Friday, December 7, 2012

FAILURE AFTER FAILURE: From the Parking Lease to Riverfront Redevelopment, Mayor Ravenstahl disappoints

Futil1ty; Knowyourmeme

Part One in an occasional series.

Corrected and Updated.

The administration of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl exhibits a lot of great qualities: a good nose for commercial growth opportunities, a baseline respect for data and research, a nice wide daring streak, a creative bent and a burning desire to transform the city for the better. And it doesn't hurt that the man at the helm is very well-spoken and sharp.

Mayor Luke's greatest difficulties have lain in execution.

Take the current talk of the town, the Allegheny Riverfront: long in the making along the north bank of the Strip District and Lawrenceville:

Mr. Murphy, who made re-imagining the riverfronts a priority as mayor from 1994 to 2006, made a rare return to city hall to speak to city council on legislation that would create a special zoning district for Buncher's 55-acre mixed-use Riverfront Landing. Councilman Patrick Dowd circulated 15 proposed amendments, and council postponed a vote for one week. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Dowd's amendments to the proposed zoning legislation would give several principles and features in the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan ( a 20-year conceptual reorientation) the force of zoning law, among other things. He and Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who represents the area now, say they hope the amendments will pass final legislation will pass so the proposal will not be "deemed denied" at the end of the calendar year.

That's a lot of work for three weeks, while the budget is being completed. And that's if the Buncher Co. declines to openly revolt against radically changing their development vision, multiplying the setbacks and givebacks and other costs and delays.

There are several ways Mayor Ravenstahl might have avoided this. Any one of which might have sufficed:

1. Been far more realistic with Buncher since 2006 (or at least 2009!) that whatever develops in the westernmost Strip ("Riverfront Landing") will have to be of far greater public utility and interest

2. Negotiated a more transparent and conservative program for tax-increment financing of the entire project

3. Done a better job organizing, communicating and deal making with Strip District stakeholders
4. Comported himself with City Council in such a way that he could have achieved one or two more votes on the nine-member body through charm, deal making or prior political conquest

Pgh. Biz Times: Joe Wojcik
Instead, the ineffectual execution has resulted in necessary growth of Pittsburgh's central business district stalling out. The drinking well itself has been permitted to go all murky and strange. CORRECTION: The special zoning district is in fact moving forward with de minimis alterations, although the tax increment financing for the project is still up in the air. The lack of meaningful concessions demanded of the developer come as a disappointment to many.

For another key example in a similar vein, flash a take backwards to Mayor Ravenstahl's parking lease proposal for pensions solvency and security:
Architectural Drafting Servicff
City Council last week defeated his plan to lease parking garages and meters for a pension bailout in a 7-1 vote (with one abstention). Mr. Ravenstahl has called for a pension summit Monday while bashing council's parking-for-pensions alternative and offering to compromise on his proposal to lease the parking assets for 50 years.

As if overwhelming defeat of the parking proposal weren't enough, council members also accused the mayor of bad policy-making and a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. (P-G, Smydo & Lord)

The City might have successfully brought in $400 million+ of investment for the pension fund and for capital needs without raising taxes and without cutting core services if the administration had only done any one or more of the following...

1. Written a more realistic, flexible and demanding RFP and gone on to negotiate a more assertive deal with winning bidder LAZ/JPMorgan right off the bat

2. Proposed committing more of the revenue to pensions and less to capital budget caprice

3. More aggressively and persuasively sold it to the people of Pittsburgh, instead of ceding the battleground to its opponents throughout the summer and early fall of 2010

4. More attentively nurtured his own reputation for ethics, such that stakeholders might have trusted him to negotiate a complex, high-value deal with the private sector

5. Comported himself with City Council in such a way that he could have achieved one or two more votes on the nine-member body through charm, deal making or prior political conquest

So what we were left with come the end of that full, unnecessary year of bitter stalemate and stonewalling was a short-term, small-bore solution, including a budget hole that actually remains curious.


Time and again, the best laid plans and protestations of the Ravenstahl administration for how to move the city forward get rebuffed in acrimony, incredulity and failure. That's no way to move a city forward so it can continue generating dividends for the next generation.

In future blog posts we will examine how this pattern of political failure repeats itself in ways sometimes as crucial and as potentially transformational as a long-term infrastructure lease and Strip District redevelopment.


  1. So what is the new reason for being against the Buncher development? Just want to make sure I am keeping up with the ever changing reason why it shouldn't go forward - I mean why government should tell private citizens what they can do with their property.

  2. The predominating complaints sure haven't included the Produce Terminal lately... nor has it even been the TIF. Now they've settled on larger public river front space near the Allegheny, and access to it.

    Mayor Tom Murphy's full comments:

    Mayor of Moscow: "My favorite city in America -- Pittsburgh Penguins."

  3. What is your source for the assertion that Lavelle will be supporting the amendments? Smydo thinks it "remains to be seen" whether Dowd has the votes.

  4. Anon 11:35 - Source was City Channel livestream of that part of the meeting. Lavelle did not commit to Dowd's amendments, he committed to wanting final legislation approved by year's end, and development moving forward (along with Dowd and Burgess). The offending language in the post has been corrected.

  5. Mayor Murphy's comments were not much more than blather. Lets get the facts straight. Again, there is access to the river. A big friggin road that turns into a public piazza and has a trail running all along the river with 70 feet of trail and green space. Ok? Can we stop spreading the blatant lie that there is no "access" to the river? Seriously, this is getting old. Now, he seems to say that this isn't good enough because the piazza "doesn't bring people together" enough. Huh? Murphy says council should demand that the piazza be lined with retail. Um, let me make sure I understand this correctly. The original battle cry was "dont ruin the strip!" Now, in effort to continue changing the story after each lie is exposed, the cry is "build something that competes with the strip in nice new modern structures." Can someone please, please, please just tell me what is really going on here? The simple fact is that this is private land and that private land owner is giving more than required to build a "world class" piazza on the river and 70 feet deep of trail and green space. Apparently, that is a travesty, but if the trail had 20 more feet it would be "world class." Seriously, the opposition looks like fools here. Their agenda is transparent.

  6. I fail to see how Ravenstahl is should be condemned for the parking lease. Ravenstahl floated and supported an idea to fix a very serious problem. He pushed and debated council - who at the time had zero ideas of their own. Ravenstahl told them to suggest whatever they want in the parking lease, as it was all open to negotiation. He lost that debate, but he nonetheless created the debate and forced the issue. That is what leaders do. Council instead adopted their own plan, which now it seems they don't really care about implementing it as they manipulate parking rates all over the City to satisfy political special interests. And....we still have a grossly underfunded pension plan.

  7. Anon 9:15 - One street goes to the river trail, are you sure that's accurate? That development is about five or six serious blocks long. Is the world class piazza on one end or the other, or, let me guess, in the middle?

    The other question is, is 70 feet sufficient to accommodate bikers, joggers (there will be a good deal of both), piazza goers and the commuter workforce off hours, people walking dogs, people walking toddlers, flora, the rivers and geese.

  8. Bram 1:53, I think, but it wouldn't be that hard to find out. It also wouldn't be that hard to find out if 70 feet is enough for bikers and joggers. Is the better question why bloggers and journalists are blasting buncher and the mayor without first checking the facts? If the facts turn out that I am correct will you turn your sights on the council objectors or will you find another reason to dis the project?

  9. One public thru street is better than none, not as good as five. I don't know, what "facts" are you bringing here that will explode the council objectors? If the rationale for objection keeps changing, that's only because there are so many different issues.

    Can't the Mayor just give Dowd something he wants for Polish Hill, or call in a chit with Kraus, or have elected Tony Coghill in '09? Or can't he rustle up a bunch of people Strip to say, "Rah rah, give me this thing?"

  10. This has been repeated before and I will again: The land is not entirely private and the TIF changes the deal from a pure private play to one of public private "partnership"...The lack of urban design and environmental performance cannot be done justice in a few sentences (maybe a walk of the site, a visit to benchmark other cities that have gotten these thigs right).

    The Administration has demonstrated a repeated distain for a transparent, thoughtful urban planning process that captures the authenticity, character and innovation that is within our collective grasp. While no one is paying attention, a good project is also going bad at the Gardens Development and of course, the Lower Hill.

    Good projects in concept, bad execution, attention to detail and truly dismal civic engagement. That above all is why we need new leadership. Pittsburgh has the capacity to innovate, but not at the top.

  11. Bram 7:15, and where would you expect any more public thru streets to go? You do realize that would mean tearing down more of the produce terminal, right? Seriously, if you want to play journalist then starting getting your facts straight and then offer commentary. There is a public thru street in the plans. That street will - for the first time in like ever - connect the strip to the river. There will be a public piazza and public trail and green space. I'm not sure what the next anon commenter is talking about with the assertion that "it is not all private property." What part isn't private? You can spout out a bunch of fancy words and sentences about world class planning and transparency, but what does that really mean? What do you actually want to see here? How can Buncher ever respond if you don't tell them exactly what you want to see?

  12. I like to assume that all of the anon's are a single, very confused person.

  13. "Get your facts straight," he says. Like it's so simple. Like developers and public officials make their plans easy to access and to make sense of in detail. The thing I'm looking at suggests there's a stop sign at the corner of Smallman St. and I-579.

    "Given plans today, the setbacks from the rivers are stingy; there will be too much surface parking for what should be a very urban space; some of the residential buildings are envisioned with parking facing the river; and there will be no public feature running alongside the river other than an existing trail. Just as at the Technology Center, buildings will simply line up in a row, dully turning their backs to the river.

    "And just like the Waterfront’s pedestrian bridge, the lone pedestrian feature planned by Buncher — walkways along a street leading to an overlook at the river – is likely to be rarely used by shoppers." -- James Conti

    Let's use that as the latest version standard set of objections.

  14. I find it amusing that Wall Street Willie Peduto was prostrating himself in NY City this weekend with a gaggle of sycophants. For all the love given to the slugs over OWS BNYMellon you'd think the pseudo populist would stay home and feed the hungry rather than pimp himself to the big $$$ boys. oh right he went with chief exec Fitty, the once and future king. King Fitty hoping Wall Street Willie becomes mayor mean jean wins Willies seat and Fitty pulls the puppet strings. Dance Willie Dance!!

  15. I am reminded of Willie the Duck.

  16. Well, it's cause they're slugs 2:15. None of them are going to make tv ads, sell air time, print and send mailers, and slave over maps and spreadsheets for free.

    And I don't... I really don't recall Peduto showing any love to OWS whatsoever. He signed a proclamation but so did Burgess and Smith. Ravenstahl is the one who helped keep them comfy if anyone, but it sounds like Obama was pulling those strings. Does the phony "Peduto=OWS" line play well at PNC Bank or whatever?

  17. slick billy plays both sides of every issue. Just wait and watch him capitulate on the Buncher project. He will give a big speech and talk about transparency, but in the end he won't side with Patrick. Slick Billy knows this is no time to appear anti corporate. Just watch how he and Danny boy are getting all cozy with Lamar.

  18. We had a lot of people to thank for our comfiness - and our basic safety - down at the Occupy camp, including City Council and the Mayor, but chief among the thankees are various labor leaders and activists who helped swing quite a bit of weight on our behalf, most literally (mighty masses of mulch) as well as politically.

  19. I am reminded of Billy Martin.

  20. The attacks on the parking lease from the pitchfork crowd ultimately were all about its basic nature (giving future revenues to a for-profit entity in exchange for current cash), not the exact terms.

    Generally, I really doubt there is anything Ravenstahl could have done to change the politics in favor of the lease, because the opposition to the lease was pre-determined--that became clear once Council's hand-picked analyst came back with the wrong answer (that it was a good deal), and they proceeded to oppose it anyway.

  21. Future revenues and control over the outer portions of the very streets. He wasn't leasing revenue, he was binding every local official for the long term and only punting the pension problem down the road for enough time for him to get another election. But, you're right that financial analysis had nothing to do with the opposition.

  22. (I mean this as an honest question, not sarcastic commentary) I was under the impression that when Luke first went to the state to beg for more time to fix the pension, all of council was in support. I also thought that everyone agreed he would use the parking lease as an example of what they could use to fix it. Is that correct, or did Luke just bring parking in after they got the extension?

    Because if council originally agreed to the idea of the lease, and then voted it down outright on ideology, it would put a lot less blame on the Mayor.

  23. Blogmaster Bram
    who cares what burgess ans smith did they're not runni g for Mayor!
    Peduto surrogates carried his water, maybe you or MMP.
    @anon 901 thank you slick Willie Wall Street Willie yes he likes to be everything to everyone. he lacked the courage to go after the council prez job instead him ricciardi and Doogie said lets give it to Luke and then we can laugh at
    him. then when it came time to run for mayor against the Mayor he lacked the guts cuz " the numbers were all bad" wah wah then he went into his " blue period " bottom line Willie lacks the balls it takes to face failure how can we expect him to run a city... a much better city than 2005 or 2007... what's he gonna add wind mills along the river?

  24. Anon 12:51 you ask: "I was under the impression that when Luke first went to the state to beg for more time to fix the pension, all of council was in support."

    I think the way it went down is, all of council, the controller and the mayor were unified in begging the state for more time so they could fix the pensions with parking revenue. However to the mayor that meant a lease, but to most of council and the controller that meant something like raising rates and doing it in-house. However now that you mention it it's possible those preferring to keep the public assets didn't advertise that fact while talking with Harrisburg Republicans, maybe kept their fingers crossed behind their back.

    Anon 1:28 - I thought the problem was, neither Motznik nor Carlisle could get the votes, so Ravenstahl was the Darlene Harrisesque "compromise" prez choice? Or do I have that wrong? And btw it was Luke who wanted us to get windmills.

  25. This is about to drop off, but I want to note it isn't true the lease would have divested "control over the outer portions of the very streets." About the closest it came to doing any such thing is it required compensation back to the leaseholder for eliminating parking spots, which is a pretty reasonable term for the leaseholder to insist on.