Friday, November 20, 2009

All Eyes on the Hill District

Firstly: run don't walk to this week's City Paper. I'll excerpt a few bits but it's better to read the whole articles. First there is a fretful general update on the impact of the loss of Evan Frazier at this "critical juncture", but then there is an offset item on a new disquieting front:

The Pittsburgh Penguins apparently skipped an important step last month in constructing a hotel near their new hockey arena. And by doing so, they may have violated the terms of their pledge to the Hill District, the community-benefits agreement (CBA). (CP, Chris Young)

Amongst the grocery store, the community-driven master plan, and the First Source job center, one would have thought the execution of the job center was the easy layup.

Carl Redwood, who played a significant role in getting the CBA signed as chairman of the community coalition One Hill, admits that the Penguins "technically" violated the CBA. But he counsels restraint about the hotel project. "We're not going to get all upset," he says. "We anticipate that all future [job] openings will be shared with the First Source Center." (ibid)

I guess someone has to be smoothly conciliatory what with Mr. Frazier taking a backseat, but the above reminds me very much of all professional and trusting reassurance that we heard during the period before the unplanned burning of that first CBA proposal and the unrelated combustion the URA -- you know, the period where nothing at all got accomplished for months and months on end. When I think about those contractors' and developers' self-righteous demands that the community deserves nothing and shovels need to start digging into the earth, I feel that forgetting the Job Center was not just an oversight.

And then there's the community-driven Master Planning process -- which was glossed upon just barely in recent news articles about the fate of the Mellon Arena.

SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo said after Mr. Pfaffmann spoke at the board meeting that there would be a public process on the proposed demolition.

The SEA board yesterday hired Oxford/Chester LLC at a cost not to exceed $277,180 to help in the master planning for the 28 acres, to conduct a hazardous materials investigation at the site, and to help coordinate the possible sale of arena assets. (P-G, Mark Belko; see also Trib, Jeremy Boren)

All things being equal, one would think it would be better to preserve and adapt a notable asset rather than destroy it -- provided the structure and the area can be genuinely productive. Hopefully ingenious minds are on this and very well along.

Reusing Mellon Arena, Mr. Morehouse said, "probably" would prevent the team from restoring the street grid between Downtown and the Hill, one removed when the Igloo was built and now viewed as a mistake. (ibid)

Is this an actual indication that the Penguins intend to use their influence on the planning process to restore the street grid? In my view that would be really positive.

But the point of all this is that the Penguins, according to that pesky, celebrated CBA, ought to be merely a co-chair of the planning process. There was a Neighborhood Steering Committee convened made up of appointments by genuine public officials and everything. Yet we know that track is in jeopardy, despite nonspecific and patronizing talk of the community being allowed to "have input".

Also today, the URA board unanimously approved a $350,000 contract with CHPlanning Ltd. of Philadelphia to help in the development of a master plan for the Hill District. The hiring was delayed last month by Ms. Payne, a URA board member who wanted more time to review the qualifications of the firm and two other finalists for the work. Based on that review, she said she was comfortable with CHPLanning's hiring.

"I think [the firm] will do a wonderful job," she said.
The master plan is expected to look at the entire Hill neighborhood as well as 28 acres of land to be developed by the Penguins along Centre Avenue where Mellon Arena now sits. (P-G, Mark Belko)

This is the thing which according to some should have happened a month ago, and according to many more could and should have happened maybe six months to a year ago. This last month's delay was to get Tonya Payne up to speed. The previous months? Unknown.

As it is, there's a "drop dead" date in February on which the Penguins inherit sole sovereignty over the planning process -- a date which Councilman-elect Daniel Lavelle already said publicly will probably need to be pushed back. How it can be pushed back is another story.

So with the Job Center and Master Plan aspects of the tripod in considerable distress, finally there is the Grocery Store:

City Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who represents the Hill, said today she, the Ravenstahl administration, and officials with the city Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Hill House Association are expected to meet with Save-A-Lot representatives shortly after Thanksgiving. (ibid)

This would seem to not be perfectly in line with this recent sentiment:

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl called [Kuhns'] decision "discouraging," and stressed that the city was looking for a full-service grocery store at the site. (P-G, Vivian Nereim)

I interpret this as a sudden gust of coolness and accountability by an elected leader who understands the depth and importance of promises made to a used and abused neighborhood -- followed quickly by a veto by nervous bureaucrats.

I know, I know: ooga booga market fundamentals, booga wooga prevailing wage legislation. But you try raising a family without a pharmacy or a decent selection of healthy food within easy reach. Save-a-Lots are depressing and I hope the other options are still being actively pursued.

[Ravenstahl] was optimistic about a grocery store, noting that Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle made his billions of dollars largely in the supermarket industry. Mr. Burkle "has connections and the experience" to get a deal done, the mayor said. (P-G, 12/15/07, Mark Belko)

Another spontaneous gust of coolness that went unheralded at the time. How about a return to that idea?

There has been, and occasionally still is, a lot of talk about "this time, we're building an arena and a neighborhood". There is still enough time to accomplish that challenging, unique civic task, if there is only the requisite desire and political will in the right quarters. We don't need a new neighborhood called "Hillside" and a big wall with profoundly disappointed Pittsburghers on the other side.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

City Strategy for Nonprofits Becomes a Strategy

This is big news that needs to be lauded:

Legislation quietly introduced Tuesday in Pittsburgh City Council gives the city's nine lawmakers veto power over almost all new construction by big tax-exempt institutions -- effective immediately. (P-G, Rich Lord)

This is a first step towards handling the non-profit conundrum the way cities like Boston handle it: "Contribute payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to local governments in a significant amount, and on a long-term basis -- or you don't get to build, expand and play like you're accustomed."

"If approved, council will look at [construction plans] on a case-by-case basis," said Councilman Ricky Burgess, author of the measures. "I view this as restoring the proper role of council." (ibid)

If so, then we can assume this is not part of the game of "poker" that is being played regarding the Student Tax and the 2010 budget. If it's the proper role then it's the proper role -- and it is the proper role.

My only concern is that we may go this route briefly and then quickly settle for the amount we happen to require right now, locked in over the next 50 years -- rather than for an amount commensurate with what the nonprofits can afford and what their tax-exempt land is costing us. Of course, there is a data collection element to the raft yacht of legislation introduced by Burgess yesterday, so maybe this danger already has been anticipated.

Timing-wise, this is interesting in about eight different ways. For one thing there is the current wrangling with the universities. For another thing there is the straight-up politics: as a move which significantly empowers Council -- not the Planning Commission or the ZBA -- this is not a move that would ordinarily overjoy our Mayor. For a third thing there is the small matter of a Council presidency vote coming up -- Burgess has not been this active at legislating since his first four months in office, let alone legislating counter to the wishes of development interests. So he might be trying to reestablish some political individuality in the wake of having taken a few warranted hits over that.

Then again, it must be noted that Burgess ran on a platform of wishing to rescind or amend Act 55 outright in order to tax some of these non-profits, so this cannot completely be described as a shift. And it can't be denied that other councilors have ratcheted up either the legislative or communicative activity in recent weeks, in line with their own brands.


On a related and I want to say less important note: Mayor Ravenstahl held a press conference today to demonstrate that he has the five votes in Council to pass the Student Tax by way of assembling those five individuals next to him. It's clearly important to the Mayor to get that tax into the court system, but at the same time we can see it's a big bit of posturing. Honestly I wouldn't be surprised if, having established the right to that tax and prevailed upon the non-profits to pony up voluntarily, Ravenstahl rescinds the tax and looks like a hero. Then in response, Councilor Peduto released a brief press statement assailing the Mayor for "playing poker with people's lives" and doing it badly. That's an important distinction. I'm all for playing poker, especially if you find yourself in a poker game -- but you don't want to look at your cards, bug out your eyes, and go "Wow! I can't loose with this hand! I bet $10,000! You better fold, man."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dan Onorato: Running Man [*]

This is great!
Allegheny county executive and gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato announced a government reform package today that would cap political contributions, eliminate so-called walking-around money and withhold state lawmakers' pay if they don't pass a budget on time.

Onorato, speaking to about 60 Rotary Club members Downtown, promised that on his first day in the governor's office he would ban gifts to executive branch officials, extend the one-year ban on lobbying by former state officials to two years, and require more detailed disclosure of lobbyists' contacts with state officials. (Trib, Mike Wereschagin)

And it gets better!

I can't wait until he submits identical legislation to Allegheny County Council, and pushes for it with all guns blazing. After all, if it's good enough for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the event that Mr. Onorato gets elected, it's certainly good enough for us here in Allegheny County while we still have him all to ourselves! The same principles apply, right? Now that I think about it, I'm feeling unprotected from all these corrosive political influences which Mr. Onorato believes are so dangerous. I'm glad we can expect these strong legal assurances on the home front any moment now.

*-UPDATE: Rival Democratic candidate Tom Knox is starting to raise questions pertaining to credibility. (Early Returns)

Wednesday: The Library's Last Stand?

Today, city legislation will be voted upon to transfer $600,000 from the now-relaxed fuel fund to Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh.

Think of it as CPR to be administered while the cardiologist is tied up in traffic. Why walk away and let the patient die on the sidewalk when there are still perfectly viable options to be pursued?

And now, the big news:

But by yesterday afternoon Mr. Ravenstahl said a hybrid of those approaches "would be a reasonable solution, and one that, on its face, I would be supportive of. But the critical piece of that, that I would need in order to not make cuts this year -- significant cuts -- is getting that tuition tax passed and out there into the court system." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Um, if the bureaucratic pruning and the patchwork of revenue generation is sufficient to fill the budget hole (I won't even address the latest revival of the symphony "GAH! Police and fire cuts! Your homes will be burned and robbed!"), why would we hold out to levy the Student Tax?

But Mr. Ravenstahl said that without the "threat" of a tuition tax, they'll feel that $5.5 million over three years is enough. "There's nothing that compels them to do anything more, so they're able to get away with that." (ibid)

A-HA! So it is that we're playing chess!

I would be on board with maneuvers such as this -- have been begging for them, in fact -- but why not be up-front about them to better mobilize the rank-and-file support of the people? And related to that, if we're trying to alienate the non-profits, was taxing tuition optimal? There had to have been ways to apply the squeeze that were more appealing -- and did not involve impugning the civic worth of some constituents.

Finally, this business of accusing the ICA of being controlled by shadowy, conflicted, greedy forces, is starting to sound like -- well, like me. And my schtick has a spotty record of success.

Related: hopefully this means County Council is sticking to its guns. Its plan, though its legality also remains a mystery, seems a lot better targeted. (P-G, Rich Fitzgerald)

More stories:

Aiming to stop Pittsburgh government from subsidizing "poverty-level jobs," a coalition of labor, environmental, religious and community organizations joined City Council members yesterday to propose wage floors for certain workers on city-backed development projects and contracts. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Good start! The "prevailing wage" is actually kind of a crummy wage, and this doesn't address the issue of additional obligations that might come with public subsidies, but this sets an excellent baseline. I knew the 2009 Council had it in'em.

In what officials said would be the largest grant ever made directly to the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has offered the district $40 million for sweeping initiatives to maximize teacher effectiveness. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Here's an uncomfortable question if you're me: would the Gateseses have consented to this "intensive partnership" had our School District not set off on this noteworthy campaign of closing beloved schools and ruthlessly reorganizing them? (If that's what impressed them, we could say it was a real blessing in disguise that Schenley had that asbestos emergency, huh?).

"It's going to be a year of frustration" between the Penn Circle work and the construction of the Target, but "it's really all towards the future progress of East Liberty," Hogan said. (Trib, Matthew Santoni)

It's been half a century worth of frustration at Penn Circle as it is. Besides which, straightening that infrastructure nightmare strikes me as a "community benefit". Celebration time, come on!

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Band: The Pretenders

The song: Middle of the Road

BREAKING: ICA Throws Down Gauntlet [**]

Sciortino, McNees & Co. galumphed all the way to the Post-Gazette Editorial Suites to reveal this:

The state-picked Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority is poised to reject Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's $453.8 million budget because it doesn't go far enough to cut costs and includes a tax that may not be enforceable, officials said this morning. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Wonder if the administration will take them up on their specific suggestions, or try something even more creative.

*-UPDATE: Lots of uproar over how the ICA only put forth these objections now, and I have a theory. This could be the beginning of a new phase for how the state overlords treat the Ravenstahl administration. Until now it was always, "For goodness sake, let's not embarrass the boy! He gets a lot of business done for the Governor, you know, and we can't be party to letting anyone into power who might rouse rabble and stir trouble in our colony." Now however, for the first time, Ravenstahl's political position is utterly assured -- so the ICA can forget its coddling and its "conditional approval" of a month ago, and come straight out with, "No actually, your budget is no good sir, try again only with less money this time."

**-UPDATE: As Mayo livetweets this morning's meeting:

Oy. Where to start?

Monday: Everything but the Politics (Kinda)

Important things first.

"They're clearly the best team in the division," Steelers safety Ryan Clark told reporters. "I'd give my left arm to play them again.'' Maybe in the playoffs. (T. Star, Garth Woolsey)

Ryan Clark is being classy, but I'm sorry. Did anyone watch that game and witness the Bengals playing like some kind of elite team? Did anyone see the Steelers playing -- um, period? The Benglas performed pretty well, but it was the Black and Gold putting in a very grey and bronze effort which was the problem.

If this all gets the Steelers players humble and keyed up for next time (and there will be a next time), then great. But I'm not buying what the sports media is selling this week about the Bengals. I sure hope the Bengals are, though.


Here we go again:

The 2006 restructuring dealt only with elementary, K-8 and middle schools. DeJong's plan would close two high schools -- Oliver on the North Side and Peabody in East Liberty -- with entrenched identities. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Comments reserved until I learn what I might be talking about.


Lots of people are commenting on the proposed Student Tax and what we might do instead in its place. The Mayor asked for ideas and he's starting to get them, though none of them are perfect yet.

Rep. Bob Freeman suggests taking the 18 percent tax on wine and liquor -- long called the "Johnstown Flood Tax" because it was implemented to meet the 1936 crisis -- and dedicate it to Pennsylvania's ongoing, slow-motion nightmare of city financing. (P-G, Brian O'Neill)

That'd be great, except elsewhere in the article we are assured it won't happen.

Yarone Zober, Ravenstahl's chief of staff, said the mayor has spoken with Mr. Freeman about his bill and welcomes any relief to communities that host tax-exempt organizations. Mr. Zober said when the mayor met with university presidents a couple of weeks ago, he didn't specifically mention this bill, but told them, "We need your help. We need you to be lobbying in our behalf." (ibid)

Well -- why won't it happen? Can we organize something? Get a few more folks involved?

And if the Governor is the problem -- what do our gubernatorial hopefuls think about the idea?

At day's end, Luke's Fluke is the direct result of Ravenstahl's refusal to cut costs when and where he could have in years past. Consolidation of city functions -- purchasing, parks, trash collection, snow removal, insurance, street repair and others -- with their direct counterparts in Allegheny County government would be a good start. (Trib, Joseph Sabino Mistick)

I would have loved to see that as well on its own merits, but in fairness there is some question as to whether the cost savings would have totaled those figures and have been realized in the short-term.

But if Ravenstahl really believes that all our nonprofits should be contributing more for city services, he should show some political courage, fight them head-on and not try to get to them through our kids. (ibid)

That is good stuff.

Meanwhile it should be noted that Doug Shields was the first to strongly recommend to the ICA that it must get together and make a ruling on the Student Tax, adding:

Believe me, I’ve already heard from a number of city residents who presently pay their fair share of wage and property taxes who would be paying “more than their fair share” because they are also enrolled in a post secondary educational institution within the city. If this is to be enacted I would argue that there is going to be a need for exemptions. (Correspondence)

And Bill Peduto sent out an e-mail to supporters with the subject, "Moving Backward" also assailing the tax, and advising of an announcement probably later in the week of a "better idea" for balancing the budget.


Health care! Yeeeeaargh!

In this case it's everyone's moral imperative (those who oppose abortion rights do so with the same authentic moral fervor as those who support them) against everyone's other moral imperative (those who believe decent health care is a human right versus those who believe it is no such thing). (P-G, David Shribman)

It sounds like Shribman has intentionally or unintentionally bought into a conservative framework of the issue. Advocates for public health care do not need to believe that decent health care is a human right (and many of them don't). They only need to believe it is a good idea if you are a country. I do not believe for example that regular oil changes are a basic automotive right to which my car is entitled. However, I know that if I don't change its oil regularly it will run poorly and break down on me, and then I'll be a sad sack public transportation and walking person, and my options and earning potential will be limited. We're not asking for health care to be humane -- we're asking for health care so we can get back to beating up on China and the E.U.

Elsewhere in Schrib's column, I think he runs afoul of 2PJ's frequent point that Stupak does not simply prohibit funding of abortions, but strongly disincentivizes plans in the private sector from offering the option of covering abortions.


Back to the City. As if pensions weren't bad enough:

"[The 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 2006 Chrysler Sebring convertible and 2007 Buick Lucerne are] totaled," [a guy from Squirrel Hill] said. "It's heartbreaking." (P-G, Rich Lord)

There! Cars! Are you interested in the Water Authority yet, Pittsburgh??

On Friday, Mr. Kenney confirmed that the authority has been considering a 5 percent rate increase since September. A draft budget includes a $9 million gap, half of which would be filled from the rate hike, the other half from the authority's $38 million savings account. A board vote could come Dec. 11.

The authority didn't raise rates this year or last, but before that had raised rates every year from 2003 through 2007, compounding to a 50 percent hike. (ibid)

And that will only pay for the right to continue to be in this deteriorating situation.

Last year the authority's debt surpassed that of the city government, which has a budget three times the size of the water system's. That was driven by the authority's decision to enter into a complex $414 million debt package that included instruments called swaps, in which the authority and finance firms make payments to each other. The amounts of the payments shift as variable rate debt interest rates change. (ibid)

That made a bad situation almost comedic. And it was not impossible to know at the time that that maneuver was a risky maneuver to make on the behalf of the public, and we should remember that. But here we are.

The region, and authority, will likely turn to the federal government for help, but can't count on getting much, said Mr. Strauss. "That's like planning on the tooth fairy," he said. (ibid)

You know what? If you have baby teeth, and you know your parents are attentive and at least somewhat affluent, then relying on the tooth fairy is a safe bet.

We can demonstrate that we are dealing with other problems. This is public infrastructure. Much of these are legacy costs that do not even particularly fall into the "poor decisions of the past" category. There is still a favorable atmosphere for "economic stimulus". We should be able to make a strong case here. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised we haven't heard anything already.