Monday, October 29, 2012

Monday: We're Literally Behind a Paywall ($$)

Freyr, Wikipedia

This post is so good, and yet is going to get so little traffic, it's literally as though it's behind an exclusive paywall.

There are four exceptional articles that need reading:

The state declared Pittsburgh financially distressed in 2003 after then-Mayor Tom Murphy sought a bailout and began downsizing government to pay the bills. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

We didn't get the taxing power we sought, but does anybody think city leaders would have made those cuts and avoided bonded debt for so long without the overseers? Very hard to imagine. Anyway, the story quotes a former mayor's budget director, which is like, wow. Richard Hofstadter over here.

The apparent failure of Longvue and a residential development in Mt. Lebanon highlight risks inherent in projects backed by tax-increment financing plans, and they could cost state taxpayers at least $7.3 million.

Such plans can expose taxpayer dollars to unnecessary risk in financing housing developments when builders could use federal or nonprofit housing assistance programs, said Sabina Deitrick, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

That one quotes a nonpartisan and acclaimed academic on a matter of fiscal policy. Wowee wow wow.

The city of Pittsburgh has said it must install new and bigger sewer pipes, separate lines for sewage and stormwater and add a 6 million gallon holding tank to address stormwater problems. Good says the city’s cost will be between $100 million and $200 million.

“The city’s plans could change. We are holding meetings, at the request of the mayor, to incorporate more green technology,” he said. (Trib, Rick Wills)

The relationship between the City, PWSA, Alcosan and affairs like the Monroeville Municipal Authority is probably too nuanced to comprehend. Interesting that 3 Rivers Wet Weather was affiliated here with the Allegheny Conference, whereas elsewhere it is described as Alcosan's childe or even John Schombert's courageous initiative.

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And now for our premium content:

"They are literally creating a gated community in the Strip District," Mr. Dowd said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

You see what he did there? He just screamed, "GENTRIFICATION!" without unduly upsetting people who fear that means squashing growth, yet not alienating others who might appreciate a good gentrification argument if they had any earthly idea what that $10 word means.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority said Mr. Dowd's assertions are "overstated." (ibid)

Yeah well, that's not the point. This is like watching Mario Lemieux stick handle, or Newt Gingrich talk about health care.

"This is not public property that Buncher is taking from the city to turn into something private," the authority noted. "Just the opposite is true; this is private property owned by Buncher that they have gone to extensive lengths to provide public access to, so that the national/international draw of the Strip District also includes a robust riverfront experience as a significant amenity." (ibid)

This really can not be emphasized enough. Schenley High School, the Civic Arena, the North Shore, even Market Square -- this was all public land where the question could more sensibly and righteously be asked, "What shall we as a people create here? What do we want to get out of our common investment?"

Croft, Gulliver's Travels
But when we're talking about Donzi's Landing that question becomes, "What sort of business or charity do we think we can try to force this guy into?" Dude's family owned the land before the Riverlife Task Force was even a thing. He can hold onto it for another twenty or thirty years if he wants, and is probably prepared to do so. It's only going to get more valuable, sitting there barren.

Or we can see $30 million extra annually in tax revenue for schools and roads and transit, thousands of new jobs, hundreds of new families, countless new consumers, clients, diners, patients and patrons -- yes, for the old Strip as well. It's merely a matter of personal opinion. Many people bear subjective, irrational preferences for growth: to do more business, to see their children remain close.

Anyway, dismounting the soap box. If you are getting the feeling of history repeating itself, you are probably right. The Pittsburgh Comet should not be the only one effectively communicating the case for this development. It didn't work with the parking lease and it's not going to work now. Is the Allegheny Riverfront Vision dead? It's starting to smell that way.

Once again -- on a central and transformational agenda item -- Patrick Dowd somehow made it halfway around the world before Luke had a chance to get his pants on.

34 comments:

  1. The Buncher development is literally nothing like the proposed parking lease. The former would be a revenue-generating project, whereas the latter would have been an increase in costs to taxpayers without the FULL benefit of increased revenues. The investment bankers, etc. that offered the money would not have offered it if they didn't believe they were going to get a lot more than they paid. If our Mayor could think comprehensively and get PPA to stop subsidizing suburban commuters the City could gain revenue AND possibly encourage people to take transit and/or move into the City.

    And also, the private property argument you're relying on breaks down when government subsidy is involved.

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  2. The only comparison I'm drawing between the lease and the riverfront is they're both defining pillars of this Mayor's agenda. He can call the Pittsburgh Promise "his initiative" all he wants, but that thing was unveiled just three months after his ascension and merely sped along to buttress his credibility.

    The TIF makes the private property argument a shade of gray, I'll grant you -- but expansion would be prohibitively expensive for any private developer without roads and sewers.

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  3. Mysterious Greenfield GuyOctober 29, 2012 at 10:33 AM

    It's videos like this that make me realize that the Boy Emperor's not wearing any clothes, let alone pants


    MAYOR PROCLAIMS PITTSBURGH DAD DAY
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Klwy-i1GQys

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  4. Here's to hoping it was just flesh-toned leggings.

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  5. Ownership of the land itself is an important factor to consider, but there is still no way to extract the full value of this land without a lot of public accommodations, including likely doing something to reconfigure the Produce Terminal. And that will likely remain true in the future after any (further) holding out.

    So while I agree in general that we should not take the attitude that the public can simply dictate how this land will be used, we should also not take the attitude that the public has no right or means through which to extract some reasonable conditions (and I think public access to the new ROW to the river would be one such reasonable condition).

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  6. MG Guy - Yeah das my favorite port a' Pisburgh Dad tew, all dem scenarios and eupherisms.

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  7. "The Mayor isn't sure what rock summa yunz is livin' unner n'at," Ms. Doven said.

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  8. There is significant public owned land (The Produce Terminal) and TIF investment, therefore we deserve more input and control over the development, period. If the quality of development is clearly an issue here. We only get one chance to do this right. Anyone who trusts Buncher shoud just do their homework on previous projects and compare with others.

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  9. @Anonymous October 29, 2012 9:34 PM

    Word.

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  10. Neighbors in the Strip, the district's community group / chamber of commerce, tweeted a link to a rough "concept" drawing on Facebook (which doesn't really clear things up as to "gated community" and "private drive" or not) and thence to a 141 MB PDF of Preliminary Land Use Plan, which may clear up those matters but I've yet to download.

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  11. Off topic answer to your twitter feed:

    Slang / Coverup Word / Abbreviation for: Victoria's Secret. Usually referring to female undergarments such as a G-String.
    Whoa she's hot. I think I see VS.

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  12. Anon 7:50 - With the logo appearing as it does in the City Paper, I suppose the real Victoria could sue for copyright infringement. Though they probably don't much mind.

    I was leaning toward "Very Special", as in upscale cognac.

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  13. Well, as Natalia was quick to point out, even infringement is often free advertising.

    Lamar's Rudiak billboards are positively warm and fuzzy compared to the personality projected at the Club ControVerSy website. Although, hey, surely it's comforting to prospective employees that they are encouraged to come and talk with the "housemom."

    http://clubcontroversy.com/employment/

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  14. Forgot to post the link to the VS definition - wouldn't want to be accused of plagiarizing such elucidation:

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=vs

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  15. We are in the twilight zone with the criticism of the Buncher development. The project quite literally has public access all along the entire site. The public trail, which will be improved as part of the development, runs the entire length of the site. The development will in fact actually connect the strip to the river via the new public piazza for the first time in almost ever. That is why part of the terminal has to come down, so that 17th Street can connect to the river. The trail will have a 70 foot setback, as opposed to 50 under local zoning and 90 requested by Riverlife. This non-sense about the plan and Riverlife is just that - nonsense. Since when did the City outsource its planning and development functions to un-elected non-profits and architects? Do you really think Council would agree to that? The alleged "private" roads are also complete non-sense. Those roads will be completely behind the terminal building so saying that access is cut off is crazy talk. They will be brand new road build on what is now a crumbling parking lot and on private property and behind the terminal. Are the objectors suggesting we take down more of the terminal so that we can connect more roads? The only way to access these new "private" roads is to go down 17th, turn right behind the terminal and then turn left and into one of the new apartment buildings. Who would do that except people that live in those buildings? Besides, anyone care to guess where the trail ends? Yep, it ends at the Cork Factory - where there is no access to the river and quite literally a gated community.

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  16. 'Since when did the City outsource its planning and development functions to un-elected non-profits and architects?'

    A: Well, since the City Planning Department has imploded and become a pawn of the Mayor's deputy who truly does not understand good design there is no capacity within city government. IT HAS OUTSOURCED PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT TO DEVELOPERS, not architects and non-profits. Not many architects or non-profits speak out because of fear of retribution.

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  17. This is awesome. Anon 12:03, I'm more interested in how you respond to Anon 11:25 about "Twilight Zone" politics when it comes to riverfront access.

    Anon 11:25, I'm more interested in why you suppose we're not seeing the sort of thing you write in the Mayor's public responses to Dowd et al.

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  18. I very much WANT to see high levels of public input on the use of Buncher private property. But I share concerns that have been expressed by the Comet regarding ultimate sacrifice of actual effective input if we obstruct the process beyond what Buncher might decide is a point of diminishing returns on their investment. Or if Buncher decides that its rights to manage its own property might have been infringed upon such that it wouldn't want to cooperate in the process even if it would make bunches of money.

    However, the use of public funds to advance Buncher's development would seem to REQUIRE rigorous public review of and power over how that private space interacts with public space. So, at the very least, how Pittsburghers move around, through and to the space should be carefully, jointly planned - including throughways, gates, and incorporation of public transit, which at this point doesn't seem to be fully thought through.

    If anyone reading has access to information on plans for incorporation of public transit for the Buncher development proposal, I'd really appreciate a link or PDF sent to helengerhardt1@gmail.com.

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  19. Bram - i'm happy to take that challenge. First off, lets make one thing clear - Buncher could do a lot of things with that property that could be done where not a single person could say or do much about it. For example, build an ugly one million square foot warehouse. Instead, the Buncher development does in fact contain a reasonable compromise on setbacks and a public piazza overlooking the river. There really isn't another development down the river that has these amenities (Consumer Produce, Cork Factory, etc.).

    Now, to your real question. I think it is a combination of the Mayor's team being tired of defending people that cater to the objectors and play their games and the fact that there aren't too many competent people in the administration that are willing to take anymore bullets. There is a good reason for that - this isn't the Mayor's project. Why does everyone keep acting like it is? This is Buncher's project. I presume the Mayor would support whatever Buncher decided to do so long as it moved the project along. If Buncher wanted to make the setback 90 feet do you really think the Mayor would object? Stop focusing on the Mayor and focus on Buncher. Unfortunately, and to the detriment of the City, the objectors keep trying to make this about the Mayor. GO TALK TO BUNCHER. The Mayor is just trying to facilitate getting BUNCHER's project done.

    And in response to ANON 12:03, this is more twilight zone politics. Ever wonder why projects like the North Shore connector have such high overruns? It is because in the spec planning phase the contractors and engineers build in specs that cost more money and require those involved to be hired for the job. That is the same with any "planning" project. Architects and planners and contractors and unions influence the process to build expensive and extravagant things so that they are first in line for the gig when they push for it to be built. The problem is that when it involves private land - like Buncher - it just doesn't make practical sense.

    Further, the most vindictive person on council is Bill Peduto. The rest of the objectors aren't too far behind. If you are at all connected with the Mayor they will come after you and harass you if you do anything in the City. Their goal is to make people think twice about getting the Mayor's support or supporting the Mayor. Just pay attention and watch - anyone and everything that is associated with the Mayor will get criticized, harassed, attacked by the council objectors. On the other hand, if you want to build something positive or invest in Pittsburgh the administration doesn't care who you are - they will help you. Again - welcome to the twilight zone.

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  20. Where to begin?

    1. MAYOR: The mayor is getting blamed because he (and more importantly his chief of staff) could create an environment around this project that brings all views to the table. The Planning department should do this as should the URA since both have a legal role in the project. Had he publically advocated for the original Vision Plan that he funded and supported, had he supported a higher vision for planning and design, he would have a lot of praise from alll quarters.

    2. BUNCHER: That said, Buncher has the city over a barrel almost everytime a major project comes along near our waterfronts. They are a land speculator and industrial land developer; they are not experts in urban housing and retail. They have no track record for great design.

    3. PROPERTY RIGHTS: The Buncher company is free to build within the zoning code anything it wants. BUT, as soon as it asks for grants and TIF money from the Taxpayer, we then have a great deal of say in what the money will be used for. The TIF money is intended for improving property values and supporting projects that have a gap in financing. Buncher can afford to build it all themselves. They chose to take public money. They chose to buy the Terminal and then manipulated the preservation laws. The URA did not issue a RFP for the Terminal.

    4. WHAT NEXT? This development can be saved if the mayor requires a detailed accounting of all public funding used for Buncher and if he personally gets involved an supports state of the art design. The problem with public meetings to date, is that they are controlled by the develop rather than a third party to faciliate. Here are the issues that could create a win/win:

    -Revise the PLDP to include the 90 foot setback.
    -Resolve the dispute on the AVRR
    -Develop a state of the art Stormwater plan that follows the principals of the city's own master plan.
    -Eliminate the gated parking lots and create access walkways at least like what was created a Washington Landing or in the Vision Plan.
    -Complete the Green Boulevard Plan, but include/integrate the above design issues within it.
    -Develop an alternative design the assigns the ENTIRE Produce Terminal to NITS/Public Market. It is the key (along with the RIverfronts) to the success. Imagine a new market with an architecturally stunning gateway/thru the terminal at 17th street. If we can Buncher many millions, we can use a small portion of these public funds for a building that is key to keeping a vibrant, authentic Strip.
    -Integrate the ROW for Public transit (at least a trolley like Seattle) that Connects to the AVRR.

    Its time for Pittsburgh to expect more from its planners, architects and developers. Whether it is sustainable design, preservation, or state of the art public engagement...We can do much better..that is why many in the design, preservation and planning community have not supported this administration.


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  21. Anon 6:15 - On the idea that City Planning has been "imploded", "gutted", "castrated", "made a pawn" etc -- stuff I remember hearing already 5 years ago, and trust is not more Twilight-zone material -- how about the counter-argument that fiscal constraints made the cuts necessary? I mean, I already have a hard time imagining the universe wherein voters stomp to the polls to punish guys who had the gall to gut the Dept. of City Planning, but if it's an important issue to the candidates themselves and their own leadership narratives... didn't we all have to tighten our belts?

    Anon 5:28 - There is certainly a widespread assumption out there that this unfurling Allegheny Riverfront vision thing is a highlight of the mayor's agenda. Maybe that assumption is overblown. But I can recall personally a few times he's spoken about it over the years, he really seemed passionate about it, whereas (frankly) he seems more aloofly managerial about many other things. Development and big fiscal reforms though, no, and this is a big development he's been heralding for a while. Besides, the URA has been regularly involved, right? And they're certainly taking the pro-position.

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  22. Sheesh. In a nutshell, it's the same old same old from the Mayor's office: Any criticism or even questioning--which for the thin-skinned is the same as criticism--is dismissed as "politics".

    Regarding mayoral pawns, the ZBA can be tossed onto the Dark Knight's sacrificial pile. Pick any ZBA decision from the past 3 or 4 years and dollars to donuts it's lifted almost word for word from the developer's brief. (I know, technically the developers and the mayor's office are separate entities, but let's not get bogged down in semantics.)

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  23. @Mysterious Greenfield Guy

    You'll have every right to "sheesh" me on a foray into the semantics of what's in a name, but every now and then I'm gonna give in to my temptation to re-reveal what your "MG" acronym stands for.

    Besides being totally cool and a sheer LOL to type, spelling out the specific Pittsburgh locale embedded in your moniker does highlight your particular angle of position in commenting on local politics and policies. And I'll always appreciate hearing more regarding Greenfield players, info and interests on our too-often-divided fields of action.

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  24. Speaking of Greenfield, I had thought the bridge to Oakland was going down in 2013. Apparently it's been moved to 2014 or I've just been messed up all along.

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  25. @MH

    I heard from ATU drivers(but info not confirmed) that the Highland Ave. bridge will be fixed first, with Oakland bridge to be done later than originally planned.

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  26. Well, I guess Pizza Hut will like the delay.

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  27. MG - ah, seems like same old same old from you - any support from the Mayor of anything is "politics" and anyone that supports anything the Mayor does must be "part of the system" of politics. got a question for you on zba front, name five developments that got built that you think shouldn't have been built but for zba "cronyism?"

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  28. Anon 7:56 - There was a business Downtown that expanded, can't recall the name right now, but its expansion was measured as exactly the maximum allowable down to the square inch ... in fairness that amazing coincidence might have been attributable to BBI cronyism, and ZBA credulity.

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  29. Anon 7:56 - "Five" is very arbitrary--ZBA worthy, really--but I'll let it slide. Regarding the second half of your challenge, it's not so much a question of all or nothing--whether a project should be built or not--but whether the project meets the letter of the zoning code and is a good fit for the present and future community, rather than setting the bar at it being the biggest revenue generator possible for the developer/contractor/landowner and a possible chit to call in during an election going forward for the random politico with an interest.

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  30. The bus garage billboard was almost one.

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  31. MG thanks for proving the point. A bunch of gobbely gook that doesn't say anything. By your alleged standard every development anywhere in the Nation is flawed. Bram - Blush might, I said might, be one. Hard to tell though whether an existing business that causes no one any harm expanding in a building they own is so terrible. I guess reasonable people can differ. Was the zoning or bbi decision so off the mark though as to deserve MG guys criticism? If we can't name five, how about 7 or 4?

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  32. Hey, I was just answering your trivia question. It sounded like you were talking about code requirements, not the finer subtleties of harm and terribleness. We'll see if any of us has any time soon, we could pour through the last six years of ZBA agendas I suppose, although it might be quicker to go straight to the "objector" faction of Council.

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  33. Wasn't there something about a "biker bar" in the east end?

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  34. Don't code requirements involve looking at finer subtleties of harm? I think some people forget that it is called the zoning board of "adjustment" for a reason.

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