Friday, November 20, 2009

All Eyes on the Hill District

Firstly: run don't walk to this week's City Paper. I'll excerpt a few bits but it's better to read the whole articles. First there is a fretful general update on the impact of the loss of Evan Frazier at this "critical juncture", but then there is an offset item on a new disquieting front:

The Pittsburgh Penguins apparently skipped an important step last month in constructing a hotel near their new hockey arena. And by doing so, they may have violated the terms of their pledge to the Hill District, the community-benefits agreement (CBA). (CP, Chris Young)

Amongst the grocery store, the community-driven master plan, and the First Source job center, one would have thought the execution of the job center was the easy layup.

Carl Redwood, who played a significant role in getting the CBA signed as chairman of the community coalition One Hill, admits that the Penguins "technically" violated the CBA. But he counsels restraint about the hotel project. "We're not going to get all upset," he says. "We anticipate that all future [job] openings will be shared with the First Source Center." (ibid)

I guess someone has to be smoothly conciliatory what with Mr. Frazier taking a backseat, but the above reminds me very much of all professional and trusting reassurance that we heard during the period before the unplanned burning of that first CBA proposal and the unrelated combustion the URA -- you know, the period where nothing at all got accomplished for months and months on end. When I think about those contractors' and developers' self-righteous demands that the community deserves nothing and shovels need to start digging into the earth, I feel that forgetting the Job Center was not just an oversight.

And then there's the community-driven Master Planning process -- which was glossed upon just barely in recent news articles about the fate of the Mellon Arena.

SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo said after Mr. Pfaffmann spoke at the board meeting that there would be a public process on the proposed demolition.

The SEA board yesterday hired Oxford/Chester LLC at a cost not to exceed $277,180 to help in the master planning for the 28 acres, to conduct a hazardous materials investigation at the site, and to help coordinate the possible sale of arena assets. (P-G, Mark Belko; see also Trib, Jeremy Boren)

All things being equal, one would think it would be better to preserve and adapt a notable asset rather than destroy it -- provided the structure and the area can be genuinely productive. Hopefully ingenious minds are on this and very well along.

Reusing Mellon Arena, Mr. Morehouse said, "probably" would prevent the team from restoring the street grid between Downtown and the Hill, one removed when the Igloo was built and now viewed as a mistake. (ibid)

Is this an actual indication that the Penguins intend to use their influence on the planning process to restore the street grid? In my view that would be really positive.

But the point of all this is that the Penguins, according to that pesky, celebrated CBA, ought to be merely a co-chair of the planning process. There was a Neighborhood Steering Committee convened made up of appointments by genuine public officials and everything. Yet we know that track is in jeopardy, despite nonspecific and patronizing talk of the community being allowed to "have input".

Also today, the URA board unanimously approved a $350,000 contract with CHPlanning Ltd. of Philadelphia to help in the development of a master plan for the Hill District. The hiring was delayed last month by Ms. Payne, a URA board member who wanted more time to review the qualifications of the firm and two other finalists for the work. Based on that review, she said she was comfortable with CHPLanning's hiring.

"I think [the firm] will do a wonderful job," she said.
The master plan is expected to look at the entire Hill neighborhood as well as 28 acres of land to be developed by the Penguins along Centre Avenue where Mellon Arena now sits. (P-G, Mark Belko)

This is the thing which according to some should have happened a month ago, and according to many more could and should have happened maybe six months to a year ago. This last month's delay was to get Tonya Payne up to speed. The previous months? Unknown.

As it is, there's a "drop dead" date in February on which the Penguins inherit sole sovereignty over the planning process -- a date which Councilman-elect Daniel Lavelle already said publicly will probably need to be pushed back. How it can be pushed back is another story.

So with the Job Center and Master Plan aspects of the tripod in considerable distress, finally there is the Grocery Store:

City Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who represents the Hill, said today she, the Ravenstahl administration, and officials with the city Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Hill House Association are expected to meet with Save-A-Lot representatives shortly after Thanksgiving. (ibid)

This would seem to not be perfectly in line with this recent sentiment:

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl called [Kuhns'] decision "discouraging," and stressed that the city was looking for a full-service grocery store at the site. (P-G, Vivian Nereim)

I interpret this as a sudden gust of coolness and accountability by an elected leader who understands the depth and importance of promises made to a used and abused neighborhood -- followed quickly by a veto by nervous bureaucrats.

I know, I know: ooga booga market fundamentals, booga wooga prevailing wage legislation. But you try raising a family without a pharmacy or a decent selection of healthy food within easy reach. Save-a-Lots are depressing and I hope the other options are still being actively pursued.

[Ravenstahl] was optimistic about a grocery store, noting that Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle made his billions of dollars largely in the supermarket industry. Mr. Burkle "has connections and the experience" to get a deal done, the mayor said. (P-G, 12/15/07, Mark Belko)

Another spontaneous gust of coolness that went unheralded at the time. How about a return to that idea?

There has been, and occasionally still is, a lot of talk about "this time, we're building an arena and a neighborhood". There is still enough time to accomplish that challenging, unique civic task, if there is only the requisite desire and political will in the right quarters. We don't need a new neighborhood called "Hillside" and a big wall with profoundly disappointed Pittsburghers on the other side.


  1. Oops, forgot to acknowledge some fellow bloggers who keyed in to the grocery story aspect of this story before I got around to it. From what I've seen, there is 2 Political Junkies, Pgh Is A City, and Politics and Place. The latter is authored by Alex Pazuchanics, who I met at Podcamp. He is a grad student in something relevant at GWU, favors the bow tie, and is convincing as an earnest wonk.

  2. Good summary Bram, A couple of clarifications that many do not know:

    1. The delay in the Master Plan is only one part of the problem; all of the required planning processes should be unified (SEA, URA, DCP, PENS). This is a shell game or as the federal redevelopment laws called it the day, COMPARTMENTALIZATION, an illegal divide and conquer approach to redevelopment planning. The first compartment was to approve the new arena without a master plan, thank to our friend PAT FORD. Privatization of planning is a real problem for this city.

    There is a parallel master planning effort called the "Hill Greenprint" led by the talented Walter Hood.

    The SEA's quarter of a mill contract with Baker was not advertised and as far we can tell not competitively bid and is for cultural resources reviews required under section 106 of federal law. This is odd.

    The budget for the lower 28 acres has not been revealed other than a 2002 estimate for $30 million including demo of the arena (should be about $50 million now). No indications of how that is paid for, except you know it will be tax payers statewide. Try and find this in the state budget!

    The reuse of the Igloo is not an obstacle to reconnecting the Hill to the city. Without being able to publish a map its hard to explain, so go here and see how one could accomplish this:

    The BIGGEST obstacle recognized by all planners was the moat of the CROSSTOWN EXPRESSWAY! The topography of the lower hill and modern building footprints will never allow a recreated Wiley avenue for example. A pedestrian greenway extending the current Wiley to the Washington Place still leaves you short of the city. The original Wiley, Webster and Bedford connected where the old Bigelow Hotel (Doubletree) and US Steel tower.

    Also consider that Wiley was the heart of the Hill and today it is a pleasant almost suburban street where it meets Crawford. Centre Avenue is the new Wiley avenue and the true Heart of the 21st century Hill. I will be the first to say that the issue of the Igloo should be secondary to the need to rebuild the heart of the Hill along Centre from Hill House to the new Library at Kirkpatrick. With a new Y and supermarket (cmon Burkle you could pay for this with a days pay!).

    See Walter Hoods Greenprint for the conceptual underpinnings for a new Hill plan, that could really drive a sustainable and equitable renaissance.

    There is so much more...

  3. NO, it isn't ooga booga wooga - it is again called bloggers and certain council people ignoring reality, have zero experience in the private sector and pandering to special interest groups. Fact: no business will last if it doesn't make a profit. Fact: business don't make a profit unless they bring in more money than they spend. Fact: prevailing wage legislation increases cost. Fact: The Hill District lacks the demographics to support significant retail, including a grocery store. Fact: Connecting the street grid will help bring other consumers to the Hill District.

    You talk a big game, but don't make any sense. Market fundamentals and just that - fundamental. When you ignore them or booga wooga them, you lose. Your communities lose and then politicians rise to power and stay in power by blaming others rather than creating solutions. Just wait until the Target pulls out. Thanks Doug! Glad you are bringing your personal hatred of the Mayor into civic leadership - idiot.

  4. Is 'ooga booga wooga' a technical term?

    Not quite sure what the point was... but Target just recently announced it is moving forward with its plans fwiw.  Folks sure lose big picture in the political machinations of the day.  I am pretty sure the long road toward a traget (or Kmart or whatever) in East Liberty has been moving along, albeit slowly, since before either DS or LR were elected to council.  Might have something to do with a Home Depot as well or may even have been impacted by some minor plans for the neighborhood implemented in the 1960's.

    I find it a bit hard to believe anyone would try the argument in itself that planning can't help the Hill get a supermarket beause the demographics don't support it.  Was it not planning that took away the Hill's demographics in the first place?   The Lower Hill District may be one of the most extensively planned pieces of urban geography in the nation, the deconstruction of which has impacted a lot of other neighborhoods in the city to this day. Thus one of the more important things to watch going forward is how these multiple planning efforts, again focused on the same nexus of land, are coordinated. 

  5. There seems to be a shared need for a supermarket for both Downtown and the Hill -- the danger is that without the rational planning which C. Briem writes about and the dauntless ambition Citywatcher describes, a new store will only serve Downtown residents and enhance the Downtown fabric to the Hill's continued exclusion. With all due respect to Frazier and the footprint he has going, it might be worth going back to looking at the 28 acres, the Xtown Xpressway and the Arena when it comes to the grocery.

    Given what Citywatcher writes (my stars that was a useful comment!!!) C. Briem's suggestion that we "watch going forward" the coordination of these multiple planning efforts is the soft sell of the century. We can't afford to watch the compartmentalization kabuki play out and comment knowingly about it. We need to demand clarity and accountability on the front end. Now. Yesterday. Tomorrow.

    Anon 4:03 - In addition to what Briem said about planning, that is: how about *arranging* multiple components at once so that a grocery store is made more viable ... I just wonder how much what we hear about bad market fundamentals is solid data and how much is perception. We certainly read a lot of hard-boiled stuff from anonymous commenters, but do we know this stuff or do we just think we know it? Are grocery operators looking at spreadsheets or just going, "Eeeee how about no" and city leadership isn't there to present a counterargument. The Hill has had 40 years rack up hideous perceptions, most of which are now pretty dated -- if we are basing our market assumptions not on data but those perceptions, then we're really begging the question. Still I like C. Briem's planning answer to your objections more.

  6. The Target story you refer to was prior to introduction of the prevailing wage legislation. Hold on. Also, i'm not saying planning can't help fix the Hill and help that community get a grocery store. The planning that would solve those problems is likely something you would object to. That planning will involve tearing down the arena, building expensive townhomes and condos. It will involve shutting down nuisance bars, cracking down on crime and changing the mix of retail. We'll see where you end up when it happens.

  7. "But you try raising a family without a pharmacy or a decent selection of healthy food within easy reach"

    That is a nice sentiment.

    I suggest you try laying out a Business Plan, securing investors and proceeding with development of a fully service grocery store. I wish you the best of luck.


  8. Say, what about turning the Civic Arena into a supermarket/shopping mall? Maybe call it the Iggle Igloo? No no no. Giant Igloo!