Friday, July 2, 2010

Hill Leaders, Preservation Community break Bread at Church Meeting

Dr. Kimberly Ellis, AKA Dr. Goddess, AKA the Executive Director of the Historic Hill Institute, facilitated a catered gathering on Tuesday evening at Ebenezer Baptist Church, for the purpose of properly introducing those interested in preserving the Civic Arena to those in whose community it is located.

"Do you know Kimberly Ellis?" the two young white architects seated next to me asked. "She pretty much speaks for the Hill District."

What a difference two years and an election make!


Ellis led off with a slide show update on the progress of historic preservation initiatives already underway in the Hill, including:

  • Greenlee Field (named for Sam Greenlee, a numbers runner, and provider of loans, initial investor in the Crawford Grille for the purpose of "laundering his money")
  • The Kauffman Auditorium at the Irene Kauffman Settlement House
  • The Crawford Grille, which has new investors (including Franco Harris, a retired Pittsburgh Steelers running back)
  • The August Wilson childhood home
  • The New Granada Theater

Summarily, "historic preservation is alive and well in the Hill District".

This history is poised to be leveraged as part of a community development campaign which will promote "Pittsburgh's most famous neighborhood." Ellis explained that although the Hill District does not qualify to be on the National Register of Historic Places, it is exploring forming its own Conservation District.


Nevertheless, "reconnecting the street grid is not of ultimate importance to us," said Ellis on the topic of the 28 acres of the Lower Hill on which the Arena stands. The paramount goals seem to be jobs, community empowerment, and economic and other development which will encourage vitality and livability further up the Hill.

The slide show continued telling the story of urban redevelopment in the Hill, including: neighborhood demolition, arena construction, official plans to extend the Golden Triangle much further east, promises made and the reality which unfolded, and the community response.

It was pointed out several times that the Hill District leaders of that era were initially excited and supportive of coming redevelopment efforts, although little-to-nothing in the way of community jobs, relocation for the displaced, and new low-income housing ever unfolded. After nearly a decade of this disruption and disappointment and the riots following Dr. King's assassination, the Hill fell into disrepute as far as redevelopment energies.

According to Ellis, at a recent meeting with the Penguins, UDA architects stressed that "We'll reconnect your historic street grid!", representing that their plan is "the only way to make the Hill District whole again." Ellis acknowledged that the Penguins' new plans do not actually reconnect anything historic to anything else, but also suggested that the magical palliative of streetwise connections is somewhat beside the point.

This brought discussions to the present. When the Penguins were accorded development rights to the land it became mandatory for them t go through a "Section 106 process" to identify historic assets, gather public input, and assess the effects of a variety of options. Failure to compete the 106 process results in the loss of any federal money going into the project, including for infrastructure. The Sports & Exhibition Authority asserts that they have "about two more meetings" to complete the 106 process, though that claim is controversial.

"We're here!" was one message Ellis was interested in getting across. "We're engaged!" in the processes of determining what is to become of the Lower Hill and the arena itself.

Next on the agenda was testimony from select Hill District witnesses as to their lived Civic Arena experiences, and what specific memories that structure preserves for them.

During the years-long process of hammering forth a "community benefits agreement" with the City, the URA and the Penguins, Kimberly Ellis and some of her compatriots were frequently shouted down and disparaged at meetings of the One Hill coalition for insisting on dredging up "all this history" -- even when that "history" dated back 2007 and a meeting of the Sports & Exhibition Authority. Now the coalition was doing everything it could to make sure its history was related in what it considered the proper measure and context to what they refer to as the "preservation community".

Brenda Tate, whose personal history includes sparking more assertive negotiations for that benefits agreement, led things off by saying, "I'm really not here to bash the arena."

Tate did recall that as construction in the Lower Hill got underway in the 60's, kids began mysteriously transferring out her her grade school classes. She remembers soot and plaster everywhere during those times also, on her clothes and in her lungs. She remembers regarding the eventually completed arena as a bizarre "spaceship", although she did say that as an early concert-goer she was wowed by the spectacle of the arena opening up as it did.

Sala Udin, up next, began, "Everyone knows I'd be glad to bash the Civic Arena. But I won't." Yet his remembrances of the structure were even less positive on balance.

"We don't have a current consensus on what ought to happen to the Lower Hill," he eventually summarized, "but we all have in common a desire to see the rebirth of the Hill District itself."

And later: "We need to make our decision based on our best interests, and what will maximize development throughout the Hill. We have to ensure a development that nourishes the entire Hill.

"And if that building stands in the way of that kind of development, it must come down."

And summarily: "It's not because I hate hockey -- which I do," (a laugh line), "but I would love to see the preservationists fight as hard for the preservation of a people as they do for the preservation of a building. Talk. About. The people."


A certain Dr. Glasgow [sic] was invited next to relate a historical analysis and some pointed though vague recommendations. He said that "hopefully" something will appear in the Post-Gazette this coming Sunday, which will even further lay out his findings and impressions.

I took less notes during his presentation because I was somewhat spellbound, and if something like it does appear in the Sunday P-G you're all in for a real treat.

Among his quick-reference recommendations to the neighborhood were 1) Be careful what you wish for, 2) Don't take anything at face value and 5) Once something gets demolished, you lose all your leverage.

Carl Redwood pointed out that one of the 19 development principles spelled out in the CBA was to "leave no remnant" of the Civic Arena -- but volunteered that that is a plank that "could change" if a credible preservation plan that suits the community's wishes were to come forward. (Another of the 19 development principles was a requirement to reconnect the street grid "with Downtown", and that seems to be morphing.)

Jason Matthews, an official involved with the development group that seemed for a while to entice Kuhn's supermarket to the neighborhood, and is continuing to seek replacement grocers for that development ("We're working hard, and we're moving forward. We're working hard, we're moving forward, and that's all we're allowed to say at this point.") said that "fond memories" of concerts cannot be what the question is about -- it must be about economic benefit.

"You're not going to get a deal done, if you don't have a relationship with the political leadership" Matthews warned.

More speakers followed. There was concern that if the arena is to be preserved, it cannot be permitted to become "a mothballed building". There was pointed skepticism that "that architecture" is going to benefit anybody moving forward. There were pointed admonitions that anyone seeking to deal in that neighborhood must "respect us as human beings."

Yet somehow everybody came up conspicuously short of saying, "I'm against the arena" or "We must tear it down."

And then, two hours into the history lesson and the relaying of impressions, and after establishing by a literal show of hands that everybody in the room learned something during all segments -- Preservation Pittsburgh was invited to present its case.

Scott Leib, volunteer president of Preservation Pittsburgh, held his own shorter slide show which seemed to roughly echo a fair bit of the history covered in the first sessions. A case was made in very general terms that historic preservation can be beneficial for economic development, and can be used as tool to ensure that something enriching to the neighborhood manifests itself on that land.

As for the process being undertaken currently by the SEA, Leib opined, "I think we're all getting snookered" (borrowing the term from Dr. Glasco's historical segment). He predicted it would result immediately in no more than 28 acres of surface parking -- the most valuable surface parking in the city -- and complained that the Penguins have "very little incentive to commence development" any further. In response to some immediate consternation, he agreed that there are deadlines in the lease agreement with the SEA, but insisted, "I don't think it's clear," and reminded the assembled that the Steelers had been permitted to miss deadlines on the North Shore.

After the brief presentation, Marimba Milliones drilled down tightly on one question, as is her practice. "If we decide ultimately that preservation is something we don't want, will you proceed with historic designation efforts?" Her concern was that this would further delay development.

Leib and the preservationists didn't answer the question directly. Instead they suggested that two groups needed one another -- one had an undeniable history in need of a solution, the other had a building with some public processes attached.

At this point at least a couple in the audience began letting less diplomatic impressions be known.

"There is disingenuity here. The approach of the preservation community has been highly problematic," offered Bonnie Laing.

Laing explained that in her opinion, "The preservation community has been privileged" in the discussion, and, "there's a real history of superiority that I see going on. We're being portrayed as sentimental, emotional." Preservationists were even accused of suggesting that the issue be mediated "by therapists" because they believe the community suffers from some sort of mental trauma.

This was met with quite a bit of shock and horror. It was shortly discovered that preservationists had floated the idea of utilizing professional mediators care of the Pittsburgh Mediation Center -- which only recently has been absorbed by the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime. The idea of some neutral mediation was defended again for an instant, but was waved off by a great many attendance.

Although attempting to rally, the preservationists were now accused by Bonnie Laing of approaching the discussions from a "white supremacy" point of view. As Leib and company protested this characterization, Bonnie's husband Justin Laing chimed in to counter, "It doesn't surprise me that would surprise you. You would not be aware of it. That white racial framework is something that you bring with you."

Finally Sala Udin stepped in again to interject, "The preservationists are not the primary enemy here." He brought the focus back to the Penguins and the city, and the deal they had struck.

Someone in the Hill community actually said, "The division may not be as wide as I originally thought."

"We don't like the word, 'Snookered'," Dr. Goddess decided, to pretty much everyone's delight -- and the conversation continued more along the lines of what both sides were trying to do and what they had in common.

Sala Udin had to cut out during the first wave of people cutting out of the gathering, so I caught up with him in the parking lot.

Udin had asserted that if the Civic Arena stands in the way of a development plan that will nurture the Hill District, that arena has to come down. What happens if a plan...

Before I could get the question out of my mouth: "I will fight for it to stay," Udin said.

I asked him, have those who have come out in support of arena demolition -- the Mayor, the URA, other politicians -- have they come forward to offer anything in return for the community's support for demolition? Does the fact that the "power structure" supports demolition make it easier to go along that route?

"No, I wish they would," on the question of whether they had been offered deals. And to the later, "No, because the power structure won't..." and then I couldn't keep up taking notes.

"We're at square one," Udin summarized. "We're at the beginning."

Given how much Udin talked about hockey, I asked him whether he thought the drive for arena preservation was about the Penguins, the stars, the championships.

"A good portion of it, but no I don't confuse them with the Preservation movement," he said. "Those guys are coming at it from a whole 'nother aspect."


Back inside, things seemed to be winding down. Someone suggested that if any memories from the arena deserved to be preserved, it would be the history of urban renewal itself, so everyone could learn. That evoked a room full of sympathy.

Kimberly Ellis picked a few people who would get to speak last and that would be it, except for sidebars in private. David Bear was one of the last speakers.

He thanked Ellis for the history presentations and acknowledged that they were useful, but asked plaintively, "At the same time, I was hoping we'd have some time to get into the nitty gritty of the land, the plans..."

There were some noises to the effect that this would not be the last meeting. [These concerns are fairly well addressed by Ellis in the blog post comments underleaf.]


I had asked my new "two young white architect" friends whether any Hill District residents were there in support of Civic Arena preservation. They pointed me in the direction of Beatrice Binion.

Binion told the Comet that although no longer a resident, she lived there for years and years -- and by next year will have actually worked at the Civic / Mellon arena for fifty years, doing concessions and the like.

I pointed out that she won't quite make it to the Golden Anniversary.

"Yeah, but I was among the first to get moved to the new [arena]," she said.

I asked Binion why she was in favor of historic preservation for the Civic Arena. She answered that with its demolition, "they're not going to give them anything anyway."

"It's not a white-black thing," Binion said, in her opinion. "I'm getting tired of hearing that." She also offered more generally that she was tired of "all this", gesturing toward the remainder of the meeting that was breaking up.

I asked what it is then that she thinks ought to happen to the Civic Arena.

After only a second's pause, she said it'd be nice if they had a skating rink there.

Would people in the Hill be interested in ice skating? I asked a little dubiously.

"Oh yes. Absolutely."

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mayor's Pensions / Parking Draft Agreement Released. Serious Consideration May Begin.

Who is this prodigy and what did he do with Our Mayor?

Mr. Ravenstahl said his planning team has learned from the mistakes Chicago officials made in leasing their parking meters. One criticism was a lack of scrutiny by city legislators.

"Here in Pittsburgh, they have 2 1/2 months," he said of city council members. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

That's two and a half hardcore months now after almost two years of extremely public and straightforward conceptual debate. (For our conceptual take see here and here.)

By now I'm sure you've all read -- really read -- the critical three-part Chicago Reader series on the Daley administration's parking lease deal (1, 2, 3) which has served as the oft-circulated attack piece on the proposal by Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Its own complaints over what went down in Chicago are as follows:

  • HASTE: The authors were outraged that the process was rammed through too quickly and with too little information made available.
  • SECRECY: The authors were outraged that certain financial consultants were chosen without even the pantomime of a public process.
  • STICKER SHOCK: Citizens were outraged and unprepared for rates to increase as they did.
  • CLUMSY: Citizens were outraged that the City and the vendors botched the initial roll-out by trying to move too quickly with parking meter transition.

Thanks in part to Chicago, this Pittsburgh deal is being publicized and scrutinized to death, the Mayor has given Council a 2 1/2 month window with a fleshed-out draft agreement, and Council gave itself $250,000 in the form of its very own financial consultant.

That should really take care of "HASTE" -- and at least the "SHOCK" part of "STICKER SHOCK".

What about secrecy and game playing? Check this out from Part 3 from the Mayor's skeptics' own hit piece. After relating an umpteenth story of Mayor Daley imperiously brushing off concerns about transparency in hiring consultant contractors:

But other cities have found other ways to do business.

For instance, in January Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced that he wanted to explore leasing his city's public parking garages and meters in return for cash he could pour into the city's pension fund. A few weeks later the authority that oversees Pittsburgh's parking system invited firms to submit proposals for an analysis of the idea. It received nine responses and determined four were qualified. Next a committee made up of city officials, an authority attorney, an authority board member, and a union representative interviewed the firms before recommending a winner at a public meeting of the authority's board. Board members then approved up to $100,000 for the study.

The winner was Scott Balice Strategies, a woman-owned financial advisory firm based in Chicago. (Chicago Reader, Joravsky & Dumke)

Woman-owned. Ha! How can you beat that?

Balice Strategies went on to advise the Ravenstahl administration through its undertaking of a similar public process (very un-Chicago) which selected investment bank Morgan Stanley to further advise and construct the concessionaire's agreement and to put it on the market. So especially considering City Council's new additional study, this really has been a heck of a lot more transparent and by-the-book.


It bears mentioning that this Chicago Reader piece seems to be the most critical piece on the web about the Chicago lease deal. Although some critics remain, other people are now going around with their heads held high and lauding what happened in Chicago as a model, given it had some unfortunate problems.

One part had to do with faulty equipment, ascribed to a too-speedy and aggressive roll out of new parking meters. Let's not do that.

The other part was pricing:

Even without this information, the city council voted 40-5 to approve the deal, and within weeks Chicago Parking Meters as much as quadrupled hourly rates at meters all over town, igniting outrage among motorists. (Joravsky & Dumke Part II)

Ah! Outrage! We don't want quadrupling!

Some neighborhood parking meter rates will quadruple next month. Neighborhood spots that used to cost a quarter an hour will cost $1 an hour---and jump to $2 an hour in 2013. (Chicago Tribune, Mihalopoulos and Dardick)

Wait a minute. Parking meter rates quadrupled to a dollar an hour? It used to cost a quarter in Chicago to park at a meter for an hour? Those citizens were clearly spoiled. It seems reasonable that they should have experienced a sizable increase.

The cost of an hour's metered parking Downtown would increase from $2 to $2.50 next year and go up another 50 cents annually in each of the following four years. (Post-Gazette, Joe Smydo)

So in 2015, an hour of parking Downtown on the street will cost you $4.50. A shade more than a doubling.

Are we spoiled also? It bears reminding ourselves at this point that we are an old city with a lot of aging infrastructure, increasing responsibilities and many more obligations. If market forces can be part of the solution, why not take these into account? Is it that necessary, or that effective, to specially value casual business traffic Downtown in this way? Lots of people already are Downtown for their office jobs (all day lot / garage parkers) and there is an especially alluring Cultural District and other amenities (evening lot / garage parkers).

And what about Pittsburgh's garages?

The deal also would bring rates at parking authority garages in line with rates charged at privately owned facilities, Mr. Ravenstahl said.

Rates at some authority-owned garages would go up $1 to $2.25 per day next year. Right now, rates at the authority's Downtown garages are $9.75 to $13.75 per day.
(P-G, Joe Smydo)

I've been to other cities. That statement alone is not a scientific survey, though we will be provided with those -- but I'm telling you, our garage parking is on the cheap side. It costs a lot to lug your car around, especially where there is great congestion. Fact of life.


By all accounts Chicago has calmed down, and as a city is doing pretty well for itself. But given the above, what does that leave from the outrages that consumed Chicago for a time, and that we are being instructed to fear here?

Precious little.

What are our alternatives?

There is a proposal to Borrow All the Money Now, only to pay it back with interest later, and to raise parking rates to pay for it to the extent that we can anyway -- all the while maintaining local politics' inefficient present political control over a non-core accessory function.

There is a Nonsense proposal about giving our garages and parking meters directly to our pensioners, somehow, and hoping that's a good idea.

There is allegedly a Double-Super-Secret Mystery proposal being circulated among some crafty officials, which now is starting to seem like the one relying on conspiracy, timing and manipulation -- assuming it exists and is not a personal-positioning ruse.

Then there is the real idea that after all this time -- virtually at the denouement of Pittsburgh's experiment in Act 47 Financially Distressed status -- we will tell our fiscal watchdogs and the state Legislature (which actually acted to change their Municipal Pension laws on our behalf) to go sit and spin, dare them to seize control over our pension fund, and more than likely wind up in court and lose.

All of this has got me to thinking. It would be a tragically Pittsburghese, fishbowl-politics move, if we crucified a perfectly satisfactory and even surreptitiously beneficial solution, one which would get us through our pensions crisis until our debt service payment levels drop off dramatically in 2017 and until we can begin renegotiating the underlying employment anachronisms -- an uncommonly innovative and absolutely progressive initiative -- just because some of us can't seem to tolerate the person enunciating it.

Mass Transit: Austerity Measures Ahead

Here's what seems to be most pressing with the Port Authority of Allegheny County:

The $372.6 million spending plan passed Friday will require the board next month to propose specific service cuts and a fare increase worth $2 million. There will be public hearings in August and September; the cuts will be approved in the fall and take effect in January -- unless the Legislature passes new sources of revenue such as higher gas taxes, higher vehicle registration fees or new tolls. (Trib, Matthew Santoni)

Alright, first issue: Why only "service cuts" and "a fare increase" to address the $2 million gap? Why not "other cuts"? Or even "new revenue sources"?

Surely Hunts Ketchup would pay half a million dollars for the naming rights to the tunnel to the North Shore! Easy!

Council members were largely supportive of the Port Authority's efforts to cut costs by $52 million in the past four years... (Tribid)

Ah, yes. Just so.

Okay, we should certainly scrutinize those cuts and determine if other potential actionable cuts elsewhere exist, and without dwelling unnecessarily on the past -- and we will -- but let's say now, for the sake of argument, it's really time to Find More Money.

Second issue: Of the options the state Legislature has it before it, I see no conspicuous problem with raising the gas tax. Yes it's cutting off our nose to spite our face, but I don't find myself immediately opposed to spiting our face in this way, if it would hasten the straightening out of that deviated septum of ours.

Third issue: If the State doesn't rally somehow, we can cut runs on the bus lines running the very most frequent runs I suppose. Sorry, if you want to get somewhere critical by bus, you have to learn the schedule and you might have to cram in there real tight. Maybe that includes the Airport shuttle too.

Devil's Advocate: I suppose we could always stage a wildcat lockout and start anew with fresh employees ... but I wouldn't recommend that.

At Any Rate: Go to the public meetings and tell them what you think. They're in August and September. So you have about that much time to think this over.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tuesday: Gearing Up for Summer 2010

PARKING/PENSIONS: Drama subsiding. The parking study will go forward with the previously determined funds, those having been positively ID'd. The mayor's office and the ICA all agree now, it seems. (P-G, Joe Smydo; Trib, Adam Brandolph)

It sure looked for a while there as though the mayor and even the ICA desired to prevent the parking study from occurring, in order to strengthen the mayor's leasing plan as an option. At the same time, having read between the lines at FSG and among their principals' bios around the Net, I think it's just as fair to say that some Council members really are hiring them in order to attack that very proposal.

It reads like the folks at FSG specialize in work as "expert witnesses", as in, once you are in court, suing somebody, defending yourself, pursuing your share out of a bankruptcy, litigating or re-litigating a contract -- when you have a case to make and it needs persuasive but authoritative-sounding support. This does seem like a distinct service from providing dispassionate critiques on the front end. Not to say they're incapable of rendering that service, but their bread and butter clearly seems to be elsewhere. Only fair to note that for later.


CPRB / GOVERNANCE: City Solicitor Regan cites the "intent of the code" in arguing that the ACLU is wrong and that Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is in the legal clear on how he's dealing with the royally jacked up Citizen's Police Review Board situation (Trib, Adam Brandolph).

POLICING / PUBLIC SAFETY: A long and tense police standoff in Homewood ended yesterday with nobody harmed. Thank goodness. (P-G, Nereim & Fenech; Trib, Team Effort)

At least some in the community feel the police went a bit heavy by cordoning off so much of the neighborhood. The kind of thing that might not have happened elsewhere. Might not have happened had Stanton Heights not occurred of course. Also of note, our old friends the tear-gas canisters and the LRAD made a return appearance.

In addition, the much anticipated Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime (PIRC) received what would seem to be its final official authorization today, and should be ready to go into effect. Council members Rudiak and Kraus successfully tacked on an amendment tying continued funding to satisfactory progress reports. There was some discussion of how similar "accountability" measures ought to be attached to a greater variety of initiatives.


DEVELOPMENT/PRESERVATION: An ALDI grocery store may set up shop on E. Carson St., a historic district. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones) This should provide a smaller-scale laboratory for examining the pro's, con's and compromises possible with adapting a reverence for history to the yen for progress.

In addition, please note that I've changed the address for Reuse the Igloo! to a preferable site with greater content. Please make a note of it. There have been arguments flying around dissing the SEA's process along the lines of what the State commission implied; read the latest one by Jeff Slack in the Trib.


ENERGY / ENVIRONMENT: Councilman Patrick Dowd has been tweeting and Facebooking about having toured a Marcellus Shale drilling site yesterday. He mentioned that industry security was following his party around in a somewhat shady manner, but hasn't yet shared as widely what he took away if anything. Lots of folks are eagerly anticipating whether we're going to find drilling company names in Dowd's campaign finance records -- as one way of deciphering whether his zoning bill is a sincere effort to prevent as much environmental degradation as possible.

Here is an article in which the drilling industry concedes that municipal governments presently get to exercise some zoning discretion (Times-Tribune, Laura Legere). The question is, can we ever authoritatively determine or pro-actively affect how much? Local control should be a popular issue.

Great(?*) Piece on HB 2479, or "Arizona PA"

*-See comments.

by Scott Vine of Lancaster, published in the Post-Gazette. It merits a sizable selection:

Consider the possible effects of a law requiring police in Pennsylvania to check the legal status of anyone of whom they have "reasonable suspicion." Consider my son's baseball team, which is well-coached by a Latino and a Jewish American and whose players belong to families of various ethnic backgrounds. We come together weekly to enjoy the national pastime.

Imagine one Saturday the kids are playing and the police have a reason to be in the parking lot. Two officers approach and ask each parent who looks Hispanic for his or her papers (assuming the process would unfold like that in other countries and that the white and African-American parents would not be asked).

We watch this, as do the children. What does this teach them? When the police leave, what remains?

Go read the full piece. And here is a link to the website and to the report mentioned, and shown above. I feel like this proposal would do awful things for our regional and global economic competitiveness.