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.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thursday: The Week in Review, Pt. 1

Hola, amigos. I know it's been a long time since I wrapped at ya.

Without navel-gazing for too terribly long: I had every sincere intention of executing a shift in the Comet's editorial content after the primary election, towards greater clinical disinterest and even-handedness. That turned out to be like training a bear to ride a bicycle: you can do it, but not without arousing some concerns. Then after the Lestitian / Mitinger / et al purge, some mixed impulses culminated in what you might call a full-on blogdentity crisis. I almost wrote "midblog crisis" but that doesn't feel accurate. I think we can all sense that the Comet is likely to pass the ball for victory while it's still 2009. At least a couple of wise bloggers once told me, "Three years is about good". However there are still several high-profile items of unfinished business on the agenda -- so in the meanwhile, I don't see how it's going to be anything other than rock and roll.


This afternoon will see a signing ceremony and celebration for the new Allegheny County ordinance establishing a Human Relations Commission, AKA in many quarters the LGBTQ non-discrimination bill. It will be held at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side.

The initiative passed by a slender 8-6 margin. In offering an amendment to Councillor Amanda Green's bill which very likely made its passage possible, Councillor Jim Burn donned what he called his party "Chairman Hat" to urge his Democratic colleagues specifically to rally behind the measure.

This exhortation was lost on Democrats Jim Ellenbogen and Michael Finnerty, who joined the Council's four Republicans in citing every conceivable excuse for voting against the ordinance except those reasons cited by just about every public comment and letter in opposition: it would prompt expensive litigation, it would cause disinvestment and hardship, the people aren't sufficiently aware of what the Council is contemplating. If any member in opposition was representing their constituents' oft-stated concerns, the closest they got was when one councillor dramatically stated, "I hold in my hand a letter ... a letter from the head of the Catholic Diocese!"

I take this as a good sign. Our local Republicans aren't particularly fundie or wingnutty; they just fear for their jobs like everybody else.

Councillor Chuck McCullough, clad for the occasion in a black dryfit New Balance t-shirt, offered a motion to put the issue up for public referendum, citing the Democrats' recent maneuver to "grant themselves the authority" to place ordinances on the ballot in support of the Drink Tax. The prospect of an extended, all-out, infantry-versus-infantry Culture War must have been as terrifying to the councillors as it was to me, since it failed by an even greater margin than the new law ultimately succeeded.

During post-session festivities, Burn offered an acknowledgement "to progressives" that sometimes the party "moves slowly"; he said that "As Chairman, my job is to bring everybody along." Nonetheless he said that that day was "his proudest moment as Chairman". He also lauded Green as one of the Democratic party's "rising stars" and "one to watch".

Council President Rich Fitzgerald spoke in praise of the members who resisted some intense pressure to vote against the measure, particularly Robert J. Macey, who experienced what he called not political pressure, but ominously, "the ultimate pressure".

The occasion also marked the targeting of District 1 Republican incumbent Matt Drozd in November's general election in favor of Democratic challenger Tom Michalow, who issued a "furious" statement in response to Drozd's objections to the bill.

A final note: while there is some disappointment out there about the "compromise" that was reached enabling some loopholes for religious or charitable organizations, I'm not particularly upset. Number one: the major stakeholders in the legislation didn't seem at all upset, at least not after a somewhat-improved version of that comprise had been secured. Everyone seemed determined to celebrate an at-least 2/3 victory and a 100% positive statement across what could be considered challenging terrain. Number two: for whatever reason, the injustice of housing discrimination tugs at my heartstrings worse than employment discrimination, and its hard for me to see how the exceptions will apply to the overwhelming majority of landlords and home sellers.

So that looks to be a real solid gain. But in addition to cementing quantifiable gains, people need to win once in a while, and feel as though their participation and efforts are valued.

SO LATER TODAY: More on the unmet demand for community benefits in the North Shide, and a bit on the continuing supply of corporate benefits headed to a developer in ShadyEastLarimer.