Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2014: Morning in Midlandish Appalachia!!

The overweening issues are twain in number:

To the bafflement of some of his colleagues on council, Mr. Peduto wants to remain in the program, even though it means continuing to answer to state overseers. The incoming mayor believes the city is still in a precarious financial position. 
"It's not a question," he said. "We must stay under Act 47." (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

Raise your hands if you're baffled.

As the city moves forward, though, city Controller Michael Lamb warns that the opportunities to put money typically used for city operations into capital projects will diminish, as expenditures rise faster than revenues[…] 
Mr. Lamb warned that the city will continue to struggle to fund infrastructure maintenance and predicted that operational surpluses will diminish as expenditures outpace revenues. (P-G, Balingit Deux)

City Controller Michael Lamb is a lot of things, but he's never baffled.

Mr. Ravenstahl, a Democrat, hopes that the Republican takeover of Harrisburg increases the chances of cities moving to defined-contribution plans. This is bigger than party loyalty. 
"The system needs overhauled entirely,'' Mr. Ravenstahl said. (P-G, Brian O'Neil, 3 yrs ago)

That's one idea.


And then there is this:

Urban Affairs Officer Valerie McDonald-Roberts said all subcommittees on her team emphasized the need for changes stemming from the grassroots. 
“It needs to come from the ground up, from the people, from the residents,” she said. (Trib, Melissa Daniels)

That old thing.

First let me say this about municipal park rangers: true, I was a little amused at first.

But the more I think about it, a limited professional interdisciplinary team amongst the Departments of Public Works, Public Safety and Innovation and Performance could be just the thing for those "sticky situations" in this heavily forested city and to develop knowledge bases that could prove creative and constructive down the road. Perhaps during disaster relief operations we'll even be able to send them north of the Wall.  *-UPDATE: More accurate description of team recommendation from John J. Chapman, Comet FB.

Second, the full-bore version of the Office of the Mayor-elect's City Ethics Hearing Board transition team recommendations are archived here:

UPDATE / CORRECTION: Under Transparency, while the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics annual report is a good one (pdf) the City of Oakland Public Ethics Commission annual report (pdf) we thought particularly boffo.

There is not any stopping us now! We're on the move. We do believe the worst is behind us.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Bus Rapid Transit: A Smorgasbord of Improvements, Rife with Perils

Aaron McFarling's Blog

BRT looks like the big new public works project headed down the chute for quality assurance control in this City of Champions.

"This is an economic development project," clarifies Port Authority interim CEO Ellen McLean. "It gives us a chance to add amenities in the third biggest corridor in the state," including "significant transit efficiency opportunities."

In addition to the common features of bus rapid transit schemes as distinguished from conventional routes -- differently designed vehicles, dedicated and separated lanes, smart signaling etc. -- proponents of the project in Pittsburgh are intending to provide a host of both economic and infrastructure development benefits along the corridor between Downtown and Oakland.

"Above all we've learned BRT is a vehicle for community vitality as well as mobility," says Court Gould of Sustainable Pittsburgh, an organization which has driven the community input process thus far.

Many of the benefits will be centered around Port Authority stations where riders should be able to get in out of the weather, purchase passes, and receive real-time information on arrivals.

"We're working with UPMC on a model station," says McLean, at or near the corner of Atwood and 5th Ave. "A big thing for developers is the permanence of the stations."

Stations should similarly provide development opportunities in the middle of the route, such as Uptown, but such details are yet to be determined.

Two things hold up the process in terms of providing specifics to examine before a federal grant deadline in October.

First, the Port Authority is waiting on the Peduto administration to arrive, appoint and provide direction to somebody on the project Steering Committee -- which also includes the County, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the Allegheny Conference and Sustainable Pittsburgh.

"Remember, this is a City project technically," says McLean. "The financing will likely be TIF".

In recompense for the public financing, the City is likely to seek infrastructure upgrades beyond even that which will be necessary to operate the bus rapid transit, such as bike lanes -- real, raised up, separated-from-traffic bike lanes, for example.

"And you're also opening up streets for things like water and sewer," suggests McLean, though she clarifies she does not want to get ahead of City determinations.

Second, a preliminary engineering and environmental study is underway and set to come back with information on preferred routes, station locations, streetface design, roadway signaling, noise impacts, historic impacts and potential displacement.

It is still unknown whether BRT buses would be better off heading down Forbes and back on 5th, for example, and those determinations will have long-term effects.

There are a lot of possibilities, and a lot of unknowns that need to be known, before the project can begin to move forward. Once it begins, transformations will likely need to be taken on in stages.

The "New Starts" grants of under $250 million for transportation projects "are enormously competitive," warns McLean. In order to win one Pittsburgh would need to bring "total commitment."


There are a variety of concerns circulating about BRT in the public:

  1. It could distract the Port Authority from restoring service cuts
  2. It could ruin efforts to expand light rail to Oakland
  3. It could make the corridor impractical for automobiles
  4. It could bypass poor communities
  5. It could gentrify poor communities
  6. It could prove not worthwhile in terms of improved service
  7. It could be a Trojan horse for future privatization

Call that a mixed bag.

Creepypasta Wiki
There are differences between operating funds and capital funds, and still others among grant money and TIF proceeds. If an organization like Port Authority is fundamentally so incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, then we may as well resign ourselves to failure in all things.

The argument about light rail is more interesting. It was perhaps most eloquently put by one of Pittsburgh greatest electronic heroes of rationality and justice: that the urge to seek BRT is symptomatic of institutional myopia and a conception of transit as a reaction to, not a driver of, economic development.

"The community has decided they want something now" after so many decades of nothing much at all, states McLean at the Port Authority.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether a completed BRT would ultimately or for all time preclude the pursuit of work on expanding light rail east. It is at least theoretically possible that BRT stations can be spaced where plans for T stations have already been drawn up; or that on that shining day when the T is permitted to grow, that BRT resources can be reprogrammed elsewhere.

Concerns about automobile traffic should be addressed in the study, McLean says, but she does not anticipate it should be an insurmountable obstacle.

"I don't know about you, but right now you ride in the middle three lanes," of automobile traffic in Uptown, she says -- not as much the far left or the far right or left lane.

How about whether the convenience and prosperity is going to bypass the communities BRT, well, passes by?

"People believed that because BRT is coming in, we're not going to operate that local service," affirms McLean. But she denies that is the case. Similarly, the mere presence of the concern about gentrification raises questions about a concern over bypassing communities.

Now, in doing our own research, the Comet heard a surprising number of people simply saying transit service between Oakland and Downtown was already smooth and acceptable. Is it really worthwhile to shave 5 minutes off of a 10 minute trip?

Port Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie offered a critique of that anecdotal research: we were talking only to transit riders. "There are an equal number of people who don't ride the bus, because it stops at every corner," he argued. This is a way to grow the total ridership.

The argument about sneaky privatization, perhaps the one most terrifying to local Democrats, rests upon the suspicion that by upgrading and making distinct certain high-capacity routes, that must be the first step in marketing them to private interests. It is a hard speculation to address.


Court Gould at Sustainable Pittsburgh advises, "The on-going study process has this optimism driving the interest in ways in which BRT can extend prosperity to all in the downtown-Oakland corridor."

Until we know the specifics of what Pittsburghers may be bringing to the table here -- and given the cornucopia of infrastructural and economic life we may breath into the City center alongside an exciting new transit gateway -- engaged optimism seems like the reasonable posture.

There is a school of thought in activism that if the government is conducting a study of something you do not like, you had better kill the study or else kill the project before the study comes back -- or else the manipulative momentum of a rigged study will be too powerful to reverse.

That strikes the Comet as amusingly close-minded and fearful.

Now is not the time to kill Bus Rapid Transit with fire.

Now is the time to lard up the BRT proposal with all the efficiencies, amenities and pleasantries we can possibly attach to it.

The Comet's prescription now is only that the communities BRT would directly impact be given every opportunity to forge synergistic agreements with the regional stakeholders. It should be a matter of excitement how that boils down in terms of infrastructure, economic and transportation benefits.

Even if it does not come to fruition this cycle, that work should still provide everyone mileage.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Pension Change: That Sound we Keep Hearing

Lean Blitz

And we're talking about this...

The mistake that municipal workers and their unions are making today is failing to learn from this debacle. As great as defined-benefit pensions sound, they are only as secure as the finances and political will of the future. (Keith Noughton, P-G)

Given this bloke is a former Republican consultant, what do you say to the reasoning?

It's not as though this idea is wholly unfamiliar. And it's not as though the City of Pittsburgh's recent value-injection and the recently roaring stock market provide any semblance of sustainability.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Future is Uncertain because Life is Awesome.

Getty Images

The Strip District is one recent example:

Pittsburgh City Council on Monday delayed a vote for a second consecutive week on whether to grant historic status for the Strip District's landmark Produce Terminal. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

Ideas for the building are just starting to circulate, a new Council rep and Mayor are just coming aboard.

Mr. Ferlo argued against proposed alternatives, saying "we can't afford to let more of the building fall apart while we wait for a faction of the preservation community's ideal to materialize." (P-G, Mark Belko)

Well we could always take basic, critical-needs measures to maintain our building, if any are truly necessary. We could also take "The Preservationists" seriously. It's not like they are an exotic or foreign Hobbit-like race. They're just the half or so (or more?) of regular Pittsburghers who harbor an affinity for innovation and doing things better.

*-UPDATE / THOUGHT: To view the Terminal from the David McCullough Bridge -- perhaps our greatest bridge -- approaching the development site from the north, and viewing it on approach from Downtown, the opportunity to deliver and build upon historic value lies to the west. Let us not destroy that. Points east also deserve historic exposure. There is also a strong sentiment for riverfront access. Why not demolish the middle, creating a short north-south avenue of retail and other commercial or boutique residential bisecting the Terminal? The surviving two approximate thirds of the Terminal on either end can be preserved and commercially or otherwise advantageously adapted, as well as made to suggest an architecturally consistent one-time connection between each other -- which has an aesthetic appeal. Entertain discussions about signage and other opportunities.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Quickly, on Kevin Acklin and Right Hands

Game of Thrones funny scene

An increasingly critical responsibility, in this complex work-a-day world.

Acklin will hold the top administrative position in Peduto's office and essentially function as the mayor's gatekeeper. (Trib, Team Editorial)

PROTIP: If you cannot make it through Acklin, try an end-around using Twitter. It is this Mayor's wheelhouse.

He also will oversee development bodies such as the Pittsburgh Planning Commission, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, Sports & Exhibition Authority and Stadium Authority. (Tribid)

The Planning Commission, too? No, no, no. See? Now already we have problems. Do a search on the Comet for "many-hatism" or "many hats" disease. We can address this detail down this road however, it is of no immediate concern.

Panning back:

Over the decades Pittsburgh mayors have grown more and more dependent on their aides to get things done. While the support staff's influence often didn't become apparent until after the mayor left office, their impact on the direction and health of the city is undeniable. (Christopher Zurawsky in 2009, P-G)

Quite the trip down memory lane, what with a note about "twisting arms" and "killing" therein. The incumbent, outgoing and affectionately monikered Hand of Dread is profiled here and here. No word on the specific nature of Mr. Acklin's fearsome visage, but the standard City uniform is spiked plate mail.

This is why fish fries are important.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday: That Which Will Not Kill Us


From the overworked "Nobody Said Anything Was Easy" department…

Surprised by a threatened veto from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, the transition team for Mayor-elect Bill Peduto is revising an early pension plan for employees who may lose their jobs in the next administration and replacing it with a buyout proposal. (P-G, Timothy McNulty)

The new plan bypasses the state's fundamental religious objection to "pension enhancements".

A Municipal Pension Board official called the plan a bad deal. “There's no way in the world I would take it now, and my phone's been ringing off the hook all day,” said John Sibbett, board president, who planned to retire early under the original proposal. “People aren't going to go.” (Trib, Bob Bauder)

If a smooth and orderly transition isn't in the cards, it just isn't in the cards. The new administration will just have to make explicit its performance standards, and monitor compliance.

But meanwhile...

The Municipal Pension Board, chaired by Public Safety Director Michael Huss, lowered the rate from 8 to 7.5 percent, a move that will force the city to increase its contribution to the funds by about $5 million annually. 
The measure passed 5-2 with Ravenstahl voting in favor and Huss against. Ravenstahl Finance Director Scott Kunka, who serves as non-voting executive board director, argued against the decrease. 
Ravenstahl had consistently opposed lowering the projection... (Trib, Bob Bauder)

MORE:  Null Space

Just add it to our tab:

As it turns out, [Ravenstahl's] budget team miscalculated, sending the city's real estate tax revenue -- its single biggest source of income by far -- into the red this year. And it could force incoming Mayor Bill Peduto to "readjust" the millage, aka implement a tax increase, in one of his first acts in office. (Early Returns)

And remember:

"Because the City now has moved through a succession of balanced budgets, it appears that its time of financial crisis may be over, which also should mean that the need for the Public Service Fund and the nonprofit contributions that it has collected no longer exists." (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

Between the City's actual inherited challenges, and the folks who are trying only to break this administration, and the folks who have already given up entirely on City government, and who have punted on government in general, Pittsburgh is set to grow unprecedentedly strong!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sunday Notes: Managing Passions

Yoga for the #newworld

Bus Rapid Transit: the push is back on, with local executives piling on political support.

A preliminary estimate of the overall cost is $200 million and the project would have to prevail in a highly competitive federal grant program to move ahead, Ms. Stern said. A federal grant would likely cover only 50% of the cost. (P-G, John Schmitz)

The application is due in October. The benefits sought are an economic development surge, cascading infrastructure upgrade opportunities, a more intense and striking public transit gateway along a strategic corridor, and of course increased service efficiency along it. But before anybody swoons with pleasure, remember the fate of the Penguins TIGER application and read the introduction to this federal program.


A City police officer drove to work drunk. Fortunately, nobody got hurt.

This was an apple flagged for badness previously:

Officer Gibson was charged with insurance fraud in late 2011 after he admitted to lying to an insurance appraiser, saying that his car was struck when he had actually damaged it while parking. As a result, the bureau transferred him from the bureau's North Side station to the warrant office pending an internal investigation. 
In July of last year, a Common Pleas judge sentenced him to complete 200 hours of community service and fined him $200 under the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, which is for first-time offenders who can fulfill certain requirements with the hopes their charges will be withdrawn. Court records indicated he had not yet completed the program. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

Routine consequences for an officer committing conduct "unbecoming of an officer" ought to be seriously attended; at least such a thing is worth considering. Numbly reinforcing officer privilege seems not to be doing them many favors.


The world has lost a most unusually successful 20th Century leader in Nelson Mandela.

There was violence, primarily white-on-black violence which then provoked black-on-white violence, despite a Gandhian philosophic core of the blacks’ approach to the struggle, and Mr. Mandela was prominent in the direction of the African National Congress’ armed Spear of the Nation militia, even from prison. 
But what stands out as Mr. Mandela’s signature characteristic was his belief in the need for forgiveness to achieve his goal of a democratic, multiracial South Africa. That was remarkable in someone who was imprisoned for 27 years, 18 of those spent breaking rocks on an island penal colony. (P-G, Editorial Triumph)

That is a relevant detail for anyone that has been trying get down to the heart of the matter. That being that forgiveness can be so wondrously pragmatic.

Meanwhile, the Trib is praising Mandela for renouncing "Stalinist 'progressivism'", which I think we are obliged to accept as a proof of a certain tortured conservative luminescence.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

#TransitionWatch: Person your Stations!

National Geographic

A few items merit some attention:

Mayor-elect Peduto's employee retirements jubilee legislation advanced in committee.

Four members voted for the bill, three abstained, and one was absent. Darlene Harris, Corey O'Connor and R. Daniel Lavelle said they needed more time to consider the bill. 
Ricky Burgess was absent but said later that he opposes it. A final vote is scheduled for next week. Burgess called the offer unfair because it's being offered to employees who “did not earn and did not deserve” it. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

Well, they do not otherwise qualify for it. It is precisely the question before the Council, whether or not they will have "earned" or "deserve" it.

Peduto argues that the total budget impact of his retrofits on city government are likely to be minimal due to other budget moves, and the fact that only roughly half of the small pool of eligible nonunion employees are expected to participate in this.

As we stated last time in a post and some comments, it should be immediately clear that hitting the ground running and without distraction will bring considerable efficiencies. And it can be construed as unfair that employees who built their lives and families' lives around the proposition that the City would operate as it always had, must now see their retirement plans exploded because all of a sudden it will operate some other way.

A specific consideration is litigiousness. If the Mayor-elect essentially proclaims for all to hear, "Sorry, I don't think you're good enough to work for me and you must go," why should a dismissed employee not respond with, "You are only getting rid of me for very bad reasons, such as prejudice or a political vendetta. Cities cannot do that. I am suing, and I am subpoenaing all sorts of things!"

Those cases might rarely be of any merit, but they would certainly satisfy the cheering throngs, and we could not prejudge a single one of them.  That makes for an annoying, time-consuming, distracting and ultimately costly slog -- especially for the city's Law Dept.

The Mayor-elect's legislation is not only an investment in a smooth transition, it seems to be measured and right-sized. The Comet very much appreciates the seeming incongruity of seeking new predictable revenue streams while making unexpected investments, but this one is a money saver in the long run.

Near the Housing Authority, things are looking a little rough:

"It sounds to me just like the pure greed of money," said Larry Blair Jr., 46, a car salesman who is president of the Oak Hill Residents Council. (P-G, Lord & Zullo)

It's a long story. Oak Hill in 2009 was quite the thing, but it sounds like the developer has been getting the short end of the stick on upkeep.

Kevin Acklin, who is heading the transition and will be Mr. Peduto's chief of staff, called the housing authority "really the only authority that we haven't found any significant cooperation with." (ibid)

Cactus McCoy
Hard to say whether this is a function of changed administrative priorities towards socioeconomic integration in certain parts of the Hill, or of a certain developer being on the political outs, or of Councilman Burgess just happening to be the Mayor-elect's nemesis, or of a personality clash within the transition and the Authority provoking increased scrutiny. But it's a messy indicator and indicative of a need to break out the scrubbing bubbles.

Elsewhere in the city center, rumor had had it that the Planning Commission would formally introduce the Penguins' plans for the Lower Hill, early next week at its final meeting of the year. While an introduction is followed later by presentations, a hearing and perhaps other measures before a vote, this might have been one case where the Mayor-elect's ability to wrangle the direction and appointment of a new Board in real time would be tested. It begins to appear however that the reality of the impasses between the Pens, the community and the next mayor have become so significant, the Penguins might be taking a quick hustle back to the drawing board. We hope it is a pivotally constructive session.

*-UPDATE: Hill groups have composed a letter to the Dept. of City Planning asking that it conduct a fair market housing study for any plan submitted for the 28 controversial acres, and are inviting other interested groups across Pittsburgh to cosign it.

Finally, the Pittsburgh Comet is humbled to disclose that we are working on the Mayor-Elect's City Ethics Hearing Board subcommittee of the Law and Ethics transition team. It should go without saying that this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

After inspirational introductions by the Mayor-elect and his apostles, roughly fifteen of us were ushered into a spacious college classroom for more specific guidance and instruction from Solicitor-designate Lourdes Sanchez Ridge. Then we were left to it. Our subcommittee has a couple of past members of the Ethics Board to provide insiders' perspectives, and more than enough attorneys besides.

Using the "I Will Make Sure Everybody Gets To Talk" gambit, I ruthlessly seized the chairmanship and proceeded to do pretty much only that. Here is what the team came up with in terms of goals, preliminarily:

For Dec. 2013:
1) Mission statement
2) Identify best criteria mix for Board Members
3) Provide justifications, specifications of funding / support needs

For Peduto's first 100 days:
1) Have that board operational
2) ID opportunities for improvement in the code
3) Have given top City employees (executives, directors, asst. dirs) updated training
4) Clarify Ethics Board reporting duties

For the first 6 months:
1) All City employees trained up.
2) Adequate public reporting of routine Ethics Board business online
3) Be funded through legitimate budget lines or foundation boost

One year:
1) All City / City-County Authority personnel as well as Contractors trained & addressed.

What do you think? What did your transition team do?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Charitable Holiday Fundraiser and Online Competition!

At Task Work Management

We here at the Comet have a soft spot for Community Human Services Corp., and in the winter months particularly its Holiday Gift Project.

This year the blog I heart PGH has set a goal to inspire 100 different people to contribute online by Wednesday's party at Hough's, and invited us to help them spread the word.

Also, its lead editor proposed a little contest:  which of our online readerships can raise the most in donations by December 15, for providing the small holiday gifts such as gift cards for the many Pittsburghers who participate in CHS's several programs?

We have our work cut out for us. I heart PGH is a wonderful and longstanding information source for cool events, new and exciting places around town, and resources for getting the most out of City living. The Comet is going to do something different:  harness the power of rage and bitterness to inspire a generous public attitude.

Donate via the Pittsburgh Comet's own fundraising portal and spread some dark holiday love!

Cities are built by entrepreneurs and by monarchs or other military or political rulers, to exploit natural resources and various advantages, and then to exploit the large, diversified labor pools drawn to economic opportunity. Clever people enjoy living in dense communities with abundant opportunities for education, commerce and culture as well. Before long, regional and global industrial conglomerates as well as banks take the reigns to a significant extent. Things take on a life of their own. Among other things we encourage high property values especially Downtown, we design neighborhoods, arteries and regions for the conveniences for the most mobile, we thrive on the might of a profit-based health care industry. Many of us continue to enjoy very much the blessings of our cities, but how do we address issues of mental illnesses, physical limitations or traumas, addiction, poverty, poor education, malnutrition, incarceration and other hardships among families with children and all those less than fully adaptable to the demands and pressures of competition?

In a recent effort to restore some perceived semblances of balance, Occupy Pittsburgh came in for lots of justifiable criticism (from within and without) for its lack of capacity to sustain a population accounting for homelessness, transience and common urban social problems, and for contributing towards a scene of devolution and disarray. But if there's anyone out there in Comet Country fortunate and able enough to be working high up in industry, or in real estate, or at a bank, or a major law firm, or is just a regular semi-well-off hipster or townie, might I suggest as humbly as possible, if the thought had not occurred already:  that we have convened Pittsburgh for a reason. Agglomerations of human misery is the price of doing so much business, and having so much enjoyment. Let's all do our best to clean up after ourselves, and to take care of Pittsburgh's less fortunate denizens as sustainably as possible. That can begin with affording them a little dignity, such as the opportunity to shop for a suitable gift like winter gloves or a children's' doll.

Thank goodness there are organizations like CHS doing the heavy lifting and making it relatively easy. Until we can do better and more than rely on charitable giving, donate via the Comet's portal or through or to whom anyone else you prefer. Let's beat I heart PGH, and happy Sparkle Season!

And if you can, go to the party in Greenfield on Wednesday!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Loading: Transition Watch updates...

Tim McNulty at the P-G covers the Gang of 1200 and Aaron Aupperlee at the Trib notes more advice coming incoming from Harvard to Youngstown.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Modern Pittsburgh and Community Building

Amish America

"Community building" means different things depending on whether you put the emphasis on the "MUNE" in community or the "BUILD" in building.

In the former instance, community itself is what one sets out to build; in the latter, building is in some manner undertaken by a community.

We should like to do some of both.

To paraphrase a former Defense Secretary, "community building" also means building with the communities you have -- not the communities you might want or wish to have at a later time.

Development forces are already at work in different theaters as we begin our civic transformation.

The Hill theater is fiercely engaged at the Lower Hill / Upper Downtown, and can be defined by the following:

  • High civic demand for development
  • Zoning still up in the air
  • Private entity owns development rights on entire footprint, Sports & Exhibition Authority owns land.
  • Development rights will begin expiring in years, absent new development.

Impasses between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Hill District community in rezoning the quasi-City land include affordable housing, inclusive workforce and commercial development practices, neighborhood legacy acknowledgments in naming and place-making, identified source funding for some Greater Hill Master Plan (pdf) and neighborhood initiatives, and enforcement provisions for whatever is pledged. To that grand neighborhood consensus, the Comet and others like to add that anything purporting to connect Downtown to the Hill District ought to have brilliantly complete streets, suited to the needs and aims of the environment.

Councilman Robert Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District, Downtown and parts of the North Side, duly reminded the Penguins at a recent community meeting that he can "tear [their] plan up." And this is a Councilman that has been anxious for the prosperity of new development.

More on-point, recently to the Times:

Mr. Lavelle, the city councilman, said the Hill District tumbled into poverty and crime with the demolition of many blocks in the 1950s to make way for a civic arena. It wiped out a grid of stores and jazz clubs that the poet Claude McKay once called “the crossroads of the world.”
“When you tore down the Lower Hill District, you took away the entrepreneurial spirit,” Mr. Lavelle said. “The extreme poverty was a result of that.” (NYT, Trip Gabriel)

That gets me thinking upon dirigisme.

The rules of any "nuclear endgame" between the City and its hockey team may involve not just a stalled transformation, but the lease for the Consol Center. If the City moves to solicit new proposals for any Lower Hill parcels upon whose rights the Penguins' have or will soon expire, that could entail the Penguins making vague (and likely erroneous) references to that 30-year lease, which will get every sportswriter and sports broadcaster in Pittsburgh mad.

Few desire mad. Everyone wants significant commercial and residential development happening in the Lower Hill soon that is smartly tailored for Pittsburgh.

Making it so means pruning only the most unsustainable of avarice from what are otherwise responsible, unobjectionable plans presented by the Penguins:  that which involve sealing off too much legitimately available opportunity and benefit to the community, or that which will consume very many public funding opportunities without reasonable collaboration.

Basically, it's just a routine matter of urban planning and negotiation among several parties.  It's a simple microcosm, but high-angst due to historically challenging topography.


National Get Outdoors Day
The Allegheny River theater is different, where until the train tracks opposite in the Strip District, land sprawls flat into a post-industrial distance and the Buncher Company is further along.

Here is what we see at "Riverfront Landing", that section nearest to Downtown:

  • Low-to-moderate civic demand for development.
  • Zoning fixed at private entity's behest last year.
  • Entity owns most property free and clear.
  • City retains provisional power over historic 5-block building at heart of immediate plans.

When we say there is low "civic demand" for development near the site, we mean that those who traverse the Strip District near Downtown -- whether it be for a commute, work, shopping, a meal, a drink or to visit to the Heinz History Center -- are not given to turn their heads and say, "Come on already. What a mess." It just looks like Pittsburgh: a river, parking lots, greenery and small industrial relics; and there is enough excitement going on around it, it doesn't seem such a shame.

But of course Buncher Company is willing and now able to transform things at what it calls Riverfront Landing, so change is due. Creating jobs and attracting new stake holders is nice, besides.

Buncher Company is a company with a fascinating history, which might account for its nuanced and evolving tone on whether to proceed despite what comes of the historic Produce Terminal.

It makes a fine point:

Mr. Balestrieri cautioned that development could be slowed and marketing affected if the produce terminal is excluded from the project. He said a prospective condominium owner or building tenant might balk without knowing the future of the hulking Strip District icon.

I think it's important to know what it is," he said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

What Buncher misconstrues in the discussion of "What happens when the City declares a building historic?" are all the thoughtful processes and resources assembled at hand to weigh what are the civic (including economic) needs outweighing aspects of preservation, and what are the mitigating or creative adaptations that can be explored while maximizing historic value.

Buncher pays enough for architectural and design consultants. It is unknown, aside from undue self-securitization, why it seems averse to taking advantage of the City's own resources and expertise in pursuing that course with some optimism. The City and its URA might be best-suited to devise commercial uses for its prized past possession.

On the other hand, much was said last year about the ecological health of our river and the vibrancy of public space along that river front. This is the province of zoning and planning. The property owner's zoning was duly passed. It might be tempting for Mayor Bill Peduto to hold a punitive line over the Produce Terminal in order to convince Buncher to readdress that past perceived avarice, but doing so now to any excess would probably fall into the province of political vanity.

While the scope and potential for both development and its challenges expands as one travels upriver, Riverfront Landing is just a routine matter of urban planning and negotiation among several parties.


Doing things right takes a little more time than doing them heedlessly. We all know this from experience.

If the Hill District and the Allegheny Riverfront theaters are complex due to inherited urgency, the Hazelwood, the Homewood and the At-Large theaters all represent different sorts of clean slates.

By all accounts in Hazelwood, at the former LTV Coke works site along interior of the Monongohela, we today see few intrinsic challenges and a developer in ALMONO who must patronize many fine planners, consultants and advisers. The City also did patient work. Councilman O'Connor of the area voiced no concerns. No major concerns arose from the community, aching for jobs lost years ago.

The opportunities lie in what exactly spreads from that footprint.

Housing renovation? Mainstreets development along 2nd Avenue? Claiming Junction Hollow? A greenway corridor connecting towards Downtown? Something heavier, transit-wise? It's all in play, and the City will have opportunities to encourage community building and improve some more crassly expedient practices.

Conde Nast: Julian Capmeil
Digging a network of canals is one idea. The feds are requiring expensive upgrades to our storm water infrastructure, to meet its volumetric calculations of need. Intelligently designed landscaping and canals would satisfy a portion of that need as determined by a judge, much like a holding tank. Water features enhance both community sentiment and commercial demand. The ability to host kayak racing competitions through an interlocking series of canals along the Mon would be gin for Pittsburgh.

We shouldn't be shocked if some our more dazzling fantasies fail the reality test, however. Next-level success is just a routine matter of organizing, city planning and negotiation.


While our previous theaters were given massive nudges by some developer, the Homewood theater appears on the agenda due primarily to Mayor-elect Peduto.

Knockout development in northern Shadyside, East Liberty and southwest tip of Larimer is causing ripples of interest, recently evident deeper into Larimer. Councilman Ricky Burgess is not unwelcoming of investment. The community is vocal for change. Homewood itself is blessed with not only flat land but a square corners, rectangular street grid; miraculous in this city.

Yet by investing so much symbolism in his commitment to Homewood and by choosing to name it properly -- not to creep towards the troubled and traumatized community -- Peduto has committed to build a Homewood for Homewood; for its own sake.

I will not speculate on what that means. There must be a blizzard of stakeholders, property titles, built environments and natural resources to sort out. The chaos of its eager unpreparedness represents the cleanest of all possible slates within which to organize, plan and negotiate.


City Parks Blog
Finally there is the At-Large theater, or as I like to call it "The West End" but really the other 80 neighborhoods now less conspicuous on the development radar.

Like a ninja, the City will have to recognize, concoct and seize opportunities to build community in ways smaller for now, but no less burdensome of history and no worse as investments.

Markers of progress in Greater Homewood, along the Mon and in places like the West End will acclimatize Pittsburgh to more deliberative and sensitive city planning functions on titanic-sized items.

The demonstration of real productive engagement with the Penguins and Buncher Co. and the eventual implementation of some community-building in the Hill and the Allegheny Riverfront will reward patience and alert Pittsburghers to an enlightened vision.

A selective embrace of market forces, together with the respect dividend for building community in challenging theaters, will enable Pittsburgh to follow through in rehabilitating its vast, half-abandoned and poverty-stricken expanses properly -- and will act as the most encouraging and illustrative diorama for why to invest in a smart, collaborative and efficient government.

Part III: Gentrification


Friday, November 22, 2013

FROM: The Penguins. TO: The Hill District.


(This is a fantasy, though not satire, of what frank and open communication from the Penguins to Hill District stakeholders might look like after last night's meeting.)

Dear Neighbors,

In the interest of moving forward while retaining institutional and personal credibility, we accept responsibility for our role in encouraging what has become a significant misunderstanding.

We regret having informed you that we cannot pursue the Inclusionary Zoning practices used in the Almono development in Hazelwood only because the City will not allow it.

We regret using the term "affordable" housing to describe rental units accessible only to the upper middle class.

We regret having encouraged something called the Greater Hill District Master Plan, a fine and solid planning document with the legal weight of cotton candy to which we do not intend to adhere, least of all in the Lower Hill.

We regret having so often touted our willingness to "identify funding" for public art, infrastructure and residential affordability gaps -- in an attempt to obscure that we already possess more than sufficient funding, or that via this business venture we shall soon possess it. We regret that in all past agreements, documents and contracts regarding jobs and business development opportunities, weak language such as "best faith efforts" and "minimum goals" is all we could muster -- and there have never been enforcement mechanisms.

We regret having asked you to participate in the Curtain Call public art project in order to diminish your opposition in 2008 to our plans for the Consol Energy Center -- and that we did not see the project through.

We regret that we always brand our development for you positively by putting overwhelming emphasis on the "green cap" over the Crosstown Expressway -- while the costs, funding sources, and timetable for such a feature is literally the last thing on our agenda.

We regret having invited you to scores of community meetings over months and years at which our position on your specific concerns does not change, only so we can later demonstrate the quantity (not quality) of our community engagement.

We regret having hired enough consultants to give you inspirational speeches about our intentions, we might otherwise have funded several community projects.

The truth of the matter is we have no interest in addressing your demands. We are trying to find commonalities across two very different worlds. Our only concern is to parlay these 28 acres of the Lower Hill of the City of Pittsburgh into the greatest possible long-term profit for ourselves, because life is short and we want to live as grandly as we might.

But our efforts to get you to like us have become counter-productive and silly. In the interest of not generating further ill-faith relations, we suggest that you redirect all your concerns about affordable housing, place-making, shared prosperity and community building to your civic government.

Best of luck at the City Planning Commission on December 9th and thereafter. However, in this new spirit of honesty and collegial frankness, our impression is that you are not destined to make out very well there either -- especially since we gave ourselves every advantage by submitting our plan at the end of the year during the waning moments of the Ravenstahl administration.

But in government at least you will encounter decision-makers whose capacity to feign a cooperative spirit has not been utterly exhausted.

Sincerely (at last),

The Pittsburgh Penguins

PS. By the way, thanks for your support in demolishing the Igloo, without our having to give up anything of substance.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Modern Pittsburgh and Virtue's Promise

CBS, Paramount

Pittsburgh is conditioned to seek industry, growth and development.

The green PNC Tower continues to rise Downtown, and major work with Almono in Hazelwood will soon begin to percolate. Down the pipeline, four major new revitalization efforts are on Mayor-Elect Bill Peduto's agenda: in the Strip District with Buncher Co., in the Hill District with the Penguins; and both Homewood and Smithfield St. by his own choosing. And let us not forget the other eighty-two neighborhoods.

The alchemy and adaptability required to build popular momentum behind such a development vision is reflected in the whole political latticework for moving that jobs agenda together with agendas for municipal retirees and taxed residents, for public safety and due process, and for arranging necessities such as transportation, infrastructure and education in an Eds, Meds and Tech-rich economy.

As the drawstring is pulled and this web of conviction acts on Pittsburgh, the purpose in all is to cull unsustainable avarice, undue self-fortification and political vanity -- and to let the commons thrive. But it would require an epic guide to envision beforehand how it all will work.

Ready? Okay.

You have also entered Your Guide to 'Burgh Drama S2E1: The 'Burgh Remembers
S1E1   S1E2   S1E3   S1E4

Part II: Community Building


Related Footnotes:  Trib: Bob Bauder, About Talent City, Oversight Committee, Screening Committee, Job Openings, @TalentPgh. See also via the Post-Gazette on Twitter:


Collateral footnote by P-G: Diana Nelson Jones

Political footnote by C-P: Chris Potter

Friday, November 15, 2013

Weekender: Quashing our Illusions


Now this is a wake up call:

My French is pretty much limited to asking for ice cream, the bathroom and to go to the Eiffel Tower, but the Washington Post summarizes it this way: "The French urge their citizens to avoid Mount Oliver, Hill District, Homewood-Brushton and Hazelwood." (Early Returns, Moriah Balingit)

Yes. We are a serious tourist destination for Europeans in general and for French-speaking peoples. Thank you Mario, but your princess is in another castle.

Yes. The Hill District, Homewood-Brusthon and Hazelwood are being categorized as hazardous no-go zones by the French government. Think about that.

Mount Oliver is war-torn, too? Forgive me, I'm from the North Side by way of Squirrel Hill. Mt. Lebonon, Mt. Pleasant and Mount Oliver is all sort of a blur.

Mount Oliver? This is the municipality which Pittsburgh completely surrounds? I know what you're thinking, but not until we get a new Police leadership to partner in settling the scourge of urban violence in the Hill District, Greater Homewood and Hazelwood respectively. And even then we'd need to muster a new army and declare war (and/or prepare terms for an annexation.)

MORE:  Homewood Nation


In better news, another really good article was written about us:

Once she got back home, she couldn't help but notice both the exciting changes happening in Pittsburgh's East End, and the work that still needed to be done in the city's low-income neighborhoods. She realized Pittsburgh could use a native like her, and that she could apply the skills she learned in New Orleans right in her backyard. (Atlantic Cities, Nona Willis Aronowitz)

Names, labels.

Artist and Pittsburgh native D.S. Kinsel, 29, is trying to bridge that divide. He lives in gentrifying Lawrenceville and works as a program coordinator at MGR, a youth empowerment organization. MGR teaches middle and high school age students to use art as a tool for activism. Pittsburgh isn't full of oblivious young yuppies, he assures me. Many twenty-something natives living in the East End neighborhoods of Lawrenceville, Garfield, Bloomfield, and Friendship are "reaching out and listening to what these [lower-income] communities need." He welcomes change and transplants—"as long as they’re respectful when they get here"—but he gives most of the credit to people like him who have been there all along.

"Young Pittsburghers want to lay down roots," he says. "We're interested in making sure the grit survives." (ibid)

Irish Central
That's funny. Not long ago you would have heard, "We're interested in scrubbing off the grit." These days they appreciate there is some grit, some neighborhoods, some stories, some history, some real civic, cultural, educational, industrial and technological resources that have produced their own stories.

We're the ones who work on the big things that need to be made (and try to make them better) and who take care of the home front because that's what makes life worth living. We want to be beating most everyplace else at football, economically and in terms of quality of life.

The grit is the soil. The grit is the nitrogen.


Unusual squabbling amongst Allegheny County law enforcement:

Zappala asked council for nearly $500,000 to revive a violent crime task force to combat drug-related activity in Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs.

He wants to use the money to hire five detectives, a request that surprised some county officials. (Trib, Aaron Aupperlee)

It's a shame we can't just get out of this drug war business, and treat it as a crisis of public health.

UPDATE / MORE: Blame this link on Radley Balko.

Thanksgiving is coming. In Pittsburgh there are lots and lots of good opportunities to react to feelings of gratitude, but the KD Turkey Fund has long been a good one (see Julius's Turkeys). Look alive.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Workers of the 'Burgh, Unite! - Employment, Leadership and Premium Transit


Downtown workers in a hazardous industry at an upscale, profitable and expanding business are being inappropriately classified as "independent contractors" so they can be exploited for fun and profit.

The lawsuit says Blush dictates most aspects of the dancers' work, including which shifts they work, what clothes they wear, which songs they dance to and in what order they dance. 
The club also requires dancers to accept “Blu Money” from customers, the lawsuit says. The customers pay $110 for 100 “Blu” dollars, but the club only pays the dancers $90 when they cash them back in, the lawsuit says. (Trib, Brian Bowling)

Now that I have your attention...

If [nonunion City] workers don’t do their jobs, Mr. Peduto can take the necessary legal steps to remove them. If they choose to leave the city’s employ rather than go to work under his terms, they are free to resign. (P-G, Editorial Hectoring)

The P-G simply has not considered the financial and other costs of a long, drawn-out, emotionally frustrating transition conducted in fits and starts, as employees with skill sets better suited to previous mayors wind up engaging in guerrilla trench political warfare for retirement security. The Mayor-Elect has it in his head to fashion an organized, shorter, efficient transition that recognizes years of loyal service and the need for a crew able and willing to turn the ship of state about. But if Council wants to do it the P-G's way, I guess he could just fire everybody in weekly televised horror shows.


“I support President Darlene Harris. She has been a fair, objective and competent president of council,” Burgess said. “But this year, with the arrival of a new mayor, some members are suggesting it's time for a change. … And if council decides to change its president, prioritizing diversity means the next council president should be an African-American.”
Councilman Bruce Kraus, who is gay, said Burgess offended him by focusing exclusively on blacks. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

This is only the fourth race for Council President I have witnessed, but it is the first in which negative attacks have spilled out into the public (as to discretionary spending and attendance). It leads me to believe the results are growing more certain.

Councilman Burgess seems in one tactical respect to be like that most politically successful of State Representatives: Daryl Metcalfe of Butler County. He and Metcalfe both tend to lob broad, incendiary and moralizing leaps of logic across their respective chambers -- in order to ensure that everybody is talking about their own issues in their own terms with themselves as central. It's super effective for both representatives, and they'll continue doing so as long as they are insulated from suffering any kind of political penalty.

And finally...

The Port Authority wants to use $1 million in Allegheny County money to run a preliminary engineering study on a proposed bus rapid transit line connecting Oakland and Downtown. (P-G, Andrew McGill)

The Comet is usually pretty open to studying things -- and this project needs studied.

One million dollars, eh? And engineering, not feasibility, eh? To be continued.

Discussion question: Is anyone who uses the bus to get from Oakland to Downtown and back particularly dissatisfied with it? Anecdotally, a surprising number of riders have been telling me, "Things are fine, convenient, fast enough."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This Week in Intolerable Racial Tension

c/o Vannevar

Recently-paralyzed East Liberty teenager Leon Ford Jr., his parents and many of their friends and neighbors yesterday took to City Council chambers to decry both Ford's quadruple-shooting at a traffic stop in Highland Park which led to no charges, and a perceived pattern of Pittsburgh police not valuing Black lives.

That incident is being raised in the wake of national news about the shooting death of Detroit teenager Renisha McBride on a Dearborn Heights, MI porch, in a case bearing uncomfortable similarities to the Trayvon Martin fiasco.

It reminds me of the case of DeAndre Brown of East Liberty, jailed a month for a robbery he did not commit, seemingly because detectives on his case declined to investigate his stated alibi in favor of sweating out a guilty plea.

Recommended discussion topics:

1) When a chaotic incident wounds "police-community" relations or simply race relations, how does legal liability inhibit the civic repair process? A human response to either the Ford or Brown incidents would be face-to-face engagement between officials and those affected, some argument, some give-and-take, but surely some accepting of mistakes on both sides, or at least statements of "I/We could have done this instead" and "In the future we'll bear this in mind in this manner." But when the individual officers and their union are invested in utterly avoiding liability, the City and taxpayers are invested in minimizing liability, and those affected are invested in establishing as much liability as possible, what insidious effect does that pattern have on processing those incidents and the larger agenda of mending divides? While civil litigation is indispensable to the process of civil justice, what can we do to relieve that collateral clipping of the discourse?

2) How great are the opportunity costs to a City when a full one-quarter of its inhabitants perceive, for fairly valid reasons, that they are second-class citizens upon which their City places little value? What is lost when that 25% deduces from experience that they are considered Enemies of the State and of the privileged majority? And how much would it really take to turn that around?

UPDATE: Something like the acceptance of fault described above actually happened today regarding the Dennis Henderson episode in Homewood. Check out the reaction.