Friday, June 4, 2010

Let's Talk About Electronic Billboards! *

See also Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. The meeting continued thereafter, largely comprised of question & answer and some comment.


The Department of City Planning developed in Aug. '09 draft amendments to the City's Code regulating what we know as electronic signs and billboards. It then forwarded these draft proposals to Clarion Associates and Clanton Associates, who collaborated to produce a review of these revisions. These works were presented at a public meeting this week.

The Department's final draft, based on their consultants' input and others, will be presented at a similar meeting at the end of the summer. Then it will face a hearing before the Planning Commission, followed by consideration by City Council and then the mayor for signature.

If I understand correctly...
Use caution from here on out:

City Planning's proposal would allow off-site electronic signs such as electronic billboard advertising ONLY in areas zoned for industrial use AND NOT where they would be visible from the rivers. A zoning map reveals that the bulk of industrial zoned area is actually right along the rivers. The Golden Triangle, and by extension the Grant Street Transportation Center, would not allow for these types of electronic signs under the proposed rules.

The consultants made clear in the report that one option the city "should seriously consider" is declining to allow electronic signs at all. They cited this as one trend among cities. However the Planning Department does not recommend this.

Legally, banning all off-site electronic signs would be a surefire slam dunk, yet more permissive but creatively restrictive legislation becomes dicey when a community desires to ban certain types of content, to limit the privilege to certain types of users, or to somehow control for aesthetics. (There was some discussion in the gallery of utilizing "sight lines" in guidelines and getting the Art Commission to play a role.)

As far as legislative options and customization, the much-celebrated lighting consultant encouraged everyone to measure and to think about light deeply and properly. Superior technology was showcased to measure "nits" of luminescence with precision and reliability, and we were warned to mind tricks that the brain plays in interpreting brightness and thresholds of distraction and irritation. This seemed to be the area toward which creative thinkers were encouraged to tinker.

The man from the Planning Department and the legal consultant both agreed that the City code as it exists is "silent" on regulating electronic signs. A surprising variety of others in the room agreed and no one disagreed.

The newly proposed rules contain two definitions, each of which expand upon what is now just one:

“Electronic Sign means any sign with text or graphics generated by electronic components, including but not limited to light emitting diode (“LED”) and plasma displays, or any other past or future technology.”

“Electronic Message Sign means a sign with changing text or graphics generated by electronic components, including but not limited to light emitting diode (“LED”) and plasma displays, or any other past or future technology. Electronic message signs shall provide information such as current date, time, weather, and news updates or any information permitted in a business sign, as defined herein. Electronic message signs shall not contain any text or graphics permitted only in advertising signs.

The new verbiage about "any other past or future technology" appears to address all the rampant confusion some perceive to be in our code. And our consultants understandably comment:

It is not clear why a separate definition for "electronic message signs" is proposed but not for other types (e.g., there is no definition of “electronic business and identification signs”—they are simply assumed to be business and identification signs that are electronic). Either each type of sign should have a separate definition for an electronic sign of that type or there should be a general statement in the definition section that one form of any type of sign can be electronic.

One can surmise from this that the Planning Department believes it is important for its interpretation of the present code to remain consistent with that which was explained in public by previous planning officials -- and it is continuing to frame new legislation to pay heed to this classic interpretation.

It is unclear whether some of the types of review which exist in the present code -- conditional use approval by City Council, for example -- would withstand a legal challenge.

*-UPDATE: It appears that the new regs would have electronic advertising signs be approved as Special Exceptions by the Zoning Board of Adjustment. It does not appear that anything like Conditional Use approval involving either the Planning Commission or City Council would any longer come into play.

An attorney for Lamar commented that the proposed regulations are illegally restrictive and subjective. One should wonder what he thinks of the evidently even more restrictive regime his client currently operates under through this purportedly "silent" code.

Even more speculative:

It's conceivable that the regulations Pittsburgh traditionally enforced on electronic signage have always been legally flimsy. Given the expense of the technology and full cost of fighting and losing in court, it was simply never challenged. However once a single advertising company bought up almost all of the billboard stock in the City and began asserting a right to transform them to electronics, neither the City nor the company desired to go to court to actually test their legal bluster. So instead they amicably managed the tension by making off-record "deals" with one other which reduced or cut out: some vintage billboard stock, all other electronic advertising vendors, many political challengers and most due process rights of citizens.

Now however we actually have to come up with enforceable rules with which to govern ourselves -- and it seems as though the city's planning department is intent on allowing more electronic billboards than we have now with less review, while still barring them from a large portion of the city and from a lot more places than the company claims and/or feels to which it has a right.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

RACE TO FILL LEAKY BUCKET: Council Purchases Advice from a Group of Financial Scholars *

Folks at Pitt and CMU must be all, #headdesk#, but at least the Council is acknowledging it ain't all that scholarly itself.

Council gave Finance Scholars Group preliminary approval Wednesday to analyze ways to generate money for the city's ailing pension fund. The study will look at the mayor's proposal of a long-term lease of the assets to a private company; the outright sale of parking facilities; privatizing the Pittsburgh Parking Authority with revenue sharing; transferring the parking assets to the pension funds; and issuing bonds. (Trib, Adam Brandolph)

$250,000 paid for with the budgetary equivalent of couch-cushion money. Happens all the time (helps to be in the majority though).

As to the mayor's lease proposal, the vetting of which by the city's Finance department and transactional middlemen at Morgan Stanley received precious little acclaim:

In a letter Wednesday to pension fund solicitor Frederick Frank, Mr. Dowd said he wants council and the public to have an immediate look at a draft of the agreement that would spell out lease terms, including operating requirements and parking rate increases. Mr. Ravenstahl has offered only to make documents available sometime this month.

With Mr. Ravenstahl demanding a final vote on the lease plan in September, Mr. Dowd said, council needs information as soon as possible.

"This isn't a one-page document," Mr. Dowd said. "This is going to be hundreds of pages of complicated legalese."
Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said the draft agreement can't be provided to council because it's still being written. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Cataclysmic deadlines is our specialty.

*-BACKGROUND: Some history on the dispute over the parking assets is HERE. It shows the mayor's concept has still other supporters. The paramount thing is to select a solution that will work for Pittsburgh.

For the President: An Onslaught of Crabby

PG+ appears to be free right this second. Go and read Dennis Roddy's journal entry entitled A Barrage of Nothing, inspired by President Obama's speech in Pittsburgh yesterday.

Now in my own view, Roddy expects a little much from our Presidents. I hope passionately for Presidents to not actively make very costly blunders, to refuse to sell out important government services and protections, and to try their earnest, intelligent, educated and creative best to massage and tinker around the edges of managing an impossible economy, culture and world as best they can.

However when Roddy concludes:

His speeches remain eloquent, but meaningless; so many empty box cars rolling past an audience waiting only for a chance to cross the tracks and resume such lives as fate has given them because the fates are all they have. Intervention, clearly, is not the forte of the man who has come to save them. (PG+)

I think two things: 1) It is a good thing for the administration that Dennis Roddy and PG+ live ordinarily behind a pay wall, where nobody will pass them about, where search engines do not tread and where nothing can ever go viral and 2) Obama needs to plug that hole, daddy, and within the month. That is if he desires to retain even the pretense of remaining Obama.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wednesday: Whistlestop *

As you know, POTUS is popping in to town today. And via Early Returns:

WHO: Grassroots Tea Partiers
WHAT: Sidewalk Protest of President Barack Hussein Obama
WHERE: 5000 Forbes Avenue outside the University Center
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.
WHY: Our President signs laws that have never been read, based on Keynesian principles that don't work, that the nation does not want that are weakening our economy and business environment and saddling us with debt that we will never be able to pay.

President Obama will be bouncing in and out of the region in less than three hours. (* UPDATE: image left h/t WTAE)
Ravenstahl will greet Obama and Specter as they step off Air Force One at Pittsburgh International, and the three will ride into the city together, said Ravenstahl's spokeswoman, Joanna Doven.

The mayor plans to make the most of his face time, discussing some of the city's transportation needs and highlighting economic strides Pittsburgh has made, Doven said. (Trib, Wereschagin)

For more on the President's recent string, see link.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Neil Young is Working On a Perpetual Motion Machine.

And other tales. (Science project starts at about 23:45)

Bonusgate: Trying the Lock

As you've heard variously:

"If the prosecutor is obliged to choose his cases, it follows that he can choose his defendants. Therein is the most dangerous power of the prosecutor: that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than pick cases that need to be prosecuted." (Justice Jackson, via CasablancaPA)

That is a danger. Is this really the most dangerous power of a prosecutor? And how much pause should that give us, given the prosecutor's most serious responsibility? Does the phrase "All come out in the wash" have any application here?

Daylin Leach, (D) King of Prussia

The state senator slams not just the reform ideas of the Bonusgate grand jury, but many common assumptions about our Legislature and its "caucus system".

Notion that legislators r except 4 rare exceptions corrupt in any way is plain false &thus any "reforms" based on this notion r ill-grounded (Post-Gazette)

That's how his op-ed would look were it a tweet (save for the obligatory #bonsugate hashtag) though it comes a bit fleshed out with criticism of a few of the grand jury's more debatable recommendations.

State Rep. Bill DeWeese, (D) Greene, also said something recently to the effect that life-altering remedies aren't all that necessary.

Tuesday: It's Like a Scene from "Avatar".

We've lauded this previously, but now there are wheelbarrows, woo-hoo!

The $621,000 roof project is the latest element in Allegheny County's "Green Initiative." It is being paid for with federal stimulus funds. (P-G, Barcousky)

I'd like to check this out. I wonder if they can rent the space out for garden parties and the such. At a premium. Why not?


If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania weren't so irretrievably broken, it'd be easier to get enthused about this:

Pennsylvania has received a $750,000 federal grant to pay half the cost of a study into improving Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg rail service. Right now, there's only one daily train in each direction (compared to 14 daily trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia that run fast and nearly filled). (Brian O'Neill)

By all means, study. In the meanwhile, though it honestly pains me to say it, maybe we should turn westward to strengthen our ties to cities of the Gritty Belt? We're a bigger fish in that pond.


Prevailing footprint legislation is now getting a look-see.

Rob Stephany, executive director of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, said he hasn't had a chance to review the bills, but has heard from one trade union angered with the diesel emissions component.

"They're upset because ... essentially they'd have to buy the equipment" at substantial costs, Stephany said. (Trib, Brandolph)

The trade unions would need to buy the equipment? I don't fully understand. At any rate, I presume the City and its partners could always track down somebody who already owns next-generation equipment. Yet another reason it's good to oft refresh our civic Rolodex.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Lawrenceville

A march down the main drag in the neighborhood culminated in a ceremony at Allegheny Cemetery (WikiP):

With remarks by PA Auditor General Jack Wagner and more:


More clips from the day are available here.

Quick Update on Hill Development

The outcomes of an agreement between the city's development authority, the Hill District community and the Pittsburgh Penguins are beginning to unfurl.

"There is an interest, you can tell by the number of people here," said Carl Redwood, president of the Hill District Planning Forum. "People need jobs, they need good jobs, and these are relatively good-paying jobs. And they're union jobs." (P-G, Majors)

The Aramark service workers have been unionized at the Mellon Arena, and there was always every reason to expect in Pittsburgh that these types of workers would remain well-organized in the new structure. However, it's nice there was an event the Wesley Center AME Church for relative neighbors of the development to fill out applications.

It's a shame there was no similar or even more meaningful effort executed as to the arena construction jobs, despite the political challenges. Yet the construction jobs -- and other contracting jobs -- on the arena -- are spent.

The good news: there is still all of Penguinwood left to build.

The master plan process has begun with a list of guiding principles that the group has posted on its website, The community benefits agreement that the group worked out with the city, the county and the Pittsburgh Penguins requires that the master plan be honored in land use decisions, project approvals and subsidy allocations that would affect the neighborhood. (P-G, Jones)

Slowly we'll start finding out about this CBA and how it can shape things, if at all, and how other things shape things. Some of the C in the CBA has changed since the deal was struck.

Some of the C remains the same.

"We have more than 15 developers working in the Hill, and more and more are coming," he said, promising many community meetings in the future. "We need to make sure we move forward in a planned way.

"Whether we get what we like is in our hands," said Mr. Redwood. "Until I hear your ideas, mine are better." (ibid)

I like this guy. I even agree with him every once in a while.

The consensus group's guidelines insist that any development plan for the Lower Hill District "fully restore the pre-arena street grids/roadways, so that Webster and Wylie avenues run completely into the Downtown Pittsburgh street grid without barriers of any type." (ibid)

That's what they were saying in January anyway. There is a picture floating around of conceptual street vectors, intersecting one another, in a grid-like fashion. Even so this "Webster and Wylie" business, or what this guideline seems to signify, appears rather a stretch.

Which brings us to this. Here, I'll bury the lede:

Mr. Specter, who is running for re-election, did not take a position on whether the arena should stay or go. However, he threw his support behind the overall goal of re-establishing the street grid between Hill and Downtown. (P-G, Belko)

No dummy, that one.

He said that project and subsequent redevelopment could create 3,000 construction and 3,200 permanent jobs, which he described as "very attractive numbers" given the economic hard times. (ibid)

Your sharper preservationists will be quick to tell you that various adaptive uses can just as easily produce jobs (remodeling, retrofitting) profitability (think WOW factor, commercializing) and prosperity (high foot traffic, livability, long-term sustenance of high property values). It's just shifting the pieces across the game board. Instead of pouring investment into explosive discharges, for example, one could build even better bridges -- or design a few triangular mixed-use or commercial buildings in the place of rectangular ones.

But these are all subjects for another day.