Sunday, February 9, 2014

THIS BLOG HAS MOVED!

You may be in the wrong place. Head on over to:

http://pittsburghcomet.com

Wordpress, baby. Thanks to Blogger for all the memories.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

WIZARDS & DRONES: Politico does Pittsburgh

Jamel Toppin, Syfy

Epic, two-part magazine treatment!

First, the phoenix tale:

Pittsburgh, after decades of trying to remake itself, today really does have a new economy, rooted in the city’s rapidly growing robotic, artificial intelligence, health technology, advanced manufacturing and software industries. (Politico, Glenn Thrush)

That's accurate.

But perhaps the most critical factor was recognizing that, beneath the collapse, stagnation and misery, the city’s core assets remained largely intact, in the form of human capital housed in the city’s cultural institutions, foundations, an overlooked industrial research sector and above all its great universities—Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, Duquesne—built and endowed by the 19th century robber barons who gave the city its first golden age. (ibid)

Okay, they're talking a certain group of humans. Nice things.

Pittsburgh is all about the creative destructive of capitalism, and… (ibid)

And we're reading…

Two MIT researchers, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, theorize that rapid technological advances have created a “great decoupling” of productivity and employment, which partially explains the malaise. (ibid)

Thank you...

Mill owners and labor leaders appeared to be dancing long after the music had stopped—pushing for guaranteed-wage pacts that would buy them a few more years of solvency instead of girding for the industry’s eventual decline by focusing on new technologies and retraining their workers. (ibid)

Well, 20/20 hindsight, maybe...

Yet even at rock bottom, the city’s white-marble academic backbone held. (ibid)

Oh, come on.

Yet none of these factors would have added up to a civic resurgence without the collaboration of a surprisingly small circle of interconnected actors—a couple of hundred people at most—who have worked on the city’s rebirth with plodding determination, as if Pittsburgh itself were one of Red Whittaker’s space robots. (ibid)

You don't say? That's actually not all that surprising.

Ultimately, the city’s greatest asset might be its memory—the pain and humiliation of the collapse still acts as a goad, and encourages people in positions of authority to bend the rules when they get in the way of good idea. (ibid)

We, uh… we were with them for a second, there! If memory serves.

Finally, the whole song: There and Back Again, is bracketed within a companion piece:

It was the Democratic primary that really mattered, and here... Peduto surged ahead to a double-digit victory. (Politico, Jim O'Toole)

Within that piece that we encounter a sliver of exposition about how the major universities, nonprofits, foundations and cultural institutions which together reinvent and define this town, for better and worse, are in a degree of natural tension with City taxpayers, stakeholders, voters and neighborhoods. That really is the next song, how that tension resolves.

BONUS: Credit upgrade: Pgh Biz Times

Monday, February 3, 2014

Land Banking and Community Investment: And So We Return...

holachica

Gather up. Councilman Daniel Lavelle earns another gold star, this one with platinum tail, for hitting pitch-perfect posture towards the land bank bill.

There are two issues which bear reflection: an analogy and a suggestion.

Towards the analogy: Any City once twice as populous still halfway abandoned, with broad and uneven clusters of vacant, tax-delinquent and sometimes crumbling parcels contributing towards decay and chaos, can stand to benefit the judiciously expeditious exercise of land banking powers.

Right now, only the most economically secure of property speculators can afford to pursue and redevelop broad and key tracts, as their own opportunities and designs arise. Once upon a time, the public might have been thrilled to get directly involved in planning and organizing its community through its government -- or as directly as possible, as through a public agency like the URA or a City land bank devoted wholly to this business.

Yet there is apprehension. Public-spirited liberals have been burned before. 20th century urban renewal was catalogued. The Internet began making that knowledge far more common. And Occupy joined existing movements in radicalizing that waning faith in public institutions. Government decisions have not always been judicious or mindful.

In the end, this is a bit like a health-related epidemic in terms of neighborhood disinvestment. We fear to summon the Paramedics, because we are afraid that the Paramedics, instead of assessing, stabilizing, informing and serving us, will jab us with their needles, dose us on painkillers, secure us in the van and harvest our organs. Nevertheless, we really are wise to have empowered a Bureau of Paramedics to exist -- and to have put procedures, training and accountability in place so that health care is offered to residents soundly and as advertised, and we can transport resources and people to where they need to be.

Where some Greater neighborhoods have, for a very long time, been ailing on the couch.

Towards the suggestion: Call it the Joe Biden plan. You remember, the former Senator's original suggestion to partition Iraq, which had its logic at the time it was stated, and if it had caught more fire, who knows what might have been?

Only instead of managing total warfare, here we would be shepherding productive peace. If one at-large City-wide land bank is felt by very many to be insufficiently overbearing to address community concerns, consider perhaps breaking it up into 3 to 5 smaller land bank jurisdictions. Recognizing that Pittsburgh is a City of neighborhoods, different strategies determined along different accountability chains may make common sense.

These sectional land banks could share certain resources as they deem fit. If nothing else, the Biden plan makes for a constructive thought-exercise.

Meetings looks to continue through February or all six weeks of duly amended and supplemented winter. It's a big'un, s'get it right.

(@DSKinsel's thread)

It'd Be a Shame if City doesn't get Lourdes

Punxypage

*-UPDATE: Council confirms Sanchez-Ridge 8-0-1, and the Trib apparently owns the image to the right by Stephanie Strasburg.

On the latest Castle Greyskull brouhaha…

Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess is asking Mayor Bill Peduto to withdraw his nomination for solicitor, raising questions about whether the nominee, Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge, satisfies the city's requirement that employees live within its limits. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

If Council wants to go through the process of getting outside legal counsel, it should always be welcome. Pittsburgh City Council is often surprised by what its consultants and experts have to tell it.

The administration appears to feel it is on solid footing regarding residency, and that they will remain on such footing. She is the Mayor's nominee before Council and acting Solicitor designee, and she is Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge.

The Comet is a big fan of the Patrick Dowd method of solving problems. That is, an entity with standing to complain about something does so in the proper arena to figure it out.

Now, let me address my bias…

On the transition teams, I actually got to work with Lourdes. We bonded (I felt). I feel this way because we did not just grin and backslap, "Hooray, Peduto!" but we actually fought for a while. Dramatically, thrillingly. For at least :30 minutes in a 2 hour meeting, and by "we" I mean we including all you-know-who-you-weres on the subcommittee. Summarily on at least one and a half topics or occasions she and we duked it out cordially before we all heard and understood each other and saw agreement.

And then we forged more productive agreements. Afterwords we were satisfied with the net outcome, mutually enthusiastic and puckishly merry. And so that was substantive bonding, at least on my end. The Comet can harbor no qualms about professionalism, conviction and insight, or an ability to flex in a manner appropriate to a public Solicitor.

Back to the analysis...

The Murmursphere is already offering elaborate though reasonable suggestions on how we ought to determine the real truth of legal residency. Ordinarily fact-gathering would fall under the realm of Office of Municipal Investigations or OMI. It seems reasonable to assert that at the appropriate point in time (and there is a sidebar disagreement about when meaningful enforcement upon brand new employees actually goes into effect) that OMI might need to secure outside investigatory services in what ought to be a routine fashion in all credible instances of perceived conflict with OMI itself.

Underlying some of the reaction to issues of residency (beneath the practicalities of policing it) is a sentiment concerning whether or not City employees at all times and from the root and stem ought to have been longtime, dedicated City of Pittsburghererers, and the nearer suburbs be buggered. This longtime section of the City Code was elevated further by voters to the Charter in a recent ballot measure, powered largely on the subject of police officers.

Regardless of the law's wisdom or genesis, it must be enforced in due process. To argue merely that municipal labor arbitration panels might not look kindly upon it, is to ignore that we already accuse those panels of tremendous bias against the City.

It would be process-oriented of City Council to judge the ability, quality and capacity of the nominee, with expressed reservations and advisories pertaining to Compliance. Eventually all attorneys must duel in terms of "burdens of proof". The political arena has with grave regularity been a poor place to prosecute such questions.

As clear, law-based and consistent administrative policies are enforced, again, Council should if it feels compelled seek outside opinion and at last flex its attorney muscle. And justice under law shall reign.

Support These Workers! Detention Facility Nursing Sounds Hard!


Nursing is always a challenging profession, and I can only imagine in this case...

“I was very transparent for change. That came to the fore for them because they didn't know for certain that I was the chief organizer,” said Finch, who said she is a sick-call assessment nurse in the jail and a Catholic nun. (Trib, John D. Oravecz)

Allegheny County Jail itself shows cautionary flags.

There is a presumption among many in our region that organized workforce bargaining is a good idea.

Within those labor circles, our own United Steelworkers are always alright. A broad union; their diversity is their strength.

Let us wish these care workers within our jail a positive, empowered future starting on Feb. 14th. Send them a Valentine, why not?

Roses are red, and tulips are ivory. 
Nurses care knowingly, they should help run the infirmary! 

PG-13 alternate: "Nurses know where to stick it…"

MORE:  From the American Nurses Association

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Friday, January 31, 2014

AWC needs Change & Funding. (in That Order)

BHHS

Some commenters lately have expressed that they value reading my perspective on civic events, even if they do not always fully agree. I am going to take that at face value by airing reflections on a series of topics about which I would not ordinarily feel confident of having proper standing. Doing so will drain my reserves of good will amongst Pittsburgh's brilliant and richly interconnected social activist community, but amassing and guarding such social capital is not the point of the Comet. That project is to foster clear discussion about public matters which are otherwise determined by closed-door intrigue and cynical posturing.

In regards to the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture, let me stipulate some opinions in bullet form so they are not overlooked:


  • Pittsburgh absolutely requires just such a Center.
  • The mission of the AWC is fine as it stands, and broad enough to attract a wide audience if interpreted broadly.
  • Since we just custom-built a facility to house it, appropriately in the premier theater district Downtown, it ought to remain there.
  • All cultural arts organizations, especially new ones, require ongoing capital from those few in the community (governments, corporations, foundations and individuals) actually possessing of capital, as well as an inclination to provide amenities which markets cannot alone.
  • The fact that errors were made in the past does not make it justifiable to now throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However, the present board of the AWC has run out of community confidence.

Strike that, and let us rephrase it: all the communities which must play a role in financially supporting the Center, have come to possess 100%, rock-solid confidence that the present board of the AWC will fritter away any further funding without transmuting it into cultural offerings.

It's not the presence of the Center which frustrates funders -- it's an empty, derelict, joyless Center.

This is not to deny there are a few entities which would rather loot the assets of the Center than save it. After all, who doesn't like to loot things? But those entities would not stand a chance if the board possessed the confidence it once enjoyed.

I have no presumptions about the nature of said "frittering". Given the challenges we know exist in starting up any nonprofit arts institution, I certainly do not suspect it's a matter of anything coarsely unethical. And I doubt it has to do with any lack of personal competencies.

Guardians.net
Rather, I suspect it has to do with uniformity and entreanchment of the board in terms of background, perspective and approach. Also a certain pride and defensiveness or "siege mentality". It appears as though that establishment political faction which did valuable work in launching the Center, continues to dominate the 501(c)3's governance and vision. That is neither proper nor healthy -- for the Center, for its mission, or for those represented by that faction moving forward.

Recent reporting about the course of the ailing Center has yet to view it through the prism of its two permanent Executive Directors and one Interim Director. From what I begin to gather, the Center did a lot better during its Directorless interlude than at any other period. There must be lessons to be drawn from that; let's call it a "request" for further reporting.

It seems like Pittsburgh is nibbling politely around the edges of stating clearly, "The board needs to go."  But the message is not being acknowledged. Meanwhile with liquidation and cessation looking like a real probability, the public is finally getting exercised about saving the Center, and is very alarmed and hurt over why it appears as though Pittsburgh does not value its AWC4AAC.

So let the Comet make it plain: the AWC board, that is a majority thereof, in the only possible remaining act which can demonstrate an enlightened fealty to its charitable public mission, needs to step back and assist in the replacing of itself.

If that important prerequisite is not undertaken, any grassroots pleadings or demands for financial support for the AWC, no matter how righteous, plain and defensible in the general sense, are going to be riotously rejected by funders and decision-makers. And then those pleadings are going to be disparaged in the crudest, ugliest, most unfair possible terms by the worst possible people.

Pittsburgh deserves an accountable, commonly held, and desperately engaging August Wilson Center. Not any other sort of August Wilson Center. Although it would be a very bad outcome, I personally would rather see it sold off to the Cultural Trust, UPMC or North Korea than continue to function as a sad, cynical and misdirected moral and political write-off. An insurance policy.

Those philanthropic dollars can now be put to better use enriching residents on matters of culture and history elsewhere. Only the AWC board itself can eliminate the need to find elsewheres.

Come to think of it, it is conceivable that the present board would rather see it foreclosed upon than loosen its grip. Community outrage can be extremely useful under the right circumstances. But I hope we're not living in that sort of drama; none of us in Pittsburgh are bright enough to make that kind of thing work.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Monday: Governing amidst Chaos

Touchstone Pictures

The land bank debate heats up:

Rev. Burgess, who tried unsuccessfully to pass land bank legislation a year ago, is a critic of the current proposal by freshman Councilwoman Deb Gross of Highland Park. Councilman Dan Lavelle of the Hill District also has raised concerns. Both fear that the bill does little to ensure input from the affected communities. (P-G, Brian O'Neill)

It sounds like there is an agreement that the goals of land banking are widely sought, but the question is whether a standard board comprised 4 mayoral and 3 Council appointees will sufficiently address community concerns per exploitation and accountability.

The Comet has not yet learned Councilman Burgess's notion of a superior and more equitable governing framework. His 2012 legislation authorized the creation only of an "advisory committee" comprised mostly of executive branch and Authority personnel.

But Pittsburgh shall work it out. Even more interesting in O'Neill's column was Rev's bit about planning revival from Homewood's "prosperous edges" rather than "heart."

For also in Homewood news:

"Normally in community planning, people who don't live near other people are making suggestions for what should happen there. We thought clusters was an easier, cleaner way to focus. And it's like the concept of how to eat the elephant -- one piece at a time." (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

Opportunistic corporate gentrifiers have several extremely positive roles to play in the next Pittsburgh. The Comet suspects however that to rebuild our neighborhoods properly, we may really have to "dive in" without these. It has not seemed to be their strongest suit.

WHAT ELSE:

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is conducting an audit of Pittsburgh Public Schools under the hospitable protection of Mayor Bill Peduto.

The office of State Attorney General Kathleen Kane, in case you missed it, asked six specific questions of the court-appointed August Wilson Center conservator to clarify the whole situation and the conservator's understanding of it before any determination on moving to a receivership. *-BREAKING: Judge is unmoved. Maybe we missed our cue to make a bigger stink, or maybe this is it.

State financial overseers are likely to approve whatever transition buyout and position eliminations schemata will emerge from City Hall, even though fundamentally, no one can know how many of which subsets of employees will take something before it is enacted. So we cannot say whether it is a huge budget saver or simply a wise and modest expenditure compared with the unpredictability of going without.

Finally, the large field of candidates for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Pennsylvania debated in Pittsburgh yesterday. Today slight and steady frontrunner Allyson Schwartz, a seemingly less-progressive candidate, picked up the endorsement of former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.

Making Murphy potentially important, once again. Being the gentleman, scholar, player and technology enthusiast that he is, we cannot fathom why he is not engaging in one way or another on social media? Let's elevate the conversation.

Friday, January 24, 2014

USAir Scuttles Moon Program

Renke's World of S&A

Well, if the federal government is finding it to be of limited use, and we have problems on Earth...

US Airways has decided to close its $32 million flight operations center in Moon and move the work to Dallas-Fort Worth, where the new American Airlines will be based. 
The move will affect about 600 employees at the center, according to Matt Dinkel, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. Most of the employees will be offered the chance to transfer, said Todd Lehmacher, a spokesman for American Airlines. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Wait, what? Oh, this is the Airport, or related to it. That old thing. Circa 1992.

It was built at the height of the big airport mall craze, in fact it is an AIRMALL. In the Comet's own modest sample experience, the major airports of the world are not much into that these days. The major airports of the world are for running, being herded and examined, and fueling up. The major train stations of the world, now, there you will see some malls.

Plus, Pittsburgh International has a somewhat absurd people-mover, which is now integral to the system. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

So it was already in somewhat funky overbuilt shape when air travel profitability collapsed. Now it's allegedly getting shabby.

But let's look on the bright sides: At Pittsburgh International Airport, there is surely a lot of space available to make customs and security to flow sensibly. Because truthfully, a lot of airports in North America are confused about that. We can help you build a next generation international terminal from the ground up.

Additionally, we can exploit that airport investment with American-made, cleaner-burning natural petrochemical energy.

In a letter to operations center employees, Tim Campbell, senior vice president of air operations for American Airlines, said the transfer of employees won’t begin to happen for several months. (ibid)

Nice work. The Comet wonders what those waylaid employees think about… everything.

MORE: Trib, John G. Oravecz: Union president says workers are sad, feel as though they have done a good job. It would be hard to leave home. Null Space on airline bashing. Speaking of radio golf.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reprieve? Wilson Center twitches.


An epilogue to this production in the cycle:

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto have been quietly trying to broker a plan to salvage the debt-ridden August Wilson Center for African American Arts and expect to make an announcement within the next few days. (Trib, Debra Erdley)

We are all agreed the Center still needs a strategic plan, and a center with community confidence. Anything from having to do with public schools to air rights seems up for debate.

RELATED: We should probably be reading more Wilson and building him less, but c'est la vie. Then again, why fight it?

Squire
UPDATED REFLECTIONS: The only visual design note in Radio Golf was a Tiger Woods poster. That's not nothing. Also there was a solid menu note if the financial sustainability package includes food service. We have refined our preliminary exterior design notes for any new vertical construction thusly: "Brightly painted and well-crafted old home, artfully run down, with Play-salient art pieces adorning it baroquely, as well as a metal fire escape somewhat conjuring a treehouse atmosphere."

More importantly: the insistent message of the actual play -- the culmination of the entire Pittsburgh or Century cycle -- seemed to be:

Conduct your business ethically. Yes, you know what that means already. Yes that can be hard, unfair to you personally, or seem unimportant compared to the great important things you are working on. But there is just no other way besides knowingly living as a total crook. And wherever that puts you, that puts you. (And depending upon what the viewer imagines happens next after the curtain falls, that might not be such a bad prospect.)

We do not feel comfortable describing why Radio Golf was so named. It has to do with the idea that when one works for and then experiences success, it becomes easy to convince oneself that one knows a lot more about achievement than one actually does. It can actually make one a bit dumber about it.

There must be considerably more to the whole Pittsburgh / Century cycle than that, but we have yet to read the preceding nine plays.

NEWS UPDATE: AG Kane and the board recommend a certain new conservator.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

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Yinz Town Land Bank: Who shall run it?

Six Revisions

The loyal opposition gets a gold star today for seizing an opportunity to open a ripe discussion.

City Councilors Lavelle, Burgess, Kail-Smith and Harris (in that chronological order) voiced concerns about Councilor Gross's proposed ordinance to supplement the City Code.

The four explained that the proposal may cede too much "Land Bank Power"* to the Mayor, or that it may not sufficiently address the inequitable distribution of "Bankable Land"* across the city (it tends to collect in hard-luck tracts and pockets). These sorts of difficulties they suggested might necessitate more of a Council role at the code or general level.

There remains a special session and a public hearing to be scheduled. Burgess motioned to hold today's considerations, having established that we ought get hype*.

-------
*- Editor's terms

BONUS: Transition buy-outs and position eliminations: this looks like the ticket.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Introducing, the Dollar Bank Center for Pittsburgh Political Culture

DSTG

Having gotten to this point, it was fairly unavoidable:

"Thus, the conservator is left with an impossible task; that is, to conserve an entity that has no strategic plan and insufficient cash to operate -- and has run out of time," she wrote. (P-G, Mark Belko)

The organization truly did not seem to have any viable strategic plan. It certainly did not have a sufficient communications plan, and sometimes that reflects on overall strategy.

Now we have 1) a sizable, shiny, odd looking building at a nice location Downtown 2) that we had named after local playwright August Wilson and 3) said would be a center for African-American culture.

Actually, we don't have any of those things. Dollar Bank has those things. A local bank, mind you. When it opened, Pittsburgh didn't have an "h".

MORE: On the ailing center's mission as that of a real and metaphorical bridge, from the piping hot Duquesne Whistle. See also Null Space.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sacrificing Privileges: ISO Liviousness

The Atlantic

Let's elevate the conversation.

The most pertinent critique of status-quo urban redevelopment policy in Pittsburgh was lodged by a movement which had evolved during a sit-in on Centre Ave.

It later briefly occupied City Hall to circulate fourteen to seventeen demands.

It stopped by the Mayor's home, leaving a message.

Ultimately it presented itself formally to the URA at 200 Ross Street, also bearing a love letter regarding Pittsburgh and "economic violence":



The official response to the demands was perfunctory. Even after time:

Dear URA,
Last month we delivered a letter at your August 8 board meeting calling for a different vision for development in Black Pittsburgh. We asked for a response and we have not heard from you. 
What we did hear were your statements to the press that… 
(9/07/13 Pittsburgh for Trayvon)

In the same vein:

Dear Council Member Bill Peduto, 
We appreciate your detailed response to the Pittsburgh for Trayvon demands. We also look forward to building a relationship with you, and as a part of that relationship holding you publicly accountable to meeting the demands necessary to ensure that the Black communities of Pittsburgh are “Most Livable”. 
READ Peduto’s Response to our Demands HERE  
(8/06/13, Pgh for Travon


Most revealing in matters of economic development is #6 -- both in terms of using public resources to foster "community benefits" along the lines which a coalition amongst labor, faith and environmental groups have been advocating for some time, and in terms of leaning upon community-oriented neighborhood planning.

In Bill Peduto's URA, it is said:

As we build the team to join Mayor-elect Peduto, the vision, skills and competencies expected of all in City government are clear. See the full list of competencies that will guide our City. (Talent City)

Anon, some valued skills:

Educates customer—Proactively shares information to build the customer’s understanding of services, issues, and capabilities; manages customer expectations. 
Remains open to ideas—Listens to others and objectively considers others’ ideas and opinions, even when they conflict with one’s own. 
Determines causes—Identifies potential conditions that contribute to gaps or key variances; explores relationships between conditions and effects; distinguishes causes from symptoms and identifies primary causes. (Talent City)


The URA (in addition to HACP) coordinates with the City and the other Authorities in the transporting of hundreds of millions of dollars from our Federal and State government to development projects within city limits.

apushcanvas
There is a sense in which everything the URA accomplishes is at first attributable to community entrepreneurs and partners, and then is attributable to Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society". Although it has been a long time since then.

Not every cockamamie project, grant application or allocation is able to or will get cleared and approved by the higher levels and other branches of government. Yet even playing the game somewhat poorly, Pittsburgh's URA cannot help but to produce public works with deep, lasting ripple effects across the city and region.

But what exactly will it do? With whom, and how? In what proportions? Towards what ends? That is a matter for strategic planning.

Pittsburgh deserves solutions for a host of difficulties in a manner that is holistic, sustainable, and equitable in terms of civic opportunity. Investment and resource allocation are precious powers which must be leveraged to further a whole variety of strategic public objectives. One such objective is the very process of large-scale community building and enfranchisement.

(And on that note…)

COMET RECOMMENDATION: When considering appointments of board members to various civic bodies, whatever we do in the end, let us make sure we are looping the social justice community early into the conversation. There is no substitute for direct engagement with the people out there pushing the envelope.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Burgess, Ferlo Opt Not to Respect

PBTInfinonymous

And then reared this:

It is protocol, Peduto said, for board members to resign out of respect to a new mayoral administration. But at least two — a city councilman and a state senator who serve on two of the most powerful Authorities in Pittsburgh — have said they're not stepping down. (Trib, Melissa Daniels)

Alack, it would take a miracle to reduce gross friction.

MORE / THE SKINNY:  P-G in 2009

Friday, January 17, 2014

Land Stories: A Simple Offering

Warner Bros.

Many major political stories come down to questions of zoning and land use.

Here are five examples. Perhaps there are themes.

1. In regards to the chemical spill near Charleston, WV, some observations:

Errors were not exotic:

The failure of Freedom Industries, the plant's owner, to make a functioning retaining wall a priority; the containment tank's proximity to the river; and the lack of inspection of the site since 1991 means that hundreds of thousands of people will only get angrier as their hassles continue. (P-G, Tony Norman)

Regulatory authority was "obscure":

Yet the article there does not even mention the one public agency that does have cognizance under the circumstances. We had an interesting little discussion of this here several years ago... but why so little mention these days of the Ohio River Valley Water and Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO)? (by Null Space)

And the environment was suited to "ultra-capitalism":

This is SOP in West Virginia, a state that is defined by two mostly-opposing forces: wealth extraction and intense rural poverty. I have a great liking for the actual people of West Virginia, and a great mistrust of anyone there with capital, because they are obviously from out-of-state. Money doesn't come to West Virginia without a good value proposition. (Duquesne Whistle)

In serendipitous enough fashion, County Controller Chelsa Wagner is one who shares verbiage about "responsible regulation and smart growth."



That should set the stage.

2. The City Land Bank looks to sail through Council, eventually:

The legislation is a work in progress because Ms. Gross wants to get community input on many of the program's details…. Pittsburgh's land bank could take many forms. It could be a subsidiary of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, or it could be its own authority. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

The reasons these land banks are granted special powers is that, in accordance with state law, they are public entities whose structure is determined and appointed by elected officials, with all the attendant clear lines of accountability. The Pittsburgh Land Bank is bound among other  things to be a citywide speculator, developer and force in our neighborhoods, so you can be sure its composition will be a bone of political contention for years to come. The greater the grand consensus confidence in its framework, the more it will be able to tackle.

3. The fate of the historic Produce Terminal continues to sit oddly:

On Wednesday, Councilwoman Deb Gross, whose district includes the terminal, urged her colleagues to vote for the designation, saying the structure "really makes the Strip District the Strip District." But Councilman Corey O'Connor said he saw no need for the designation since the URA, now under Mr. Peduto's control, could reapply for historic status if there's a need for it. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Of course the URA put an "option agreement" into effect with Buncher Co. to sell the building. And even before that deal progresses, our understanding is that the URA may not act or speak in such a way as to sour the potential deal.

Shoewawa
The preliminary vote on the designation went 3-4-2, with Councilwoman Darlene Harris abstaining to see what comes out of further negotiations, and Councilman Dan Gilman abstaining to research a spot of law:

  • How hard it is really for a Historic Building owner to get a Certificate of Appropriateness so as to break out wrecking balls and dynamite, when City officials believe there are impassable hurdles to needed economic development?
  • Is it true that if Council declines historic designation in this instance, it cannot be sought on the building for another five years?


These are excellent things to be looking at. Without a full consideration of them, Council had little choice but to pontificate over whether community-driven Historic Building applications are really very good at all. The historic value proposition gets swept off the table by the fundamentalist property rights argument, even though the interplay among rights appears baked into the code already in terms of Appropriateness applications and appeals in case of an bad result.

4. Pittsburgh gets to keep Yarone Zober for kicking around, and right Downtown to boot!

“During the last eight years, I’ve been impressed with Yarone’s intelligence, creativity and passion, and have watched him use each to benefit Pittsburgh. His work has helped this city to grow, creating jobs and rebuild neighborhoods. He knows how to make things happen, and we’re excited to have him join our team.” (PBT, Tim Schooley)

"Things." No objection. The continued dialectic playing out between the public and private sectors Downtown will be appropriate and constructive. Real news is that this ought to provide Ravenstahl's former staff with a shot of morale. Not sure if Mr. Rudolph of McKnight Realty Partners is still on or is going to remain on the URA board (UPDATE: His term has expired, but he seems intent to serve until formally removed or reappointed) but having an insider like Zober aboard should help them stay connected.

5. Speaking of favorites, we are getting something called the "Southern Beltway":

"When opened to traffic, the Route 22 to I-79 project will create economic opportunities in Findlay, Robinson, Mount Pleasant, Cecil and North and South Fayette townships," turnpike commission chairman William K. Lieberman said. (P-G, John Schmitz)

Early Returns
Lieberman is a local figure that has long resided at the intersection of business and politics, now chair of a PA Turnpike Commission which still weathers scandal. He abstained from voting this contract at a telephone board meeting due to a conflict involving a client. Not sure what accounts for the month delay between board action and announcement.

$550 million for twelve miles of new toll roadway. Progressives must disdain the encouragement of sprawl, and the cost of all those millions not going into something like public transit. Then again, respectable self-loathing Neoliberals aren't as sure how to criticize making life more convenient, and land more valuable, out in suburbia.

If rural areas and suburbs tend to vote Republican, and major cities and towns Democrat, that probably influences long-term statewide planning, no? Why lay any foundations in a sort of place likely to breed voters politically opposed to you and yours? We honestly wonder if some legislators reject public transit projects because they might be too successful, causing too many people to move into cities and catch the gaeity.

Anyway. Land, huh? Am I right? They're not making any more of it. But that doesn't mean there aren't things we can do to improve equitability.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Area Union: City Has Cash, Let's Get

Commentator

Let's go back to taking financial advice from the Firefighters.

NOTE: When Act 47 spoke in 2012 about the possibility of dissolving, it was in the context of a Mayor long opposed to oversight looking like we'd keep him "on the job" and oversight bodies exhausted being jerked around by us.

Now we have a Mayor elected on the strength of a promise to ride Act 47 all the way to sustainable recovery by welcoming collaboration. That should address the sass central to the letter.

Quick Note: Be Fixing the Society

Memeshare.net

We join writer and super-spy Dan Simpson en toto:

What is to stop us from dealing with poverty, inequality and diminishing economic mobility? The French now tax companies at an effective rate of 75 percent on the part of salaries exceeding $1.36 million, including sports stars and coaches. Do that, then put the money into education.  (P-G, Dan Simpson)

The Comet would prefer to see that windfall split between education and other market preparation and public works. Yet the voguish counterpoint instead lies somewhere between no, forget it already, and hey, look at Mt. Lebanon.

We can only address that ridiculousness if we're seen fixing our schools in various ways.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Open Burgh: Before Data, there were Impressions

What is Reality?

Pittsburgh's forthcoming Open Data policy is going to be unceasingly revolutionary, so please attend to that in all of its forthcoming kaleidoscopic glory. Execute Order 66.

Yet math and computers are hard. Can we blog for a moment about community theater?


PITTSBURGH,  PA - Beginning next week, City of Pittsburgh residents will have access to three regular meetings on Mayor William Peduto's public schedule including meetings with City Council leadership, department directors, and Act 47/ICA overseers.  (Mayor, Press Releases)


In olden times, the Mayoral branch always had an advantage over City Council. Only the latter did their bickering and dithering in public. Such process can invite scrutiny, when it counts.

Viewing Mayoral meetings with Departmental directors will be superb. One might mistakenly believe it will be easy for the administration throttle public concerns, yet over time the public will get rowdy over sore spots, the meetings will be derided if they do not tackle tough issues, and the administration will be pressured to become more responsive than otherwise.

Minutes from regular meetings between the Mayor and Council members Kraus, Rudiak and Kail-Smith will be a hoot and a half. The inclusion of our incumbent President Pro-Tempore in that circle virtually assures a thorough vetting on all issues, and reproaches if ever there are not. We can learn from these sessions.

Minutes from discussions with our Act 47 Coordinators and ICA plenipotentiaries will be nice as well. It might further inspire virtuous circles in terms of meeting objectives.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled oohing and aahing over the city's Open Data transformation. We had better refer to the legislation introduced by the Chairperson of City Council's Committee on Finance and Law today as Open Data Burgh 1.0. An heirloom piece like this is bound to merit some time in the blacksmith's furnace. We should think many will be eager to wield a hammer.

ELSEWHERE: The Fraternal Order of Police president faces impeachment rumors, according to the P-G's Liz Navratil. MORE: Businessperson who paid bribes to officials receives solid thwack on the wrist.

NOTABLE EVENT: Thursday, HackPittsburgh Rube Goldberg build challenge.

Monday, January 13, 2014

We Must Inspire the Teachers

Touchstone Pictures

That's our only shot.

We all want to give children an edge, if we can. Can we here?

"Our issue is equity. That's the only thing." (Pgh. Fed. of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Vargas, P-G, Elearnor Chute)

We cannot force the teachers union to accept this; we cannot browbeat them into it. We have none of those levers. We can only persuade them this a fundamentally good idea whose time has come, and one that they can make sure is implemented correctly.  We must focus on building trust in partnering with a District administration where at times, there is not much.

Only the union can make this happen: accountability in classrooms for student achievement, that is, over the long and the broad sweep.

RELATED: Comet, Too Long of a Post, May 2012. Poor timing then for community groups to have raised the issue, in the context of state cuts and sizable furloughs.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Farcical Friday: How Do We Fix Problems?

Texas Watchdog (fixed)

Downtown there are tragedies woven with mock:


[US bankruptcy judge and August Wilson Center conservator Judith Fitzgerald] has also been talking to public entities and private foundations about releasing previously allocated funds or contributing new money to the center. 
So far they have refused to do so, "based upon asserted past failures of AWC to carry out promises with transparency," Ms. Fitzgerald said in a Dec. 27 interim report to the court. (P-G, Mark Belko)

The reaction to debt accumulation has been reasonable and on-key, until this note:

"Nonetheless, ultimately if there is a complete refusal of the foundations to provide funds and no public agency or governmental financial support sufficient to determine the viability of AWC, it will be unlikely that AWC can survive," she wrote. (ibid)

Perhaps it is time to get bold and creative.

If the overhead and other challenges of inhabiting the glimmering Downtown facility are too steep, and the debt profile is so stubbornly implacable, then might not the August Wilson Center's own cultural and logistical assets be protected, the present facility be sold or foreclosed upon and thence repurposed, and the AWC be relocated to a sufficient and sustainable new or refurbished venue? One where it can hew to advancing its missions, perhaps even in the neighborhood which provided that playwright with legendary material, yet still near enough to Downtown and its expansion energies?

The Comet regrets the inescapable impertinence of this suggestion. We are aware of various blind spots in our levels of knowledge and perception about the proper "missions" of the Wilson Center, and its present stakeholders, and what the Downtown "Cultural District" facility and presence means. But shedding an ill-fit structure and adapting to new circumstances might get public entities and private foundations back on board supporting the necessary enterprise.

##

Meanwhile, news in the federal probe into City corruption is hard to come by:

“We have acknowledged that we are doing an investigation of the city of Pittsburgh that has arisen as a result of investigations of” the Bureau of Police and former police Chief Nate Harper, who was indicted and pleaded guilty, [US Attorney David] Hickton said. “I am acknowledging that it is ongoing.” (P-G, Rich Lord)

Yawn.

AP, Telegraph
Look. We can either be gormless and stare at the fountains at the Bellagio until our legs buckle, or we can trust that the US Justice Department before making any further decisions will keep a weather eye on how various parties respond to the transition of power and their own legal calendars. The Comet votes trust. Let's take wink for an answer.

UPDATE: Indeed, there should be little hindrance.

Moving forward, in terms of triage assessment:

[Public Safety Director Michael] Huss acknowledged taking on responsibilities beyond his job title for much of the past year, such as personnel matters, collective bargaining and policy decisions. 
“You make the decisions that you have to, and you do what you have to do until someone tells you, ‘Don't do that anymore,' ” Huss said. “I didn't think that was going to happen.” (Trib; Harding, Prine & Conte)

To wit:

"As a principle matter, the lack of guiding policies in this instance is I think what was most shocking." 
"The City of Pittsburgh had virtually no policies, regulations, concerning the management of outside employment by Bureau officers. To me, that was frankly shocking." 
"In this type of instance, when police officers can use types of tactics, equipment, confidential means, records, data, to assist in the conduct of a private industry, there is a real potential for a conflict of interest to exist. Our courts have addressed it, Pennsylvania law has addressed it, the answer is clear. That active police officers should not be involved in that type of conduct."
(WESA, Steve Toprani, former Washington County DA and City consultant)

The implications of such statements being stated will continue to develop. There may be all sorts of management tools converging upon the troublesome spots.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Peduto to Governor Corbett: Check it Out! Conservatism!

P-G, Robin Rombach

Pittsburgh is making fiscal sense.

Yes, that is a passing strange report to credit. But this is not just some rumored Sasquatch sighting.

Hang in there...

Mr. Peduto laid out a number of reasons that the city still needs Act 47. Standing in the Zone 3 police station in Allentown, he said the city needs a stronger long-term debt policy that would lay out exactly how much money the city could borrow in the next half-dozen years or so, and a better solution for its pension problems. 
He also believes the city can use Act 47 to negotiate voluntary payments from nonprofits, who own a significant amount of land in the city but pay little to no taxes. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

And so on. See source material and elsewhere Trib.

First, the City needs to project its borrowing along the present course. Very simple.

With that knowledge, if we begin drawing that thick line on the big graph, and discover nonetheless within 3 or 4 years a habitual need for the big red marker -- even along our presently disciplined trajectory forged by bipartisan and disinterested state oversight -- then all of our headway and remarkable accomplishments will not have not been quite sufficient to achieve escape velocity.

To see Pennsylvania's second largest city crater, is generally to be avoided. Mayor Bill Peduto is alleging that the exit ramp for Pittsburgh from Act 47 Distressed Status needs a fair bit more work in the Budget-Balancing Department.

Therefore he suggests to the main arbiter in the general discussion, Governor Tom Corbett, a few items to fix the puzzle which require textbook Act 47 coordination:


  • Tweak Act 111 and Act 205 to address pension spiking
  • Fiddle with the public safety retirement age
  • Utilize state oversight officials as mediators with the super-nonprofits
  • Give the new Mayor time to implement more of what the State has already recommended to secure City finances


Then it's launch time, around as even more debt get retired in 2018.

In light of what has been forthcoming among a people whose very DNA resonates with the Constitutional right to collectively bargain with employers, this is a bafflingly conservative plan. Even the staff increase in public safety is in line with what the at-times Republican-dominated State overseers have been budgeting for years. It is time to go where that takes us.

P-G, Larry Roberts
"Conservative" does not even demand quotation marks. It is fiscally and conscientiously conservative -- though Mayor Peduto elsewhere in his "progressive" vision evinces progressively towering ambitions with with respect to collaborationinnovation and the application of grant monies.

Tom Corbett should be amenable to this strategy for that reason alone: as far as the State and the taxpayers are concerned, it is a conservative plan.

Tom Corbett should be amenable to this strategy for some more reasons: it makes sense, it wounds no parties unduly, it avoids debt spiral and colony collapse, and it could provide a blueprint for how disciplined Act 47 municipalities can turn the corner on red ink. Progress here could help stem the coming tide without a rash of futile court-mandated tax hikes.

Tom Corbett should be amenable to this for a final reason: the man has serious ties in Pittsburghvania. If he fumbles it, this it is a missed opportunity and a fair tragedy. If he moves it along and it works out nicely, this is a heck of a legacy builder come what may.

The dynamics are a little odd, with a Republican and a Democrat. Unfortunately.

Governor Corbett might be forgiven for thinking, "This sounds worthy of support, but if I stick my neck out and work on doing this right, will Peduto thank me? Will Pittsburgh thank me? This year?"

The Comet cannot answer that. We can however firmly resolve to thank him ourselves. We will thank him every bit as often as it needs being thanked for.
_____

RELATED: Allegheny Institute. Disagree as to its favoring the ICA over Act 47; the former though a stern warden has its own redolent difficulties, meanwhile the latter is built better for creativity.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Pittsburgh, Forever! New officials sworn in.

Haggard and Halloo

Mayor-E….. Mayor Bill Peduto more or less perfectly trod that tricky line line between stating his positive intention that the City is going to work hard, deal squarely and in good faith, say its prayers, eat its vitamins and be a real American -- without looking askance as though to say, "For a change folks, am I right?"

Peduto before speaking more or less bathed himself in former Mayors -- Ravenstahl, Murphy, and fitting representatives of O'Connor, Calijuiri, Lawrence. It was nice how outgoing Mayor Ravenstahl stayed through the entirety of the program. Seemed not even to have any entourage.

There was a reminder late last week in the Toprani report of some of the scandalous issues that helped bring this leadership transition to pass in the way it played out. As we remind ourselves of what is on the record and remember the scope of failures in oversight and culture, we will find a lot of characters in that story besides Mr. Luke Ravenstahl. He was a character -- and that's for sure! -- but Pittsburgh was truly the main character, and it was an anti-hero my friends. Pittsburgh did all that, and now Pittsburgh is looking itself in the mirror and getting psyched for change.

First would needs come some sort of montage. Peduto delivered on the montage. Next comes the bell, and if it's a good movie, a whole lot of punishing rounds.

Check out what somebody at the Tribune-Review did:


It's lovely! It's also interesting, in that stupid kind of way. "New wealth generations today; office stale." "Much place know, especially take love reform. Many measure sustainability!"

Three cheers to Chris Potter of ye olde City Paper picking up on a signal in regards to Councilwoman Deb Gross earning the Chairwomanship of City Council's Zoning and Land Use Committee, in this stage of development along District 7's own Allegheny Riverfront and proposals by the Buncher Company.

It looked like new administrative transition legislation was introduced in Council. Do any of you journalists know the last time Council submitted legislation at its initial swearing-in and organizational meeting? Submitting legislation is merely handing over an envelope, it takes weeks to process preliminarily -- but I wonder how bold a stroke it is in terms of prodding the City to attention. Are we looking at a Kraus Means Business meme? Funny how that could overlap.

There has been some meditation on "New Pittsburgh" and "Next Pittsburgh," not to mention #NewPittsburgh and #NEXTpgh.  Let the Comet proffer at this time a focus on

#MOARpgh

Pittsburgh deserves MOAR Pittsburgh. As long as this community is feeling all high-minded and civic and whatnot, let those of us who publish or broadcast, yak, fiddle or entertain, devote a certain MOAR of our time, sweat and treasure to Pittsburgh -- whether that be the region, or the municipality, or a cherished neighborhood or community.

And as we in our many informal and commercial forums examine, deliberate, and contemplate Pittsburgh, let us not only feel that weight of intergenerational responsibility to build and sustain, but let us exult MOAR in the lifting of it. Let us host forums wherever we are hosting forums with excitement and optimism. And as we do so, let us be sure the general welfare of the Pittsburgh community and its denizens and constituents inhabits our hearts.

We "do Pittsburgh" in all ages, usually quite well. The Comet simply proposes that we all according to our capacity "do Pittsburgh," and do it right, just a little MOAR for a couple years -- and see how it feels. Give the weighty aspiration of the project a full head of steam.



Because heaven help us if our Mayor has to do it alone.