this all came to pass look to be dense and multi-layered, interpersonal to an extent, and in some senses irrelevant to my own concerns.

I guess I just do not understand how such large pools of economic development cash can be so willingly deployed to large, well-financed corporate organizations for projects that are already well underway, whereas much more modest resources are explicitly forbidden from going to home-grown neighborhood organizations on many occasions. Even in the Hill District, wherein special circumstances made a formal commitment for community benefits necessary, the Hill had to scrape its few hundreds of thousands together through the generosity of BONY-Mellon together with tax credits.

Yes, projects like Bakery Square create jobs and are likely to increase the tax base. Yet wouldn't refocusing our scarce development resources instead on many more small-scale, ground-up projects accomplish that very same goal? Perhaps the jobs would even be better (these large developments excel at creating minimum wage opportunities) and would more importantly be even more empowering to Pittsburgh residents.

Walnut Capital already qualified for public Tax Increment Financing for its Bakery Square project without even the usual strings attached in regards to labor agreements. It is a fact that Walnut Capital is the City of Pittsburgh's number one campaign contributor, and that one of its two owners, Todd Reidbord, sets development policy as a senior member of the City Planning Commission.

Talk about a special set of circumstances - to me that seems like a few too many overlapping layers of involvement all at once. Campaign donations are what they are, but if it were up to me, Mr. Reidbord could get his enormous government grants whilst ordinary Pittsburghers cry out for basic assistance, OR he could remain on the Planning Commission as a policymaker -- but not do all three things at once.

As Peter Griffin might say, that's just morbidly obese.


  1. When will you start looking into the campaign contributions of the SEIU and then tying those contributions to how members of Council vote? Or, doesn't that matter?

  2. Watch how Rudiak will vote lock n step with SEIU.

  3. I'm sure the suburbanites are thrilled to consider a merger with Pittsburgh when our government is controlled by the SEIU and groups like North Side United.

  4. Anon 3:14 - When any of SEIU's campaign contributions reach or even approach the five figures we see commonly elsewhere...

    OR when presidents and higher-ups at SEIU wind up on a key city boards and commissions...

    OR when public policy in PGH starts breaking remotely in SEIU's favor, then that will become a legitimate concern. I've got to say, the attempt to portray a false equivalency between Pittsburgh's largest property barons and a union comprised mainly of lowly-paid service workers is pretty comical.

  5. Bram, Bram, Bram
    Could it be that development money flows to the Walnut folks because they are more organized, have a history of successful development projects, and possess a stronger capacity to produce a more effective return of taxpayer dollars than say, the folks on the Hill? Really, there is no need to conjure up a dramatic conspiracy theory here. Several CDC's operating in the city have deomonstrated both organizational capacity and community need and have delievered successful projects. The Hill has plenty of need, but little to no capacity for this.

    As for your charge that large-scale development projects "excel at creating minimum wage opportunities", can you identify a project undertaken by a community group that created high paying jobs?

  6. Bram 3:58 - the fallacy in your argument is readily apparent for anyone that dares to think. So we are to follow your position that when lobbying efforts are successful, only then do they become "corrupt" (your take) and should end. However, if one engages in lobbying efforts with the exact same goal as others (support or influence goverment policy) then it is ok.

    The simple fact is that if any of Pittsburgh's major institutions attempted to pick up and leave (PNC, UPMC, Heinz, etc.) you and everyone else would be the first ones to blame whatever politician happened to be Dan or Luke's seat for failing to "retain jobs" and our tax base. However, when our elected officials attempt to create a business friendly environment, and when the individuals that actually create jobs happen to be recognized and supported for doing so - you attack them. Nice work, that will get Pittsburgh far.


  7. OR when public policy in PGH starts breaking remotely in SEIU's favor, then that will become a legitimate concern. I've got to say, the attempt to portray a false equivalency between Pittsburgh's largest property barons and a union comprised mainly of lowly-paid service workers is pretty comical.

    thank you, Bram

  8. Anon 4:01 - On Capacity:

    1. It is precisely W.C.'s considerable capacity which enables it to pursue major projects and create jobs without so much state assistance. I wish I had time to track down that spate of articles about how so very often, developers that have every intention of carrying through projects regardless simply lobby for subsidies anyway -- because what have they got to lose? Kind of makes us seem like suckers.

    2. "Capacity" has been a signature buzzword and euphemism for many things in this town for some time. I think it was actually a pair of activists from District 9 who opened my eyes to this condescending habit of citing "capacity" when what they really mean is "what have you done for us lately?" or simply "we don't trust neighborhood folks like you to know how to handle money". Some of these folks have been fed the capacity line already for decades -- if the City was really concerned about building capacity, they would have elaborated or pro-actively helped them to build it by now. What you describe is very trickle-down; very supply-side. It's public money, show a little confidence in the public.

    3. Lazarus and Lord & Taylor were teeming with capacity.

    Anon 4:14 - Wow, where to start. Public officials who take actions due to campaign contributions are corrupt; lobbyists don't take oaths of office and aren't accountable to anybody but their bosses. And once again, I would like to visit this alternate universe in which SEIU controls Pittsburgh, janitors are sitting on the Planning Commission, and all our restaurant and hotel workers have health care because they're all organized.

    And do you know what's "business-friendly"? THE WORLD is business-friendly. People like to be enterprising, construct things, and attempt to make money, especially near large population centers. I hardly think declining to dole out millions of dollars of free money with no strings at all attached is being "business unfriendly". Once again, there is such a thing as being a sucker for scare tactics.

    NOW, I want to clarify: I am not calling for a halt to all economic development assistance to major developers. I am calling for a balanced approach, and I am calling for certain public-oriented concessions to go along naturally with the acceptance of public money. What I feel like I am seeing is a City that had been operating with a 100% top-down approach has now shifted to a 798% top-down approach.

  9. The HUDDLER has to give Bram some kudos on these remarks as well.

    Something tells the HUDDLER that this anon was an active member of either the Reilly or Coghill campaign.

    The HUDDLER is betting on the COGHILL part of that last remark.

    Reilly's group has a little more class than the esteemed "ROOFER" Mayor Luke supported.

    Something tells the HUDDLER who ever is worried about SEIU donations has no clue to the amount of membership they turn out for canvassing and gotv activities.

    If the labor movement in general mobilized like SEIU, americans would have the Employee Free Choice Act.

  10. Did you forget that all these projects that you gripe about and call for a "balanced approach" require prevailing wage? Did you forget the most, if not all, of them are using union labor?

    Again, you fail to answer the question. IF the SEIU's lobby efforts are effective and they get the things they want be influencing politicians, is that corrupt? Answer, don't avoid.

  11. I've been calling a halt to all government spending of public money for private interests in the name of economic development for years.

    TIFs are BAD public policy.

    There is no such thing as a balance approach.

    Getting to a real public oriented perspective requires a frugal approach to spending and a focus on keeping / protecting / re-establishing civil rights and personal liberty.

  12. Anon 5:45 - The campaign contributions comprised only the merest footnote to this post. You're changing the subject. I am calling out an unwise and somewhat cruel development strategy, not corruption. I have no doubt at all that our executives at the local and state levels believe in good faith that they are pursuing a better policy -- we just differ and I am explaining why.

    For the record, IMHO it'd be "corrupt" if the public officials bent, broke or tortured laws to benefit a particular labor union, gave them noncompetitive business or contracts in some way, or appointed officials from the very most generous unions to government boards and then allowed them over time to advance their own interests on those boards.

    Enjoying this.

    Crystal & the HUDDLER - thank you.
    Mark - thanks also for your comments.

  13. if the City was really concerned about building capacity, they would have elaborated or pro-actively helped them to build it by now.

    You mean how they GIVE all the money to ELDI and thier friends cause they have the capacity ...

    connect the dots

    Q: What certain politicans are handing out the "rewards"


  14. Isn't it funny when public dollars are spent on the Bakery Square project it is in Larimer? Marketing tells you it’s in Eastside. Development of infrastructure it’s in East Liberty And get this,,,,,,, meetings to discuss the project held in Shadyside.

    Talking about building capacity!! The City can’t even figure out what neighborhood the project is in the City.

    Anybody attend the Bakery Square meeting Friday July 10th at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.

    Geographically where is this project at?

    It matters because of the demographics used to determine the public dollars (TIF money) given towards the project in the poverty stricken low income neighborhood of Larimer..just don’t tell anybody that is where the building really is …lets face it towards Shadyside…fund ELDI and East Liberty…and qualify for the money by saying its in Larimer OK

  15. Just watched the replay of Tuesday's recommital ... will withhold most comment 'till I watch Wed's action tomorrow ... but in reference to the last comment, Councilwoman Payne argued that "The community is counting on this project. You can go out there and ask them, and they can tell you."

    Somebody should really take her up on that.

  16. Bakery Square IS in LARIMER. Penn Avenue is the dividing line between Larimer and SHADYSIDE...Penn avenue at Busway is EAST LIBERTY and at the other end at Fifth Ave is POINT BREEZE...( see city planning maps online)

    ALL of the adjacent communities have concerns and rights to comment about the impact of Bakery Square. The purpose of the meeting is to provide transparency about the deals to expand Penn avenue into the Mellon Park and allow the public to discuss future improvements, such as a new walkway...Since the meeting is at Calvary Church, it IS in Shadyside. But, that is irrelevant, the important things is that people show up to demand accountability and transparency in design and funding of the work on Penn Avenue.

  17. Bakery Square IS in LARIMER.

    If this is true citywatcher, then why didn't the LARIMER community benefit from the project?

    Since the project recieved public funds, then why didn't some of that money make it to the community?

    Could point out various news reports that say Bakery Square is in East Liberty, Eastside, Point Breeze, Shadyside anywhere but Larimer!

    What has the project promised the Larimer community - if anything?

    "ALL of the adjacent communities have concerns and rights to comment about the impact of Bakery Square." This is true, and all the communities should voice thier comments and concerns but couldn't that be done in the community that the development project is in? Wouldn't working with the Larimer community build its "CAPACITY" just a thought

  18. The Larimer community is not really counting on this project cause it has no benefit to the neighborhood. Are there jobs promised to the residents of the community that the project IS built in? Answer NO.

    Did development money make it into the community that the project is built in? Answer NO.

    Will this anchor project assist in any other development in Larimer? Answer NO.

    Why was taxpayers dollars put in this project ?????

    Lets ask Ms. Payne what community is counting on this project? And who told her this

  19. Does the Larimer community know it has received a benefit by the Bakery Square project being in its neighborhood?

    This chic project is way above the type of the people that live in the neighborhood so what is the benefit? And who received it…….

    Politicians got benefit, during the primary elections their political signs were plastered real big all over the project that got public money, some of them got contributions/gifts while others got zoning treats and the “owners” got more public money.

    Again what did the community actually get? Can anybody take that question?