Saturday, May 12, 2012

Urban Redevelopment, the Race and the Clock

This is always most complex.

The City last week diverted the next five years worth of parking tax revenues from certain new Hill District parking lots (not to exceed $2 million) from the City's general fund to the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Sports and Exhibition Authority, for use in projects related to what appears in the Hill District Master Plan.


Councilman Bill Peduto said he supports Hill District redevelopment, but he thinks Pennsylvania law doesn’t allow Council to divert parking tax revenue like this. (EPR, Noah Brode)

That heated argument did not make it to the final round, perhaps having to do with this measure's similarity to the Pittsburgh's notable 2010 State Pensions Takeover Avoidance Act, of which all Council members were supporters.

Yet at final action,

Mr. Lavelle, Mr. Burgess, council President Darlene Harris, Patrick Dowd, Theresa Kail-Smith and Corey O'Connor voted for the bill. Voting no were Bruce Kraus, Bill Peduto and Natalia Rudiak, who had expressed concern with using legislation to allocate parking tax money to a specific neighborhood.

"It strays away from our usual capital budget process," she said. Ms. Rudiak said she would, however, be willing to vote for a capital budget amendment that allocates money to Hill District projects. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

In other words, she is saying there is a time and a place for neighborhood groups to ask for limited City resources for special projects -- and it is done all at once, at the end of the year, so we can prioritize needs across town, in a political process, so that everyone who manages to be in power gets a fair cut of the action.

Which is normally fine, if you discount the great drama surrounding Pittsburgh's Hill District and the hope that it provides alongside Downtown. I must say I am deeply impressed that the Hill is now by so many being considered a special and unifying priority -- both for its past involving a now-demolished arena, and out of recognition of its recent arduous campaign for direct benefits in conjunction with its new arena. A cause which once brought African-Americans and organized labor powerfully together.


But let's take a look at what is in today's Greater Hill District Master Plan, whose existence, purposes, processes and funding were provided in that 2008 Community Benefits Agreement. At a glance it foresees:

Those 20 general categories house such things such as signage, a community newsletter, a trail, a history center, historic preservation, education programs, a neighborhood watch, homeowner and tenant support, a "housing innovation zone" and other housing programs, a vacant property strategy, workforce development, a business incubator, Center Avenue economic development, green spaces, urban agriculture, play spaces, transportation, streetscape improvement, a street grid for mixed use development in the Lower Hill, apparently still a deck over the Crosstown Expressway, a pedestrian-friendly expanded residential corridor at Crawford Street, transit-oriented development Uptown, a revived Bedford Avenue residential corridor, something that takes advantage of the great views atop the hill while transitioning from high-rise public housing, an inviting gateway at Kirkpatrick Street, an amphitheater, new stairs, a Herron Ave. commercial corridor towards Oakland, more mixed use development, and improvements at Robert Williams Memorial Park.

For that, we are bringing $400,000 per year to the table for five years.

To give some perspective, it is costing $1.3 million simply to "stabilize" the New Granada Theater, which would one day contribute towards some of that material. Things cost serious money. This master plan looks like it could consume many hundreds of millions of dollars.


So with the pittance the City has brought to the table, what comes first? Will it go to more planners, consultants, and designers in anticipation of those bigger-ticket items way down the road? Will it go directly to entrepreneurs bearing sound-seeming and strategically relevant business plans? To non-profit and social entrepreneurs?

As provided in the community benefits agreement, the Master Plan was guided by a steering committee. It included folks from many different government offices as well as One Hill, the Hill EDC, the Hill District Consensus Group, Crawford Square Homeowners, Uptown Partners, the Ujaama Collective and some clergy.

However, this wide-open and neighborhood-inclusive body's determinative role would seem to be at an end.

The city's contribution will be determined by the URA and the SEA, and the relatively few politicians who constitute them. These folks and their staffs know something about market viability, urban design and project feasibility for sure. We also know that as institutions, these folks once reneged on lofty promises and short-shrifted community integration in such a comprehensive manner, it might well have been attributable to some sort of structural cognitive deficiency.

The Hill District seemed unified in wanting just that. So they're getting it. Hopefully rolling the dice with The System will work out better this time. But Councilman Lavelle also made mention of this being a "down payment", and this funding stream might not be all they require and the only way they require it.

What these policy commitments do not provide that the Dollar a Car campaign does are resources that can be used by Hill District residents and stakeholders as we see fit.

Fundamentally, the act of taking the Lower Hill with eminent domain was an act of violating our right to self-determination. The Dollar a Car Campaign, while not restoring order by any means, will at least be a resource that we can use for our own self-determination. (HDCG Front Page)

And video here, including a reality check involving a walkway and a statue.

That is what I'm talking about. The only sound reason to vote against these taxes being diverted for Hill development, would have been to leverage more greater funding streams being delivered, and in ways better suited to the need for community re-empowerment.

Yet even then, if the actual community could not be made keen on that political stratagem, drop it and fight the war on another day.

It is not always easy or natural to vote for something that comes from that other side of the hall, that goes to the URA, that has real imperfections or what have you. But "voted against Hill District redevelopment" has an oddly awful ring to it.


More in the series I'd hope soon...


  1. Some thoughts on the Hill:

    1. Add up the total public investment in the Hill over the last 20 years, to make up for urban renewal mistakes. While you are at it do the research on how the lower hill was developed. There is a whole lotta rewriting of history going on. Reparations or reinvestment? Diversity or monoculture?

    2. Look more closely at the population and demographic change over that same period and extend the trends forward. At 98% Black is the self segregation trend of the Hill likely to stay that way? probably not. So where is the Hill headed, demographically speaking? Any real master plan looks at demographic trends as a foundation for change.
    Who will really OWN the hill in 20 years? Look at the quiet investments by white developers...the Hill will eventually "flip" like East Liberty and a new generation of immigrants need to be welcomed not rejected.

    4. Evaluate the success and failures of development projects objectively. Who has succeeded who has failed. Why is there little discussion and honesty about the capacity of the entities and individuals developing and building the market?

    5. The truth is obvious that for the Hill to catch up economically speaking, it has to become more diverse. Diversity is not mention anywhere in the master plan.

    6. There is a lotta of long standing white guilt in the foundation and government that keeps feeding a culture of entitlement and underperformance among some community groups that hurts their ability to succeed. At some point it has to change, and needs to be exposed as it would in many other parts of Pittsburgh.

    7. Development consultants and other middle men in the process are know for their BS and more often than not, unqualified and ineffective at best.

    8. The URA and the SEA have the big guns in terms of development know how and capacities. Few neighborhoods can do it without outside help. The Hill is no different. The URA and city planning should be collaborating, but of course that is a joke right now. So we get an agency like the SEA that is able to build convention centers but has no clue about how to build a neighborhood in the lower hill.

    9. Is anyone going to follow the Penguins money in the Hill? Some might call it payoffs or worse. They have no real interest in the Hill's economic health except as it helps them park more cars and get a fancy new street grid that gets them to their butt ugly new coal-fired arena and more parking yet to be announced.

    10. Shall we explore the corrupt world of Uptown (some "claim" it part of the Hill). Who owns the land? what are they doing with it and what subsidies for parking are already in place, Illegally! UPMC wants parking, The Pens want parking. watch whats left of the historic street fabric to continue to erode the efforts to rebuild.

    The next decade will be interesting and revealing. Lets learn from what works and what doesn't, starting with the Supermarket and its performance and Penguinsland and its suburban visions.

  2. You skipped 3, but that's still a pretty good comment. Got any recommendations on who I should try to interview for perspectives on 1-4?

    "The URA and city planning should be collaborating, but of course that is a joke right now."

    I'm not hep to this dynamic. Why is it a joke?

  3. The City Planning department has been gutted and its talents now is in places like Seattle and San Fran. No leadership from neighborhood planners. The Comp Plan is a joke so far...The URA has built its own planning functions. What is left of the planning department is muzzled by the mayors office. The planning commission has no independence (not that it ever has been without influence), but at least in the past there was more transparency and diversity of perspective. The mayor would rather go on military training junkets than the mayors Institute on City Design:

    Its late, ill figure out #3 tomorrow...

  4. I commend the sceptics on council. For one thing, the proffessional poverty pimps on council frame this as hating the poor. I don't see that as helpful. This silences transparency. This could be a rat hole for money just disappearing. I recall recently that the shopping center is again needing more money and facing more delays. Who's following the money? I'm sick of the Mayor making these deals in back rooms. He's a sneak!

  5. Redwood got it right..

  6. Exactly as you say, the Hill does deserve a steady stream of investment. It has indeed gotten the short end of many sticks. It was cut off from Downtown. I don't know what we can do about Crosstown Boulevard or the skinny sidewalks on the ramps, but reconnecting sounds good in theory.

    My dad grew up on the Bluff, a great neighborhood where immigrants from many countries bought homes, raised families and ruckuses, learned each others' languages. Their house was on Vickroy Street. Maybe we should blow up Duquesne University and restore that neighborhood, too.

    So, yes, the Hill is worthy. But it is not the only one.

    There are also many other communities which have been pillaged by the City over the decades that deserve similar investment. Hazelwood, Spring Garden/East Deutschtown, Fairywood, Brightwood, Perry Hilltop.... we have 90 neighborhoods. I could not even count how many times I have heard and I have repeated that Allegheny City was decimated by Pittsburgh and its policies and attitudes, almost as soon as it was subsumed. We are still cutting bus routes and closing schools on the North Side faster than in most other areas, which only exacerbates the problem. (The media can't even remember to call the individual neighborhoods by their names, just lumping them together as "North Side.")

    Just last year, the Mayor unilaterally grabbed away ACCBO money that the ACCBO board designated for both Northside Leadership Conference and Community Alliance Spring Garden/East Deutschtown, in a childish, retaliatory move marked by childish actions by his staff members.

    Now the Mayor leads a movement to designate certain parking monies - from the lots that should have been redeveloped before the Arena was torn down - for a particular neighborhood.

    Is this to appease the neighborhood for having to continue to put up with large parking lots indefinitely even though redevelopment was supposed to have started, or is it a holdover from 2010 promises of monies from the Mayor's wretched parking-lease deal? Talk about a silk purse from a sow's ear.

  7. Anon 3:19 - the North Side Conference lost its money because it is a corrupt organization that does not in any way represent the community. Several million dollars from the casino? Where has that money gone? Not in the community. Take a look at the board and struggle to find one person under the age of 60.

    As to the Hill, we will pour more and more money into the neighborhood building the same failed housing projects that are now being torn down. Yep, that'll work this time!

  8. So you don't think there's anything to the idea that this Master Plan is the first time the micro-region was looked at and accounted for in a comprehensive way, with considerably involved (and painstakingly patient) community input? I don't know the last big futile money pours to which you refer, but it sounds better than haphazard targets of opportunity.

    Oh, and I guess it officially obliterates the Maginot Line on Crawford St. That's significant.

  9. Reed-Roberts is one example. Shall we continue?

    I like the master plan. I don't like repeating the sins of the past, i.e., think that just money will solve the problem. You can't build Reed Roberts horizontally by a bunch of whit guy developers and architects that make all the money and skip town and think anything will change. the more things change the more they stay the same.