Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday Open Thread

Conversation starters under "News" in sidebar.


  1. At what point is at least some focus turned inward on Grant Street with respect to the $15 million dollar "gap"? The whole "fair share tax" v. non-profit payments cannot be the exclusive focus, right? I mean, while that conversation is going on, others are looking at ways to, I don't know, reduce sending, aren't they? Yes, I read about the deal with Oracle to consolidate records management, but seriously -- that's it? I feel like I'm back in college, sitting at the kitchen table with my 4 roommates, trying to figure out how we were going to pay for THIS month's we completely ignored the fact that we had just finished planning our spring break trip and graduation bash. It is epically shortsighted, but I cannot say I'm not surprised.

  2. I wish I understood what it is about being a politician that keeps those voted out of office from looking at new careers. Is it such a good life that the voted-out gang can't imagine altering his or her lifestyle to fit a new line of work? There are at least two fewer doors open to ex-councilpersons, working for a non-profit or an institution of higher learning.

  3. Does T. Payne have a chance to win the state rep seat? And how about her getting the bump from Committee chair for the city!

  4. Going to try to do a series of posts about "Root Shock" on my blog.

    My research is making me wonder about the effects of Urban Renewal, on the history of Jazz. Seems like a large number of key black communities and Jazz hubs were uprooted in the mid 50's to early sixites from the Hill to San Fransisco's Fillmore district to a smaller area in Portland Oregon.

    Heven't read the book yet.

  5. Also am wondering about the legal property rights on the Arena property. (I know nobody talks about that stuff anymore)

    My understanding is that most of this land was taken by eminent domain for the alleged "public benefit" of building the arena in the 1950's.

    Since, the arena has been moved, hasn't this alleged purpose expired?

    I mean -- once the government takes land - it can never give it back. Now it's been transferred yet again to a private owner.

    Some of my family had property in Poland taken by the Nazi's and then the communists. After the wall fell, even as hard as it was to try to reconstruct records an attempt was made to give compensation.

    Isn't this grounds for some kind of court case?

  6. Not quite. The properties in what was the Lower Hill District were declared blighted. So legally speaking it was not to build the arena even if that was the real purpose. But I doubt the arena's final days give anyone standing to get any property back if that is what is being suggested. That and the parcels no longer even exist legally I don't think which would make it quite a mess to deal with. Who the actual parcel owners were back then were likely not the occupants and who those rights devolved to... even messier. Court's in PA wouldnt wade into it just from the sheer practicality of it all.

  7. And here I was going to send the Root Shocker over to Null Space. Anyway, if would make a nice little PG Sunday piece to dig up a few of those property owners who lost their land to the arena.

  8. It just seems that if ever there was a case.

    As Chris pointed out, the legal issues are huge.But there are likely a bunch of ways to attack it.

    I mean, the central idea that taking this land was filling a "public benefit" just doesn't hold up on any level.

    A) The majority of studies/experts think the broken connection to the downtown, loss of housing and displacement effects have been very negative.

    B) Even a claim that the development is adding to the tax base doesn't hold up. It was a tax hole and required constant subsidies.

    At sub minimum, I think it might be possible to track down the displaced land owners and business owners and their heirs and give them some kind of equity stake in the property.

    As, I said if attempts were made to do this in the poor countries of eastern Europe after the wall fell-- some efforts can be made here.

    The main issue is just admiting --the government was wrong-- which never happens.

    I think a court case would be very healthy and I also think there are groups and mostly Libertarian legal foundations that would happily support it.

  9. Trying to track down who owned property in that area 50 years ago and then go find them or their heirs is a logistical nightmare. First, it is hard to find these people to start. Second, you would have to look into probate records of these people to see where their money and property went (aka if they gave all their possessions to some cousin instead of their kids). Third, there really seems to be no legal standing to use in a court case - the land was declared blighted and taken by eminent domain. Like it or not, this was a legal taking of the land. Therefore, what do you claim as the injury and how can you claim it?

  10. I just want to say that this is one of the main reasons blogs and other forms of alternative media can be so important.

    There's a lot things going on here that seem totally cool with the majority of the population and local political powers that are not seen as cool at all from the outside.

    What happened to the lower hill is a vast opportunity to publicly humiliate the powers that be and potentially get them to think twice about doing it again.

    By the way, a similar case could be brought over Allegheny Center, another failed development of dubious "public benefit" to the city.

  11. Well hell yes, it's a logisical nightmare and that's the point. If only nightmares like this happened more often, eminent domain abuse like this would be much less common.

    As to the legality of the taking-- let's just say the Fifth Amendment is one of the hottest issues out there.Lot's of people have had this happen and lot's of people are angry and spoiling for a fight.

    As to the specifics of the logistics. One could at least offer shares in the property to those who could bring proof to be legal heirs.

    Say for example one said 20 - 30% of the property's financial returns would be set aside for compensation.

    This is much more just than the weird CBA concept.

    Remember, that only a small portion of people displaced from the Lower Hill remained living in the local area.

    CBA's seem like a racket to give power to area "non profits" and self appointed "public servants."

  12. Here's a 2005 New York Times editorial about the negative effects of eminent domain enabled urban renewal on Pittsburgh.

    Few city's in America have as many boondogle disasters as we have. We are world famous!

    "Bulldozers razed the Lower Hill District, the black neighborhood next to downtown that was famous for its jazz scene (and now famous mostly as a memory in August Wilson's plays). The city built a domed arena that was supposed to be part of a cultural "acropolis," but the rest of the project died. Today, having belatedly realized that downtown would benefit from people living nearby, the city is trying to entice them back to the Hill by building homes there.

    In the 1960's, the bulldozers moved into East Liberty, until then the busiest shopping district outside downtown. Some of the leading businessmen there wanted to upgrade the neighborhood, so hundreds of small businesses and thousands of people were moved to make room for upscale apartment buildings, parking lots, housing projects, roads and a pedestrian mall.

    I was working there in a drugstore whose owners cursed the project, and at first I thought they were just behind the times. But their worst fears were confirmed. The shopping district was destroyed. The drugstore closed, along with the department stores, movie theaters, office buildings and most other businesses.

    You'd think a fiasco like that would have humbled Pittsburgh's planners, but they just went on. They kicked out a small company to give H. J. Heinz more room. Mayor Tom Murphy has attracted national attention for his grand designs - and fights - to replace thriving small businesses downtown and on the North Side with more upscale tenants."

    It took Jane Jacobs five minutes to predict the disaster these shiny new develpments would be in the early 1960's

    IMHO, looking closely at these projects tells you almost all you need to know about how the city lost it's tax base and became structurally insolvent.

  13. Yeah, 'urban renewal' in Pittsburgh was terrible but it is not a unique phenomenon. There were similar projects in most, if not all major US cities, and most of them failed.

    The Hill District, East Liberty, North Side failed in the 50's & 60's for many reasons, among them were these urban renewal projects. However, there are other causes of urban decline in Pittsburgh and across the country.

    And let's face it, these 'urban renewal' efforts are still occurring - but in the reverse. As focus returns to cities and neighborhoods become more attractive to non-traditional city residents (suburbanites, people from outside the region, retirees), these neighborhoods get more expensive for their existing residents. Sure, if you own your own home in these neighborhoods that is great for you but if you are renting or living with someone and don't have the funds to own, you may get kicked out of your dwelling because popular culture or powers that be have decided that your neighborhood is the next 'big thing'. Sure, there are no steamrollers and bulldozers but the displacement of the traditional population is the same.

    I don't think government should be able to condemn property and take it but it was legal back then and is still legal. The answer to how to prevent this from happening again is not to start lawsuits where you can't allege a legally cognizable injury. The answer is to use the end of the Arena site to petition the legislature to pass a law that states that government takings via eminent domain is illegal.

  14. Damn, I wrote a very long comment and it got lost. Whatever I said, John, I included info I provided once before here which was that my grandfather owned a grocery store Uptown, and that he accepted a deal from the City under duress of the likelihood of eminent domain -- and of the rest of the neighborhood getting forced out / being offered deals, such that the deal he was being offered for his own property would only get worse and worse over time. Also I included a bit I only learned recently, which is that he took his own life just a couple years after taking that deal and closing the store ... so that, together with his wife passing away only several years ago, and the fact that my dad was only a youth at the time and therefore not involved in negotiating with Mayor Lawrence and his version of Yarone, would seem to make discovering the details of that period unlikely. Even if we could track down some previous owners, it's getting to the be time where their "case" would be lost. If we have people with that kind of moxie, motivation and time on their hands, perhaps better to put them on the task of fighting for what's transpiring on the Hill here and now.

  15. Give me a break. You may have a point about legal standing in terms of finding the injured parties-- although I still think it can be done.

    As, to equating the mass expropriation of large tracts of urban land like the one that displaced 8,000 people and I think close to 100 businesses from the Lower Hill with the normal push and organic pull of urban life is just crazy.

    What's going on on the South Side is pretty typical of "gentrification" and it's hardly a big problem. Pittsburgh has many reasonable affordable areas, and price pressure from one can be the fuel to bring in new supply, by creatively renovating other buildings like old factories, churches and schools; adding on extra floors and redeveloping neighboring areas.

    The big problem in places like NYC, Boston and San Francisco is caused above all by rent controls and other policies which remove the incentive to maintain and build affordable housing.

    We are so far away from that problem here, it's hardly worth talking about.

    Development, or growth of any kind is so twisted here that people think growth and eminent domain are the same thing.

    Just one more thing. Is it any wonder so many of these subsidized developments don't work out. Why should they,with subsidies and free land, why should anyone have to work hard on having a solid business plan.

    Heads I win and tails you lose. It worked on Wall Street!

  16. Bram, sorry about my mistimed response which is to what Grimace said.

    Full Of Love?

    If you are or know Mindy Fullilove, the author of Root Shock, pass along this idea.

    May first and second, all across the country, people are hosting "Jane's Walks" to celebrate and study what makes sustainable and organically developed communities work.

    I think an awesome idea, whould be if Mindy, somehow helped co-host a walk through the Lower Hill district perhaps with other people who live in the community.

    No money for this of course. We likely could get good publicity for this event.

    Even better would be a Root Shock conference--- sure don't have money for that.

  17. I think there are two reasons I'm pretty obsessed with this issue.

    As you said, Grimace, this isn't about digging up the past or looking for trouble, eminent domain and gun point deal making is the standard way the city and agencies operate all the time and IMHO, a fundamental reason we are in the fragile shape we are in.

    The second point is that -- I honestly do think this is a core issue that can bring people from across the political spectrum together.

    Here is a panel that happened yesterday in Brooklyn, talking about the Atlantc Yards project, which includes hard core Libertarian legal foundations like The Institute For Justice as well as speakers from the ACLU and Mindy Fullilove herself.

  18. Just fyi... but I do believe Mindy Fullilove is somehow going to work with the team working on the Hill District master plan. I think she was going to be involved no matter who got the contract, but I am not sure of the details. I suspect her imprimatur will be decisive in how this all plays out.

    Some of the legal morass over what happened in the 50's is a topic unto itself.

    When the PG ran my book review of Root Shock it ran some of their own (or the Press'?) achived photos from the demolition and as I recall they were pretty heart wrenching.... unfortunately they don't have them linked to the online version of the piece.

  19. OK, I'm going to spell this out for those who haven't already made the mental connections.

    There's a particular alignment of circumstances that make The Lower Hill the eye of a potentially huge storm.

    1) First Black President

    2) First president in a while with strong big city ties and an alleged, interest in urban issues.

    3) Vast nationwide anger over eminent domain issues with strong anger from the Libertarian Right.

    4)Kelso Debacle

    5) Strong legal infrastructure of groups like the Institute For Justice eager for court battles.

    Combine this with the fact that The Hill District is a legendary area in Jazz and African American history and one has a lot to work with.