An evolving clash over development policy foreshadows what will surely be among the clearest visible contrasts among Pittsburgh mayoral candidates this spring.
In response to possible concerns about a $90 million tax-increment financing (TIF) plan for a new Hazelwood development, and in reaction to furor over special zoning changes and shelved notions of a $50 million TIF in the Strip District, URA board member and State Sen. Jim Ferlo caricatured the standard bearer of some of the opposition:
"This is the beginning of a very long process," said URA board member Jim Ferlo, a Democratic state senator from Highland Park. "There are going to be a lot of hurdles, if not some significant roadblocks."
Buncher on Tuesday announced that it no longer would seek the financing, which was being held up by councilman Patrick Dowd, who Mr. Ferlo called "Doctor No."
"As far as I'm concerned, this is going nowhere fast," he said. (P-G, Mark Belko!)
It is a politically interesting exchange in that Dowd and Ferlo's respective districts of representation overlap. But more immediately and importantly, it highlights exactly what has long been Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's signature mission and most pernicious stumbling block as city leader: finessing deals with the private sector to get shovels in the ground and cranes in the sky.
In June, Councilman Dowd attempted a characterization of his own:
Your "laissez-faire" policy for development and lack of regard for local flavor is reminiscent of the era of so-called urban renewal – the results of which include the devastating East Liberty and Allegheny Center development projects -- and could have similarly detrimental results in the Strip District. (Letter PDF; see also P-G)
However Dowd's analysis is woefully imprecise. Although "laissez-faire" policies would obviously include granting the private sector wide latitude from planning regulations, labor regulations and taxation -- all of which Ravenstahl is famous for as part of his avowed "pro-growth" agenda -- true free market conservatives would never cotton to such aggressive seeking of public subsidies, public financing, sub-market rates on public land and the non-competitive consolidation of broad parcels to single bidders, all of which Ravenstahl touts as "public-private partnerships."
Although they earn the wrath of economic liberals, what we see in this administration is not conservatism, much less laissez-faire free market capitalism. But rather...
Crony capitalism is a term describing an economy in which success in business depends on close relationships between business people and government officials. It may be exhibited by favoritism in the distribution of legal permits, government grants, special tax breaks, or other forms of dirigisme. (Wikipedia)
It gives me no great joy to employ jargon that has been recently appropriated by Sarah Palin and her brain trust, though its usage seems to predate all that. And I acknowledge the word "crony" bears negative connotations which are not strictly speaking necessary to the development model -- it should be possible to both bestow concessions upon, and lift regulations for, total strangers.
But the model just fits too perfectly, far better than anything else. And we must have a grammar for talking about the differing "development policies" up for debate.
Besides, Buncher Co. of Riverfront Landing has been bragging of its 60-year history as a major developer working with the city and region. And the genesis of Almono LP's project in Hazelwood figured prominently in the e-mails which reveald close ties between the Ravenstahl administration and business figures.
It is less clear what development models are going to emerge as alternatives to Ravenstahl's crony capitalism during the coming election. City Councilman Bill Peduto speaks and writes frequently about consensus and community based development, but I'm not sure if we can engrave that as a comprehensive philosophy. Neither Michael Lamb nor Jack Wagner, as City Controller and State Auditor General, respectively, have had much cause in the course of their day-to-day activities to outline a development strategy.