Friday, August 1, 2008

August: Clarity

"Clearly, in order to be successful, you're going to have to educate the voters," said Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who added that he eventually plans to seek funding from corporations and individuals for the pro-merger campaign. "I don't think it could be successful without a campaign like that. People need to know what they're voting for." (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Yes. About that. What will we be voting for?


Chelsa Wagner is interviewed on the O'Toland Factor. She and her host discuss the drink tax, the casino switcheroo, Bonus-gate, developments in her district, and the obligatory.

Wagner discloses that during her 2006 campaign, in which she challenged incumbent state representative Mike Diven, one of her volunteers actually received one of those dirty Harrisburg bonuses. She was "aggravated" and "outraged" upon discovering it within the two 75-page presentments of the scandal, and contends that there was no way for her to have known about it at the time. She would "never, never, never" have permitted such a thing knowingly.

When Toland hit her with "Are you running?", Wagner responded, with precision, "I haven't decided if I will run yet," which seemed to constitute something of a shift from, "That's so flattering, ohmygosh, tee hee."

I can say that when I did run [for state rep], my initial impetus for running was as a Beechview resident, and a City resident. I was very, very concerned with what was going on there.

Wagner was wearing a very executive-looking gray pantsuit.


Having inherited the Redd Up Crew (which is tasked to clean up the city), and having instituted the Green Team on his own (which is to clean up the city in a slightly different fashion), Mayor Ravenstahl this week unleashed upon us his Hokey Patrol (which will clean up the city in a still more different way).

It must be exciting to work for the Department of Public Works these days. Everyone gets to wear a different set of Underoos.

Even better, nobody can muster the heart to ask serious questions about efficiency and governance. It is what it is.

Jeff Koch was appointed to the new post of "Special Projects Supervisor" for the DPW, correct? Does that make him head honcho over all of this? Would that mean anything?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thursday: Justice is Hot

Drink tax opponent Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation criticized it as an attempt to confuse voters. FACT needs to collect 23,000 valid signatures by Tuesday to have a competing question placed on the ballot that asks voters to slash the tax from 10 percent to 0.5 percent. (Trib, Justin Vellucci)

We'll go FACT one better. It's not just an attempt to confuse, it's an attempt to deceive.

It wasn't bad enough the tax was sold as a measure to "save" public transit; now we are being informed there are only two (2) ways to generate or save money in this universe.

We appreciate Democrats as much as the next Pittsburgher. More so, probably. So please discontinue these acts which brand Democrats as the party of awkward stunts, political cowardice and patronizing manipulation.

We hate to phrase it like this, but for the good of the party we will Brenda Frazier the lot of you. (Except Jim Ellenbogen. You're cool on this one.)

Ramming this onto the ballot by a 10-5 council vote was not just cynical and offensive; it was illegal. The county home rule charter clearly reserves such referendums to voters. And the referendum itself violates the charter because it is a two-subject question. (Trib, Edit Board)

With any luck, the county law department will save from us the hassle of all this. If it does not, the Comet will advocate for voting YES on both referendums, so as to crash the system.


Pittsburgh Councilman Ricky Burgess was the sole voice of dissent in the 8-1 vote in favor of historic status. He said the building qualifies as a church and shouldn't have the historic designation forced upon it. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

We have a very strong feeling that Burgess was correct in that this is more about shunning the downtrodden than it is about historic preservation (and we certainly do not fear the discussion -- it is healthy to expose such ugliness periodically, and even if it is not the entire story.) Nonetheless, we agree with Bill Peduto's contention that we must treat preservation cases as they come -- opportunistic developers are always claiming that historic preservation is a "pretext" for something else. We must be consistent.

We do not doubt Tonya Payne and Darlene Harris when they accuse the Salvation Army of being uncooperative and "sticking a finger in the eye" of the community groups. The issue, however, is that if the Salvation Army has special rights as a place of worship, it has special rights. People and institutions always retain every right to be uncooperative, curmudgeonly and unneighborly, so long as they conduct themselves within the law.

Any neighborhood group may be considered selfless, earnest and invaluable -- just as easily as it might be considered insular, self-serving and thuggish. It's all in the eye of the beholder. The City is no gated community in which inhabitants must surrender their preferences to some ephemeral political superstructure.

We agree with Patrick Dowd that there may be a lack of clarity in the law when it comes to what defines a church. In light of this, we are surprised that the progressives on Council, himself in particular (as he is ruefully aware) are suddenly erring on the side of confidence in the Solicitor.

We are concerned that Doug Shields felt compelled to kindly recommend to the Salvation Army that it turn to the court system for redress. We are aware that the Historic Review Commission and the rest of our planning apparatus dropped the ball at previous junctures, but that itself does not excuse council of the possibility of inuring complicity. If it turns out the city is in fact violating the Salvation Army's constitutional rights, this could get extremely expensive!

We agree with Peduto that justice is blind, but we disagree with his contention that Council must blind itself to all matters except the historic merit of the building. That is the role of the Historic Review Commission. It is obvious the Council's role, as architectural novices, political generalists and final arbiters, is to take a less narrow appraisal of the consequences of these determinations. If churches enjoy certain immunities, and this is demonstrably a church, justice for preservationists must be blind to that.

So is Mr. Burgess in the right? Who knows? He has assembled a compelling-looking case on paper on behalf of the Salvation Army, but not an immediately clear and compelling one. Only time and litigation will tell.

One thing is certain. It is heartening to learn that the Reverend has come 'round to the realization that sometimes circumstances are grave enough to justify involving oneself in planning decisions that fall outside one's own council district.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sub Rosa Operative Rock's Aggregated Epistles

Some bloggers will do anything to get their names in the paper.

Today marks the first time that we, great-grandson of grocer Zelig Reichbaum, ever read a P-G editorial and thought to ourselves only, "What a bunch of poltroons!"

Blog for Equality Day was an unqualified success.

"... equal parts imbecilic, arrogant and myopic." Should have left it at that (or expanded upon that).

Burgher Jon has been blogging long enough to know what's going on, but not so long that he no longer thinks like a normal person.

We agree with Teacher Wordsmith Madman (we just weren't brave enough to say anything). However, we are still genuinely bemused at why stuff like stage-managing a trip around the world or hyping up a presidential candidacy is so aggravating and awful.

The Allegheny Institute advocates throwing money at the problem.

The Busman provides an update, or at least he tries.

Alright, pencils down. Let's see what you've come up with.

Heart of the Hill to Rise Again

Best news we've heard all year. (Trib, Bonnie Pfister)

The Hill Community Development Corp., which purchased the building in 1995, expects to receive a $500,000 grant from the state's Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. It will be paired with a $250,000 grant received from The Heinz Endowments in May 2007.

Development corporation chair Marimba Milliones said initial preservation work will begin later this year, although another estimated $1.25 million to complete stabilization is needed.

"We need to secure the roof, and work on bracing the left side of the structure," Milliones said. Community input -- and more fundraising -- would precede redevelopment of the building.

"Given its history, we'd like to see . . . a percentage of that space used to celebrate the cultural legacy of the Hill District," Milliones said. "But it's a huge building. Our opportunity for redevelopment is very versatile."

Remember though, when it comes to the remainder of the necessary funding, city redevelopment agencies last year were expressly forbidden from direct investment in Hill District organizations like this one -- and that all funds garnered through the "Neighborhood Partnership Initiative" as part of the tentative CBA will be controlled by what are unfortunately self-avowed rivals of this one.

Yet that's only as of today. If renovation on the massive structure begins later this year and looks promising, and if hearts soften and if minds change, then anything is possible.


Meanwhile, over on the One Hill side of the coin, it appears almost as though city leaders are stringing along neighborhood residents, having cleared for the moment another irritating procedural hurdle and/or public relations meltdown. (C-P Chris Young)

According to Redwood, inking a deal as soon as possible is critical since One Hill is losing precious time to develop the Master Plan with the city, county and Penguins for the 28 acres surrounding the new arena. If the Oct. 1, 2009 deadline for the plan, which is written into the tentative deal released by One Hill, comes and goes, Redwood fears that the Penguins will have the freedom to develop the land as they wish, without community input.

An employee from Urban Design Associates, a design and architecture firm that developed Crawford Square in the Hill District, says master plans can take anywhere from a month to a year to finish. Although 28 acres isn't considered a very large piece of land, its location in an urban setting will require more condensed development. Consequently, plans could be more involved and take longer to finish.

This has played out several times before. The difficulty is, if there are in fact any advocates for effective Penguins sovereignty over the land, they would only need only to repeat this dance one or two times more before the puck drops and time expires.

Even considering that, there's a buried lede in the article:

"I'd be really interested to know what is required by council," says City Council President Doug Shields, adding that he has not yet seen a written contract. "I haven't had the benefit of legal counsel on what we can agree to and what we can't agree to."

We'd be curious also. As courageously as One Hill has labored to negotiate this tentative agreement, and as promising as it looked when the URA signed on, it is still unclear how one quasi-governmental instrumentality and one quasi-exclusionary community coalition can arrange to appropriate functions that ordinarily would be carried out, transparently and with clear lines of accountability, by the Department of City Planning.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Comet Goes Outside!

Last Monday, the FCC held a hearing regarding The Future of the Internet on Carnegie Mellon campus.

Congressman Mike Doyle kicked things off by welcoming the five FCC commissioners and the many illustrious geeks selected to testify before them. He advocated for "an open Internet for everyone", although he, like everyone else, steered just clear of the buzzword Net Neutrality.

Doyle warned us ominously, "Girl Talk could be the fair use dolphins caught in the net of digital piracy so to speak." How true.

Each commissioner got a turn at speaking, most notable to us being Robert McDowell. He scored applause from the CMU crowd by proclaiming that "engineers should produce engineering solutions, not politicians and bureaucrats."

It was unclear whether or not the audience was fully aware that this was a pitch in favor of deregulation, and seemingly against any measures to preserve Net Neutrality, but it should have been clear along with his, "In a powerful and market-driven a la carte environment, [communications companies] must be able to pay back investors."

Local boy done good Mark Cuban professed that Multicast with multiple ISPs is the "Holy Grail" of the net's future. He mixed it up amusingly with a representative from the Google / YouTube. That dude seemed to us incapable of concealing that his company is growing just a bit overwhelmed with the responsibility of monitoring, regulating and delivering EVERYTHING ON THE INTERNET TO EVERYBODY ALL THE TIME, and that quite possibly other entrepreneurs and the march of time are going to change the equation for them.

All in all, the discussion was technical and so far over our heads we strained our necks trying to keep up. Bill Peduto was in attendance and presumably made it all the way through to the end to offer public commentary. If anyone knows what he said, fill us in.


Thursday brought the Transportation Solutions event presented by Pop City at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side. The wifi password for the New Hazlett Theater is "Purple Hazlett", which should give you a clue how to pronounce the theater. And who works there.

State Rep Chelsa Wagner and Port Authority director Steve Bland were two of the three panelists, yet they did not attack each other like Spock and Kirk as we were hoping.

What we learned is that we are not to expect any drastic, tangible, or remotely noticeable improvements in public transit any time soon, or even in the future. This is due to funding, which is also a function of the perception that public transit is "social welfare".

When asked whether anybody in leadership feels mass transit is a high priority and is committed to it, answers all around the panel were a quick and easy "No", although Bland offered that government fragmentation is partly to the blame, and that consolidated governments in the West seem to do better at this. Wagner argued that more urban legislators need to be encouraged to sit on the transportation committee as she does.

Bland says there is much we can improve simply by "better integrating the resources we already have" and providing a "seamless experience", which seems to involve better electronic bus schedules, and possibly a card that can be used on buses and in parking garages. Also he recommended more "infill" development within city and county limits instead of continuing to sprawl outward, which may have been code for TRID development.

When discussing resource allocation, nobody mentioned the possibility that the Port Authority could possibly be made more efficient when it comes to things like management, labor, et cetera ... but as Wagner told us afterwords, this was to be a positive, up-with-people, Pop City style forum ... besides which, Bland she says is really doing an admirable job given the cards he is being dealt.

More still!

Can't decide whether to go see a passion play or a donkey show tomorrow night? Then hie thee over to the Waterfront to check out the one and only MacYapper live, uncensored and unrepentant, to satisfy both cravings at once!

Tomorrow, you can find us (along with a sizable chunk of the blurghosphere) at the Pittsburgh Improv catching John McIntire and Pals performing at Tasteless Comedy Night. Details, blown up very large, are available here.

As you know, McIntire shamelessly (and why not?) rides the coattails of local stand-up ingenue Gabrielle Bonesso. As you may not know, she just finished touring / working with the legendary Richard Lewis. You can read about it extensively on her blog, where you'll also find what may be a preview of tomorrow's "totally tasteless" material:

In other news, I cut my rape and abortion joke last night and I didn’t feel as though I violated my ethics. So that’s good. Tonight, I am cutting my nazi pope bit. I don’t feel like it’s right for this venue…Club crowds are little too mainstream for my taste. Instead, I am going to do my bit about white-guilt and werewolves. We’ll see how that goes…

White guilt AND werewolves. That's our kind of show.

Speaking of comedy: Tunesmith & Anthony produces another gem:

Monday: A Fistful of Bandwidth

We call it must-read material. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

The Allentown Community Development Corp., which she heads, should use its money to clean the streets, he said.

"The place is filthy and they do nothing about cleaning the streets. If you keep your home dirty and filthy, rats move in."

Ms. Hackel said the group operates on less than $8,000 and does not have a budget for street cleaning. "We asked for it in the [Community Development Block Grants] request this year," she said, but the request was denied last year.

Everything about Community Development Block Grants is a vitally important topic (we wonder is there any way to get a city-wide survey of how it is allocated), and almost everything about Community Development Corporations is instructive. We must all bring tighter CDC and CDBG games to the table.

Ms. Doven said the mayor "recognizes that building new houses in a neighborhood does not mean revitalization. For neighborhoods such as Allentown, we have a serious problem with vacant structures and lots. Folding greening into the public safety process is a key part of the puzzle."

The Comet is unsure about folding "greening" into public safety as such a "key" -- it strikes us as maybe only the most visual, demonstrable tactic that is within our present capacity -- but it's not like we have all the answers ourselves! This is a fair, balanced article that touches upon many complexities. We do like how it seems to pinpoint resource allocation.


Because of tight credit as well as a poor economy limiting the number of customers willing to travel and lose money, casino companies large and small are scaling back projects or delaying them. Tropicana Entertainment in Kentucky, Greektown Holdings in Detroit and Legends Gaming in Illinois all have filed for bankruptcy protection. (P-G, Ed Blazina)

It's not the world's best time to build a casino. That's just unfortunate.

Ms. Orie and Mr. Ferlo want a full vetting of all potential operators, including Mr. Bluhm's group.

Full vetting, we are totally on board with. Upending the apple cart and rolling the dice? Seems unnecessarily punitive, all things being equal.


Is Pittsburgh becoming a minor league city? (P-G Perspectives, Glen Meakem)

Oh my goodness, you are not about to wave a bloody Terrible Towel in order to stump for deregulation, lower taxes, and the divine right of corporate interests, are you?

In order to demonstrate success, Mr. Rendell points to his increased financial support of social programs and the teachers union...

Mr. Rendell's policies of higher taxes, increased debt and bigger, more powerful government...

At 9.99 percent, our state corporate net income tax rate remains the second highest in the country...

Forced unionization in both the public and private sectors remains a reality. And there is no cap on punitive damages sought in medical malpractice law suits...

A culture of corruption has been growing...

It is time for Pennsylvanians who care about our future to get involved. We must vote for change. I do not mean the kind of change promised by Mr. Obama...

You know what? What Meakem offers is a mixed bag.

We need government empowered and ambitious enough to take on big communal challenges, but we also need to be constantly on guard against orthodoxy, complacency and inefficiency. We don't necessarily need smaller government, we need better government -- and we don't want growth just for growth's sake, we want sustainable, wholesome growth. We need to come to some accords and accomidations with the invisible hand, not turn our lives and landscapes entirely over to it.

We'll take some DeSantis Republicans together with some Peduto Democrats. That should be enough change to satisfy anyone.


"We plan to build a multilevel parking garage with retail on the first level on some of those lots," said Tony Williams of Sal Williams Real Estate Investments Development Co. Salvatore Williams did not attend yesterday's event.

"It could be anywhere between the 1000 block and the 2000 block, but we're not quite ready with plans yet," Williams said. "Hopefully we can start to build ... within the next 18 months. Then we can drain the parking that goes on those (surface) lots to the garage and use those lots for apartment buildings, offices and retail."

On Thursday, their company will seek city Zoning Board of Adjustment approval to continue to operate a number of the surface lots. The firm is seeking zoning variances and special exceptions... (Trib, Ron DaParma)

Do any of the community groups -- or the community individuals -- in "Uptown" or in the related environs have a position on this? Mr. Williams has long been (ahem) controversial, but he also seems to be a fact of life and one with whom we can possibly work. Anyone?