Saturday, January 19, 2013

Pittsburgh's Third Renaissance: Nailed It


It's a rare thing for pundits and pontifs to get such big things so dead-on correct.

But this entire editorial turned out to be pretty deep:

We are hesitant to call it an unprecedented period of construction -- this being a city that has undergone not one but two urban "renaissances." But no one should be surprised if the name Renaissance III surfaces more frequently in connection with all the digging, erecting and eventual ribbon-cutting that's about to go on around here.

Pittsburgh is rebuilding again. (P-G, March 27, 1998)

Today's observers will have to overlook the wince-inducing mention of Lazarus department store. By my count, many of us still think of twelve out of the piece's 14 specifically-cited initiatives as "new," and as big parts of our present civic successes.

So before we all fully embark together on this leadership-inducing journey, let's all raise our glasses. Here we go, Pittsburgh! Here's to fifteen more years of accolades and accomplishments rivaling the last!

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Artist: Murray Head

My Kicks: Above the waistline

Friday 1/18: Heckuva Job, Everybody!

Denver Westword Blogs

In the last 36 hours, the story involving Victory Security, Alpha Outfitters and Police Chief Nate Harper has evolved from, "We don't even know if that non-sourced story is true" to "It's true, but there's no indication the Chief is under investigation" to "the Chief's possible involvement is obviously under investigation but that's not the same thing as being guilty of anything or even indicted on that suspicion."

And at least one local news channel is utilizing file footage of Harper wearing the Fedora of Guilt.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, whom this places in a tight spot, quoth:

"I believe the chief has done a great job. He has my full confidence."

So he's plunking clearly for "damned if he don't."

In terms of crude politics, only the sorriest fools waste a joule of energy holding their breath on federal grand juries to swoop in and cure your electoral dysfunction. So in terms of the mayor's race this is a complete non-issue.

In terms of a Police Chief that is doing a "great job" -- by which metrics are we evaluating him? Fostering atmosphere and a record of prudent, book-fearing professionalism? Community relations and engagement? Counterbalancing the FOP's necessarily rabid advocacy? Successfully implementing important new initiatives?

It might make sense to push forward our routine quadrennial performance review by about a month or so.


Rolling Stones
Sen. Jim Ferlo is indisputably credible on the topic of faux-nonprofits and advocating for their increased contributions to local governments, having a history of righteous grandstanding on that issue. But his method and timing in this latest initiative are both suspect.

First of all it blatantly short-circuits the work of the relatively broad Task Force mandated by the ICA and appointed nonetheless by the Mayor. Secondly it presupposes that the State Legislature is capable of doing something worthwhile. (Much less doing something proposed at the behest of an urban-dwelling Democrat.) Thirdly there are already perfectly cromulent legal solutions presently at our very own disposal which do not require waiting on anybody else, and which would raise a healthier and more just share of revenue for local governments to boot.

Taken all together, the above considerations raise the distinct possibility that Ferlo is providng Mayor Ravenstahl with political cover for policy stances on a certain selectively generous healthcare giant which are deeply entrenched but somewhat unpopular and unpopulist. Don't think for a minute that Ferlo's number one priority these days isn't the reelection of this mayor -- his newly gerrymandered Senate district is looking fairly impossible for him, and that URA on which he has long served as board member still only employs an "Acting" Executive Director.


Ed Zurga, Getty Images, B/R
In the actual mayor's race, the City Paper's Chris Potter exposes a technical and process-oriented sideshow involving the city's new campaign finance law:

But Peduto suspects Lamb is just trying to grab the money he raised as a controller because people aren't supporting his bid for mayor. "Just because he can't raise money doesn't mean he gets to break the law," Peduto says. (Bloggeration H)

Just shoot me.

It is true that if Michael Lamb's already modest fund-raising haul for his Mayoral bid includes a ton of cash he raised in an unopposed bid for City Controller, that speaks even more poorly of his support.

Yet in terms of illustrating what dastardly corrupt practices and effects that particular clause of this local ordinance purports to counteract, things might be less immediately clear. Besides, any lawsuit citing that regulation would put the efficacy of Bill Peduto's own legislative chops on trial; if Lamb's legal interpretation wins out, Peduto will be seen to have stepped in it. And finally...

"If he tries to use that money," Peduto warns, "we'll either take him to court or, more likely, find a third party who supports good government to raise a challenge." (ibid)

If one is engaged in finding an outraged and offended third-party, isn't that best kept secret?

All together now, and with feeling: both contenders would do better to focus on the guy known to spend his Republican-raised mayoral campaign committee cash on three-day Super Bowl getaways, yet who retains the obvious pole-position in this upcoming three-way election. After we do that for a while and get to see some time-elapsed, independently financed, publicly available POLLING DATA...

... then we can separate the wheat from the chaff.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lamb announces for Mayor, Jabs both Opponents

Oh, man. It begins. And we dive right in...

[City Controller Michael Lamb] contrasted [his own] record with those of "an absentee mayor and a councilman who talks a lot but hasn't accomplished much." (P-G, James O'Toole)

As you know, we live in a "strong mayor" form of government. If a mayor does not desire his perceived rivals to enact and implement any accomplishments, chances are excellent those rivals are going to show few concrete accomplishments.

Even still, "hasn't accomplished much" may play directly into Bill Peduto's strengths vis-a-vis Lamb. Peduto has a very long paper trail in the legislative branch. That is a potential vulnerability against Ravenstahl, as the much-maligned incumbent seeks to reverse criticism by picking out relatively obscure anecdotes suggesting hypocrisy. But against Lamb in terms of accomplishments, some of those bills Peduto wrote and sponsored actually passed!

The campaign finance reforms Lamb is presently laboring under with his colleagues, for example. Both stormwater regulations and prevailing wage regulations for public developments. Various developments in and of themselves within the thriving Council district he tends.

*-UPDATE: In fact, just as Lamb was talking about lack of accomplishment, Peduto was moving forward a bill that could raise $2 million annually for the City without raising taxes or fees.

As Controller, Lamb's fiscal and performance audits -- several of which we will begin showcasing in the coming weeks, so watch for the gutsy Fire Bureau audit soon -- are professional, thorough, easy to understand and very sound. Shame on the Mayor's office for six weeks for not heeding that guidance often enough -- but they are not "accomplishments". When you read those audits out loud, it is suspiciously indistinguishable from "a lot of talk".

Hey, man. Sorry. My hand has been forced. I'm not the one who violated the Yinzer Eleventh Commandment.

Louis "Hop" Kendrick's assertion poses a difficult question. How are we to determine base size? The number of people attending campaign events? Social media likes and follows? Fund raising? 2005 elections results?

One thing is clear: Lamb is aggressively and as conspicuously-as-you-please courting the African-American vote. That is good. That is crucial, despite the inherent difficulties. I'll be particularly interested to hear how Lamb (and Peduto both) respond to Councilman Ricky Burgess's blunt assertion that if you're a black Pittsburgher, "you would have to be insane" not to vote for Luke Ravenstahl.

Here is Michael Lamb's campaign website, Facebook page and Twitter account. Read up. Share what you think. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dirigisme? Dirigis you! Making developments more exciting and competitive.

AFP Hong Kong

To be sure, I am just a silly blogger, and know little and less about the ways of business.

Yet a short wiki-walk through my own post about crony capitalism led me to an obscure term...

Dirigisme is an economy in which the government exerts strong directive influence. It designates a mainly capitalist economy with strong directive, as opposed to merely regulatory, economic participation by the state. (Wikipedia)

...which led me in turn to reflect more seriously upon a skepticism and a notion I've been harboring for years.

Major developments nowadays (at least around here?) are conducted with a very high degree of centralization, consolidation and dirigisme. We identify and cultivate huge tracts of undeveloped land (e.g. the North Shore, the South Side Works, the Lower Hill, the Allegheny Riverfront and the Bakeries Square) then we seek out a single Developer to assume all costs and risks (minus those which taxpayers shoulder through various incentives). That developer goes on to do the lion's share of planning, to recruit all the business tenants, and to retain a continuing stake in the maintenance, management, and profit equity for the whole shebang.

The commercial and civic success of such development has been mixed, with room for debate.

The physical plant of these developments tend towards huge internal uniformity, cost-efficiency, modernism and stark contrasts with neighboring parcels. The commercial makeup tends toward inviting mainly affluent patrons and highly capitalized vendors, discouraging internal competition (no direct competitive rivalries), and tolerating vacancy for long stretches rather than allowing rents to fluctuate more naturally.

Leftists bemoan the "suburban blandness" of these dirigiste developments with its overtones of gentrification; that enervating atmosphere of a "business district" in a "neighborhood" is usually absent. It can feel like a "strip mall".

Rightward thinkers meanwhile are aggravated by the lack of competition, the central planning and singular basket of venture eggs, and the interpersonal and political barriers to entry. Furthermore, supplemental public-sector investments tend to accumulate over time.

Athenium Publishing
Are there any viable alternatives?

Folks who have checked out my Blogger Profile may have noticed that one of my very favorite books is Tai-Pan by James Clavell, more famous as the author of Shōgun. This gripping historical novel about the origins of Hong Kong as a province of the British Empire centers around "Dirk Struan" (the Tai-Pan or unofficial Supreme Leader) who is a tea and opium trader, a pirate-turned-developer, a major political contributor to Parliament and an aggressive lobbyist for free trade and other human freedoms.

In the book it was Struan's notion (though not presented as an unorthodox or unexpected one) for the Viceroy and Plenipotentiary to divide up the undeveloped island of Hong Kong into various lots of various sizes -- large and small, premium and back-alley -- while making allowances for necessary public amenities like streets, the harbor and the Church, and then to hold a land auction. The auction would ensure optimal profit for the Crown while fostering a hustling, bustling trading hub with vast opportunity for traders and other business owners to jockey ruthlessly and, for those skilled enough, profitably. And it comported with the English sense of fair play, injecting confidence on all sides.

Never mind that Dirk finagled the appointment of his own son Culum as chief auctioneer. Culum resented his dad and gifted the high knoll lot to the Church, thereby saving Noble House from a ruinous bidding war against Brock & Sons. The state can always head a few predictable bad arrangements off at the pass, even as the business community can lend its expertise in drawing the boundaries.

Is such a wide open model viable nowadays for urban redevelopment? To foster wild and woolly commercial competition by drawing out a skeletal map of public amenities as well as commercial parcels of various sizes and zoning classifications, by offering incentives such as subsidies and tax breaks piecemeal and disinterestedly, and by hosting something unpredictable like a public auction -- letting each winning bidder build to their own tastes and preferences within parameters? Placing the eggs in a multitude of baskets and letting them all sink or swim as autonomous agents?

The auction / open playing field model would certainly rob the "developer" sub-community of several accustomed opportunities, and in so doing hand a lot of crucial creative responsibility for wide-angle city planning over to, well, City Planning. Some would say those responsibilities would merely be restored.

I'm not sure. Hong Kong has certainly enjoyed an impressive record of success and investment. That white devil cutthroat Dirk Struan certainly didn't have any use for dirigisme in his own plans to become a merchant prince.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Monday 1/14 Bullet Points

KSL5- Ben Murray's blog

Complying with state anti-windfall law, Mayor Ravenstahl begins the necessary process of lowering the city millage rate to offset ten years worth of delayed increases in property reassessments. (P-G, Trib) P-G scribe Tim McNulty seems to be hinting around that that still doesn't seem like enough of an offset.

A dangerous car chase barreled through Carson Street last night as bars were closing, ending in shots fired from five officers including some off-duty. (P-G, Trib)  The Mayor warns it would be "inappropriate" for him to comment while investigations are underway and comments that well-trained officers acted to keep people safe. (P-G, Trib)

Recently improved County air-quality guidelines have been weakened in a swift and little-discussed process by a strenuously leaned-on board of health. (P-G Editorial) It is very important for the sake of my dignity, street cred and testosterone levels that I highlight things like this and so I now affix the Eye of Blogdor on County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and say, "Bad politician! Nontransparent! Regressive!" In all seriousness, this will continue as warranted (but only as warranted).

We are only a little over two weeks away from ALCOSAN and company's day in court over its Wet Weather Plan for required sewer infrastructure upgrades, but no news on whether the plan has been rewritten a greener shade of gray.

Gov. Tom Corbett agrees the state can't just cut its way out of its budget deficit and does in fact require increased revenue -- but that revenue won't come from you, it will come from losers. (PA Politics)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ravenstahl philosophy one of "Crony Capitalism." We have citations.

Resourceful Earth

An evolving clash over development policy foreshadows what will surely be among the clearest visible contrasts among Pittsburgh mayoral candidates this spring.

In response to possible concerns about a $90 million tax-increment financing (TIF) plan for a new Hazelwood development, and in reaction to furor over special zoning changes and shelved notions of a $50 million TIF in the Strip District, URA board member and State Sen. Jim Ferlo caricatured the standard bearer of some of the opposition:

"This is the beginning of a very long process," said URA board member Jim Ferlo, a Democratic state senator from Highland Park. "There are going to be a lot of hurdles, if not some significant roadblocks."

Buncher on Tuesday announced that it no longer would seek the financing, which was being held up by councilman Patrick Dowd, who Mr. Ferlo called "Doctor No."

"As far as I'm concerned, this is going nowhere fast," he said. (P-G, Mark Belko!)

It is a politically interesting exchange in that Dowd and Ferlo's respective districts of representation overlap. But more immediately and importantly, it highlights exactly what has long been Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's signature mission and most pernicious stumbling block as city leader: finessing deals with the private sector to get shovels in the ground and cranes in the sky.

In June, Councilman Dowd attempted a characterization of his own:

Your "laissez-faire" policy for development and lack of regard for local flavor is reminiscent of the era of so-called urban renewal – the results of which include the devastating East Liberty and Allegheny Center development projects -- and could have similarly detrimental results in the Strip District. (Letter PDF; see also P-G)

However Dowd's analysis is woefully imprecise. Although "laissez-faire" policies would obviously include granting the private sector wide latitude from planning regulations, labor regulations and taxation -- all of which Ravenstahl is famous for as part of his avowed "pro-growth" agenda -- true free market conservatives would never cotton to such aggressive seeking of public subsidies, public financing, sub-market rates on public land and the non-competitive consolidation of broad parcels to single bidders, all of which Ravenstahl touts as "public-private partnerships."

Although they earn the wrath of economic liberals, what we see in this administration is not conservatism, much less laissez-faire free market capitalism. But rather...

Crony capitalism is a term describing an economy in which success in business depends on close relationships between business people and government officials. It may be exhibited by favoritism in the distribution of legal permits, government grants, special tax breaks, or other forms of dirigisme. (Wikipedia)

It gives me no great joy to employ jargon that has been recently appropriated by Sarah Palin and her brain trust, though its usage seems to predate all that. And I acknowledge the word "crony" bears negative connotations which are not strictly speaking necessary to the development model -- it should be possible to both bestow concessions upon, and lift regulations for, total strangers.

But the model just fits too perfectly, far better than anything else. And we must have a grammar for talking about the differing "development policies" up for debate.

Besides, Buncher Co. of Riverfront Landing has been bragging of its 60-year history as a major developer working with the city and region. And the genesis of Almono LP's project in Hazelwood figured prominently in the e-mails which reveald close ties between the Ravenstahl administration and business figures.

It is less clear what development models are going to emerge as alternatives to Ravenstahl's crony capitalism during the coming election. City Councilman Bill Peduto speaks and writes frequently about consensus and community based development, but I'm not sure if we can engrave that as a comprehensive philosophy. Neither Michael Lamb nor Jack Wagner, as City Controller and State Auditor General, respectively, have had much cause in the course of their day-to-day activities to outline a development strategy.