Saturday, September 7, 2013

Comet Sunday Magazine: Lower Hill, Over Sight and Transit Transition

Hey! You...

*-UPDATE: P-G editorialists agree that the City shouldn't be a pushover here, and that insisting on making further public assistance contingent on public-spirited improvements to the project makes sense.

Mayoral front runner Bill Peduto kicked off the post-Labor Day trimester by raising the stature of common demands regarding taxpayer investments in economic development:

To date, the team has not contributed anything toward the site improvements, he said.

"We're paying for all of the infrastructure without them putting a dollar of their own money in. Nobody else gets that. Nobody. And their argument is that's what the Steelers and Pirates got [on the North Shore] and my argument back to them is that's why the SEA's going bankrupt," he said, referring to the agency's chronic financial woes. (P-G, Mark Belko)

The SEA failed to win a major federal transportation grant in support of the Penguins' designs in the Lower Hill, so the details of the negotiation changed if not the principle:

"If the Penguins were to go to a bank and ask it for a loan, the bank would have certain requirements to benefit its shareholders. If you're going to the public asking for public subsidies for private development, it would only make sense that there would be something that would be able to come back to benefit the community," he said. (P-G, Belko II)

Read both.

Some things which leap to mind:

A)  After almost seven years of this I cannot recall ever having read (and so much!) about a pending grant application, let alone sorrow over one's rejection. Officials typically do not advertise things that are not done deals. This confirms to me that the "free" federal millions were in part intended to influence and greatly hasten a complex public conversation surrounding city zoning and land use approvals.

B) A few of our anonymous comments are complaining that Peduto supposedly declined to lobby the feds on behalf of this grant application. If that is so, it would have been a laudable decision. Without more "free" money for the Penguins' project used as a battering ram, we can now rationally address things like a dearth of complete streets in what will be a crucial and central corridor for servicing pedestrians, bicyclists and mass transit. We can also cajole the Penguins into presenting its public infrastructure plans together with its actual development plans together with its community improvement plans. So people can actually tell what is happening.

C) The feds were wise to reject this transportation funding application anyway because it was not really a transportation project; it was not designed primarily for moving humans from point to point. If you look at the 2013 grant winners, especially the major ones, these were literal people movers. In the future, Pittsburgh will be using TIGER grants for transportation projects, so we should expect to meet with better success.

D) Seriously, it was not a transportation project:

But [Penguins COO Travis] Williams, SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo and Urban Redevelopment Authority Chairman Yarone Zober say officials don't have enough money to finish redevelopment of the site and reconnect Downtown and the Hill District for the first time in a half-century.... Work to prepare the former Civic Arena site includes installing utility lines and building and rebuilding the roads, including a new one that would go through the heart of the site and connect Downtown and the Hill District. (Trib, Tom Fontaine)

Only there is no such street proposed. Nothing new is crossing the Crosstown Expressway. Nothing new is tunneling through the Doubletree Hotel. All connections still hinge on Centre Avenue, which you may have noticed already exists. There is zero truth-value to these statements.

Know Your Meme
I would assail the reporter, but the exact fiction keeps resurfacing, so somebody is obviously very good at telling it. I hope whoever is this skilled and persistent fiction teller it is not with the Penguins, because the Penguins are not going anywhere.

For this particular fiction is an abomination; the concept of "reconnecting the street grid" tugs mightily at Pittsburghers' heartstrings. Such a thing would indeed be of inarguable civic and historic benefit. Instead it is being used as a ruse to manufacture consent.

While using public dollars for this objective is problematic enough what really is disturbing is the  way so many of this proposal’s backers invoked the Hill District’s history as a location of African American exploitation as though this development was in any way dreamed up as a way of remediating those injustices. (Hillombo)

E) Similarly it is argued by some that however the Penguins plan to rebuild the Lower Hill, it will help rebuild the lives of the people who inhabit it. While redevelopment absolutely can provide jobs, opportunities, improved living spaces and other benefits to that community, there is yet nothing here solid which indicates this project will do so. The notion that whatever provides maximum profit for the corporation down the hill will naturally "trickle up" past Crawford St. appeals naturally to some, but there is little historical evidence in its favor.

The good news is, we now have the time, space and leverage to firm up redevelopment strategies such that a rising tide can indeed float all boats. Until Wednesday Sept. 11th, the Southwestern PA Commission is actively soliciting public commentary on transportation plans. You can assist the Penguins in looking up from their short-term balance sheets by telling the SPC this development will be more sustainable, more vibrant and enjoy more community good will if it includes complete streets, good accommodations for public transit, and most importantly if more time is granted for the neighborhood and the Penguins to have a broader conversation.


Another thing that would help is if the City of Pittsburgh achieves full financial recovery, such that it can more heavily invest in its neighborhoods without relying on anyone else.

In turn, it is important that our state financial overseers are both efficiently run and transparently operated. Right now...

The audit for fiscal year 2011-12 -- the most current audit available for the authority -- shows that it spent $469,342. That's about $84,000 above it's state allocation of $385,000 for that year.

That year, Mr. Sciortino's compensation package cost the authority $305,401, which represented a more than $55,000 jump from the previous year. Sam Stephenson, a partner at ParenteBeard who performed the audit, said the increase might be explained by a policy for unused vacation and personal days. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

The P-G Editorial Squad summarizes obvious concerns. I wonder how the ICA Director has things like "vacation days" and "personal days". It's not my impression this is the kind of gig where one clocks into an office at 9:00 A.M. on Monday, works four hours 'till lunch and again 'till 5:00, gets chewed out by some boss and repeats through Friday. My impression has been we were not even Mr. Sciortino's only client.

A Jan. 2009 Comet article when this ICA Director last became controversial revealed a few yellow flags:

  1. He seems to have wound up with Pittsburgh's business inappropriately in the first place.
  2. He rearrived here fresh from a financial and legal bloodbath in Jefferson County, AL (though was apparently blameless).
  3. As the point-person for bond deals in the PA Treasurer's office, he seemed conspicuously non-heroic in preventing Pa taxpayers from getting overcharged by a factor of ten.
  4. He suggested to me at the time that all Pittsburgh had to do pension-wise was keep paying 5% over the minimum due towards pensions to fully fund them... without adding a note about how that was fast becoming impossible.
  5. He was sponsored locally by one-time ICA chairman, now chairman of the embattled Turnpike Commission, longtime well-connected local businessman, political financier and occasional muckraker target William Lieberman.

Improving processes at the ICA should really be the main issue, such as its utilizing transparent financial software -- even if by "software" we mean Post-It Notes. Anything will do.


Due to new state law, the board of the Port Authority of Allegheny County is changing to reflect more influence from across the state and across political divides.

At first, the new system looked better than expected as far as Democrats and Pittsburgh transit-advocates were concerned: six appointments out of eleven for the County Executive, and none exclusively to the County Council Republican minority after all. Seemed like we dodged a bullet!


Under the new law, a supermajority of seven members must agree to "take action on behalf of the authority."The upshot: For Fitzgerald to effect changes at the authority, he will need support from more than his own appointees.

And Republicans have a special power to thwart Fitzgerald's agenda. Tabling a bill — delaying action on it — ordinarily requires a majority, unless it's opposed by board members appointed by the party opposite that of the county executive. In that case, only two opposite-party votes are needed to halt actions like hiring a CEO or approving contracts over $5 million. (City Paper, Lauren Daily)

Many are now suggesting that Republican State Sen. Joe Scarnati got his pound of flesh after all -- and so the next round of labor contract negotiations could lead to even more significant cutbacks.

How again did this supposedly get started?

Fitzgerald accused Turnpike Chairman William K. Lieberman — who supported former county Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty's unsuccessful campaign for county executive two years ago — of lobbying Scarnati for the legislation, calling the senator “a puppet.” Lieberman did not return calls.

“His terminology is insulting at the very least, let alone outrageous,” Scarnati said. “The statements reflect the real immaturity of his thought process.” (Trib, Fontaine & Bumstead)

Hmm. The terminology was a problem; it was so damaging it had to be punished.

What was our County Executive's thought exactly? Now that the Port Authority reapportionment bill is finalized, and now that House Republicans have proved themselves incapable of passing transportation funding no matter how nice we play, it might be worth discovering any truth in the suggestion that Mr. Lieberman has some control over the President pro tem of the state Senate.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Tuesday: Returning to our Labors


The Go Soak Your Head, UPMC Labor Day Parade was enthusiastically well-attended, and looks set to become an annual tradition. (P-G, Steve Twedt)

Speaking of which, twenty-six employees of that purely public charity make more than a million bucks a year, although the CEO's daughter modestly earns not quite half a million. (PBT, Kris B. Mamula)

Pittsburgh Quarterly asks the question, Who is Bill Peduto?

"I'm a student of cities," he explains. In a radio interview sandwiched between appointments, he namedrops Prague, Ljubljana and Gaziantep. The latter, an eds-and-meds metropolis in Turkey, is Pittsburgh's newest sister city, thanks to an agreement engineered by the councilman last year. He responds to the questioner with intensity, tumbling together East End accomplishments and international ideas. Then he stops short.

"I don't want to get all Richard Florida on you," he says with a grin. (Pgh1/4ly, Christine O'Toole)

Turns out Bill Peduto is someone who has always wanted to be mayor and who has prepared extensively for it. That much should be refreshing.

Peduto recently revisited his major campaign plank of finding a way to provide quality early childhood education as a new feature of the Pittsburgh Promise. He showcased a new poll (pdf) indicating "overwhelming" public support for investing in such programs (during an epoch when public investment in anything whatsoever is highly controversial).

As the candidate's 100 policy papers were being paraded out day by day, a common critique was, "Sure, but how is he going to fund this stuff?" In the coming years that emphasis is likely to shift to, "Wait, you're actually committing funding for this? Like, out from other things?" Obviously federal, state and nonprofit resources would have to contribute, but in order to access those there would inevitably have to be a real local commitment.

Peduto continues to indicate that the return on investment makes this one a worthy priority.

Council District 7 candidate Deb Gross has withstood all legal challenges to her claim on the Democratic party nomination. She is now reaping the rewards of endorsements by the 'Burgh's biggest labor unions (Early Returns).

This has not deterred rival Tony Ceoffe from mounting an active and feisty challenge as an Independent, posting his own collection of lengthy but as-yet noncontroversial policy positions to Facebook and...

The pair have continued to tangle over debate plans. Mr. Ceoffe unilaterally scheduled two candidate forums in September, which all other the candidates other than Ms. Gross are planning to attend.

Ms. Gross will debate in other forums organized by community groups, including two set tentatively for October in Bloomfield and Highland Park. (P-G, Tim McNulty)

Behind-the-scenes: On Monday Aug. 19, the Gross camp sent out a media release "inviting" the other candidates to four candidate forums "hosted by neutral, recognized community organizations and/or media outlets" and adhering to "best practice standards" as determined by the League of Women Voters -- at times and locations they might all later agree upon. As if on cue*, on Wednesday the Ceoffe camp issued releases for and broadcast the dates and locations of two candidate forums "sponsored by Ceoffe for District 7," at which the Pittsburgh City Paper "has tentatively agreed to participate." Then on Friday the Gross camp responded with a release chiding the Ceoffe camp for hosting "staged campaign events" and "without consultation with any community organizations." *-CLARIFICATION: Tony's campaign chair requests it be made clear that they knew nothing of Deb's Monday release before issuing theirs on Wednesday (which indeed was my impression). The Comet regrets that the chosen idiom "As if on cue" leaves room for interpretation.

Still, the announced events appear still to be on, and a third "Ceoffe & Donuts" meet and greet this evening guarantees even more voters will know how to pronounce the candidate's name.