Monthly Archives: January 2008

Assorted Notes from the CoS

Every time we take the Pittsburgh Pist-Gazette down off the top shelf, its editrix gets all productive.

In Leaving Town Just In Time, Dan Onorato is accused of running a tidy and efficient shell game on his taxpaying constituents.
Too bad Dan’s desire to hold the line on property taxes isn’t rooted in a concern for the betterment and success of the county he governs. Too bad Onorato apparently views Allegheny County as a handy vehicle he can ride to Harrisburg and nothing more.

In Jane Orie: Another Straw (Wo)Man to Knock Down, cases are made for policies the Comet does not necessarily favor — but some rank scapegoating by that same present Democratic party establishment is exposed.

Whether it is her intention or not, Jane Orie is already acting in Pittsburgh’s best interest by smacking down Ravenstahl/Shields/Motznik every time they try to wiggle out of the “spending constraints” of Act 47. Go Jane! as she also guards the county by calling Onorato on the carpet for his outlandish Port Authority ponzi game.

Finally, in Couldn’t We Just Trade Places For A While, the inaugural sentiments expressed by Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter are contrasted with those of mayors closer to home.

– Crime rate can be reduced by providing jobs for ex-offenders. Government can help businesses create those much needed jobs by making it easier for companies to function. Philly’s zoning code needs to be reformed, taxes must be reduced and the tax code must be simplified.

– Philly must control their costs, stabilize their pension fund and come to grips with health care cost increases. Wages for public employees must be fair and reasonable, but also fair and reasonable to the taxpayer who picks up the tab.

– Government must lead by example. And that means ethics and transparency.

Yeegad!

Jack Piatt of Milcraft, Others Get a Great Deal

City Council approved the sale of some land by our URA, at a significant loss, to a nebulous group of people.

UPDATE: The aforementioned Piatt contributed $10,000 to Ravenstahl for Mayor, and his company Milcraft was a Gold Sponsor of his inaugural. Does someone have time to research the other buyers?

The URA bought the parcels, bounded by Forbes Avenue, Market Place, Fifth Avenue and McMasters Way, for $6.48 million from 2002 through 2006. URA general counsel Don Kortlandt said the agency has “historically invested more in redevelopment properties than the market can.” (P-G, Rich Lord)

It looks like people are content to take a pass on this*. Council voted 5-0 with three abstentions.

Lessons learned. For example, we now know the URA is fond of out-investing the market with publicly held assets — at least on behalf of the right sorts of people.

“That’s the cost of taking a bad situation and turning it into a good situation,” he said. “You’ve got a cluster of things that are going to come to Fifth Avenue and turn it from a boarded-up, depressing place” into a vital marketplace.

Let’s hope for the best. Something needs to happen in that corridor. We don’t want another Tom Murphy situation. Do we?

Hey, what all is going in there? What kind of painstaking, exhaustive research went into determining what it’s going to be?
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*Actually, I Luv Luke provides some related prose.

What up, Wolf Blitzer.

Did Todd Reidbord ever end up answering any of those questions? Seriously. By all means, arrange something through the proper dignified process.

Wednesday: Last-Minute Fares

Allegheny County officials face an uphill battle when they travel to Amsterdam this week to convince Northwest and KLM Royal Dutch airlines to offer direct flights between Southwestern Pennsylvania and Europe.

Pittsburgh was on the short list of airports the two airlines were eyeing for nonstop service to Amsterdam, the Regional Air Service Partnership, a group lobbying for international service, said last month. (Trib, Justin Vellucci)

As the Comet has been saying all week, this is a hugely important business venture for the future of our region. It requires nothing less than the full personal attentions of both our mayor and county executive. They should stay in Amsterdam until the mission is complete.

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“When you make a 15 percent cut and you only lose 3.5 percent of your riders, that’s not too bad — although any rider loss is not good,” said authority spokeswoman Judi McNeil. Authority officials hope to know late next month whether the Jan. 1 fare hike will lead to further erosion in its client base, she said. (Trib, Jim Ritchie)

Would it be fair to assert that Port Authority public transportation, not great five years ago, has only gotten worse?

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City school board member Mark Brentley Sr., who represents the Hill and supports neighborhood demands, said he wants to postpone a vote set for tonight’s board meeting on a Penguins’ plan to have team officials and staff talk with students about career choices.

“My concern is the timing,” Mr. Brentley said yesterday. He said he didn’t want to create the impression “that we’re aiding one party or another party” in the contentious talks. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Mark Brentley for City Council. Mark Brentley for Mayor. Mark Brentley for State Senate.

The move comes as negotiations toward a community benefits agreement, or CBA, appear to have slowed. The One Hill Community Benefits Coalition wants development funding, first dibs on jobs for Hill residents, a grocery store and community center, more park space and input into a neighborhoodwide plan as conditions for building the arena there.

“Slowed” may be an understatement. Things may not have moved any further than the original proposal handed down by Ravenstahl and Onorato, with the exception of the specified grocery store. We have heard nothing else about the use of seed money, for example, or any other form of economic stimulus.

The article fails to mention the other Hill District group, the newly named Hill Faith & Justice Alliance.

One Hill didn’t strenuously oppose a Jan. 14 city planning commission vote on the arena master plan, which passed 5-3. The coalition, though, will “oppose all arena construction activity until we have an agreement,” said Mr. Redwood.

Comet readers are encouraged to take a serious second look at the Hill Faith & Justice Alliance.

“I see [an agreement] happening,” said Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who represents the Hill. “There’s no turning back.”

Our spider-senses are tingling.

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Pat Ford at the Planning Commission

Pat Ford did not speak to the Planning Commission on behalf of the mayor, nor on behalf of the URA. In fact, you probably will not find his name on any official record of that hearing.

Pat Ford’s role was to sit just behind Chairwoman Wrenna Watson, whisper instructions in her ear, and basically run the room.

Before we go any further, we should remind everybody that the hearing was captured on video by no less than three television news cameras and two documentary filmmakers. If our impressions and recollections are in error, surely there will be a way to check our account against the facts.

As stated, Ford was seated just behind Chair Watson. Throughout the hearing, he would lean forward to initiate whispered conversation with her — most frequently on the occasion of any confusion as to procedure, or when any objections were raised that were not easily dispatched.

The most obvious example of this was when the Commission finally considered whether or not to admit public comment by thirty or so residents who had not signed up at the first session three weeks prior.

Since the microphones around the table were broken that day (a separate issue we hope), commissioners passed around a cordless microphone. When the commission finally opted to discuss whether or not to allow new speakers, Ford himself “ruled” that the microphone be shut off.

Chairwoman Watson complied, setting the microphone almost ceremonially in the center of the table. When objections rose from the crowd, causing some of the commissioners to look unsure, Ford hissed at them twice to quickly go ahead and talk — whereupon the board leaned in close to each other, and held a minute-long whisper session.

All of this was conducted without any indication from the Chair that the panel was doing so, or justified in doing so; the whole episode probably is not reflected in the public record.

Once again, Ford was seated just behind Wrenna Watson. To his immediate left was commission member and Walnut capitalist Todd Reidbord, to whom he would also lean and hold occasional discussions. When Reidbord got up to go to the basketball game, Ford followed him outside for a time before returning.

On Ford’s immediate right stood a very polite, very imposing police officer. When Ford decided the public was getting too ornery or asking too many questions, he took the responsibility of goosing the officer forward to demand order and quiet.

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That is the portrait of Patrick Ford at the Planning Commission — sitting behind the Chair, whispering, making rulings, leaning left to confer with Reidbord and leaning right to exert a police presence on the assemblage.

A powerful and active presence that officially did not exist.

There is reason to infer that Ford had even more influence on the meeting behind the scenes — and not only in the congruity between the legal argument he offered at the USX Tower hearing, and the scripted exchange between a commissioner and the City Solicitor at this Hill District hearing (both of which neutered the commission in precisely the same way).

For example, after public commentary, Sidney Kaikai stepped forward to introduce and explain 16 amendments to the Master Plan having to do with parking. On every other occasion, it has been customary to make these presentations beforehand, precisely so the public can understand the amendments and comment upon them if warranted.

Instead, the late-night presentation served to drain all the energy and many of the people out of the room before the controversial vote.

There is also the issue of how the hearing came to be split up into two sessions to begin with — how the first session had to end promptly at 5:00 PM, and how the second session came to start only at 4:40 PM but rolled on through the night. This is to say nothing of the effect of scheduling so much other business — the casino included — prior to this Hill District matter on both occasions.

The neighborhood opposition to the master plan was thereby divided, diffused, and thrown into considerable confusion. More time was spent arguing about procedure and propriety than examining the Master Plan.

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How can we infer that these scheduling machinations were also the result of Pat Ford’s influence? The administration has been hinting for months that the URA and City Planning are going to work closer and closer, if not merge outright.

Ravenstahl said he has been examining ways to streamline the city’s planning and development functions for months, but it’s “premature to throw out a number” estimating possible savings. “I think if you look at our history over the past year as an administration, we’ve been very clear and steadfast in trying to find a more streamlined process for the business community and economic development. We’re going to continue along that line very aggressively,” Ravenstahl said. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Then there was this seeming teaser from a mayoral press release upon Ford’s ascension to URA director:

“The URA is the economic and community development arm of the City of Pittsburgh,” Ravenstahl said. “With Mr. Ford at the helm we will have strong continuity between my Administration and the URA. Expect to see further structural changes taking place under our leadership to increase efficiency and further streamline permitting in the City. Stay tuned.”

Just last week, the City received a $200,000 grant from the state (Trib, Jeremy Boren) to hasten the work of dividing the city into 16 sectors, complete SNAPshots of them, and centralize the whole process of City Planning. Sources indicate to us that this funding is essentially going towards folding more City Planning functions into the orbit of Pat Ford’s URA.

Last week, we asked mayoral press secretary Alecia Sirk if she would forward to us the latest press materials on a possible merger between the URA and City Planning. She answered that a merger between the two outfits has really been put on the back-burner, if not taken off the stove altogether.

It could be that the URA has found ways to surreptitiously exert the control it has determined it requires over City Planning, without the political risk of overtly encroaching upon what was designed to be a far more public and transparent decision-making process.

MLK Highlights

The P-G’s Amy McConnell Schaarsmith covers a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 79th birthday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

“Everybody was involved — there was no big me and little you,” said the Rev. Peters, the Henry L. Hillman associate professor of urban ministry at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a member of the East End Cooperative Ministry, an interfaith social services group. “Dr. King saw it first, how to break down barriers not just of race but any barrier between people.”

Check.

“The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one,” he said, quoting from the speech. “There are no broad highways to lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.”

Double-check.

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” the Rev. Downing read from Dr. King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” “It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Food for thought.

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The P-G also asked people throughout the Pittsburgh area, “What would King do?” Most of the respondents outdid themselves.

Martin Luther King would have had a blog and a dream.

His rallies, his struggles in the community — you would be able to get up every day and read about his struggles on his blog. He would download his speeches to podcasts.

Okay, we threw that one in there. It was from a certain Donna Baxter of thesoulpitt.com.

Rich Fitzgerald, President of Allegheny County Council, is succinct:

He would want people to stop focusing on the color of each other’s skin and start dealing with the very real socioeconomic injustices that exist in our society. Bridging that gap is how we will achieve Dr. King’s dream.

Similar material from Councilman Ricky Burgess, District 9:

Certainly, Dr. King would continue his consistent concern for social justice. He would also continue with an advocacy for the nation’s poor. Toward the end of his life, his concern became more and more for the nation’s poor of all races. There are some issues on which he would certainly be on the front lines. One is education. … The most common grade given to an African-American in America is an F. I think Dr. King would also encourage African-Americans to participate in the political process.

I think that Dr. King would be trying to lead an inter-racial campaign for equity and justice.

African-Americans in Pittsburgh are not only doing badly as a group, they’re doing badly in relation to African-Americans in other cities.

Finally, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl:

If Martin Luther King were here today, he would be championing the fight to ensure that our neighborhoods, our leadership and our workforces be more unified and harmonious.

We have to interrupt here. Dr. King was actually a troublemaker, was he not? He wasn’t known to lose sleep over legislators doing their jobs.

If I could engage him with us today in the City of Pittsburgh, I would ask him to travel with our DiverseCity 365 Road Show, which focuses on recruiting more minorities for professional city careers, to help us develop a more dynamic and diverse staff that both represents and serves our residents.

In turn, King surely would have been amused all by the political window-dressing.

When Dr. King got around to demanding justice of our mayor regarding public land and public processes, how do you think he would have responded when he and his people were accused of asking for hand-outs?

Interview: Patrick Ford (Part 2)

As we alluded in our introductory Part One, URA director Pat Ford is a man of lists.

When asked to describe his policies for economic development, he spoke of conceptual devices, based upon years of research, that are of his own invention.

Together with an array of awards from the Association of Consulting Engineers, the American Planning Association and others, it is fair to say Pat Ford is something akin to a guru.

SNAP, for example, stands for Sector Neighborhood Asset Profile, and is used to get a “snapshot” of each neighborhood utilizing census data, Community Information Systems, Geographic Information Systems, and a variety of city departments and agencies.

The Neighborhood Vitality Index, meanwhile, uses socioeconomic and administrative data to categorize neighborhoods as stable, transitioning, or challenged. It incorporates the same sources of data as SNAPshots, and also takes into account eleven indicators, based on discussions among “experts” who took into account certain benchmarks in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and miscellaneous others.

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It was late September, and we tried to steer the discussion towards the Hill District. Ford deferred on that topic, saying he was then neck-deep in casino business on the North Side, although he may have some staff working on it. The Hill would come next.

Still we asked, regarding the Vitality Index, whether it would not be appropriate to mark the Hill District in the “challenged” column, and be done with it.

Or whether we can utilize the input that has been provided by a procession of organized Hill District groups, and plug those into the formulas.

We did not ask whether it would not be even better to map out lots on a sensible land grid, and let the free market determine the nature of development.

URA Director Ford answered our objections by insisting that the community must be very engaged with process, indeed that the Hill community “has been very engaged with the mayor, with the county executive. There has been such an incredible amount of effort to be inclusive in this process.”

Nonetheless, there was work yet to be done.

The Comet does not recall whether the following comprises a SNAPshot or a Neighborhood Vitality Index, but this was the road to excellence in the Hill as of Sept. 25, 2007.

1. Define the boundaries of the Hill
2. Need to have a strong vision or mission
3. Who are the key players and partners? Who can we bring in?
4. Who’s the organizational sponsor?
5. Clear understanding of:
5A. Assets

5B. Liabilities

5C. Opportunities

5D. Threats

6. Identify activities, set priorities
7. Work to plan a road map
8. Identify funding sources

We asked how long such a process might take; Ford replied that it could be anywhere from 6 to 18 months, or even more depending.

We did not inquire about the cost of such an endeavor, in either dollars or man-hours. We did not ask whether this sounds a lot like a centrally planned economy.

When asked again whether the community does not already have a handle on all of this, Ford said of course it does — but “the most important thing I think is leadership. What has been lacking is leadership and sponsorship.”

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We asked at this point what Ford thought of Community Benefits Agreements generally. Ford answered slowly — clearly he was skeptical. “I have seen mixed results with Community Benefits Agreements.”

“Unless it evolves from a broad-based community planning process,” he went on to explain, “chances are it’s going to fail.”

“How can you improve if you don’t know what needs to be improved?”

At this, we were a little incredulous — these residents live there, they have a pretty good understanding of their own needs, more than a few of them have some sophistication, and many of those have been trying at every step to make their preferences known for half a year and more.

We did not mention that the process was already moving forward, perhaps leaving them behind.

Yes, yes, we were assured, “The community always knows what it wants, always.”

Then after a beat. “But who is the community?”

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We had another piece of business with Pat Ford that day — we did not take kindly to the Planning Commission’s decision to approve UPMC signage atop the U.S. Steel Tower, a reversal of a previous decision it had just made.

Nor did we take kindly to Ford’s central role in making that reversal happen. It was he, during his stint as director of economic and community development, who had warned the Planning Commission that the City would be on “shaky legal ground” if they rejected the UPMC signs.

So we were going to rumble.

“Oh, you think just because the Mayor went golfing with UPMC…” he started in, mocking.

No no no, we assured him, appreciatively. Though we did mention something about his personally not being attorney, and his newly created directorship not being affiliated with the law department.

“I can assure you, I ran it by the Solicitors Office and had it all checked out.” To Pat Ford’s way of thinking (and with the alleged assent of the City Solicitor), there was nothing in the code that forbade the signs on the tower.

“I was furious! They followed the letter of the law.” The way Ford explained it, he was standing up for UPMC in just the same way one would stand up for a neighbor who wanted to put up a fence or widen a driveway. “Their retort was, ‘It’s just too big!’.”

“I believe UPMC and everybody else deserves their day in court,” Ford maintained.

“But they didn’t get it!” we howled.

The law forbids signs above a certain size, and beyond certain parameters — but in our view, and in the initial ruling of the Planning Commission, it did not prevent them from disallowing any sign according to the specifics of the request.

That is why we installed human beings to play this role, we thought.

It allows for situational factors, some of them starkly obvious: the building in question is by far the tallest most dominating of the skyline, it already bears both titular and material connections to another revered industry, and so many darned Pittsburghers just don’t want the thing inflicted upon them.

Sure, the Planning Commission might have gone forward with rejecting the sign, Ford allowed. Then UPMC might have went to court to appeal that ruling.

“That would have cost the city money,” he said, and immediately we knew where this was going. “Why would we do that to the taxpayer?”

The legal question we were discussing regarding Downtown signage — whether the Planning Commission must allow all development outside the penumbra of the code, or whether the code empowers the Commission to make informed judgements on behalf of city residents within specific exclusions — was exactly mirrored in the more recent Planning Commission hearing about the Hill District arena. The Comet will later describe Ford’s role during this arena hearing, in his capacity as URA director and as representative of the mayor.

The Battle of Thamor

Is there any doubt that Battlecat is the heart and soul of the whole He-Man and the Masters of the Universe space opera?

We have some friends who might be of some help.

Paul McKrell Returns to Run for State Rep

Paul McKrell, pictured here with Hillary Clinton before she found her voice in New Hampshire, has returned to Pittsburgh to run for Lisa Bennington’s seat in Harrisburg.

The question is, did he find his voice? There is an interesting backstory or two to this campaign.

McKrell had been executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Young Democrats (PAYD), beloved by most, despised a few. When he decided late last year to begin contemplating a run for Lisa Bennington’s seat, he was muscled out of PAYD — for having committed the cardinal sin of running against (or thinking about running against) an incumbent Democrat.

We don’t know how the head of PAYD can get muscled out of his position, but we assume it works something like how Ken Wolfe was muscled out of the Young Democrats of Allegheny County (YDAC) for having reported improper electioneering among city workers.

McKrell was content to continue his plans for the seat anyway, until former city councilman Len Bodack got in the race. Apparently there were no party strictures against his challenging the incumbent. Bodack in fact offered McKrell a very pretty penny to join the Bodack campaign (and to drop his own bid).

McKrell turned the offer down, but despairing of his chances of beating a well-financed former councilman and an incumbent officeholder, and perhaps feeling a bit ill-used by the local political apparatus, he went off to political purgatory in Iowa.

Fast forward a little over a month. Bennington surprises everyone by dropping out, McKrell’s friends rally to his side, and he returns to Pittsburgh triumphantly to compete for the nomination.

McKrell is an interesting political commodity. An ACDC committeeman, he supported Bill Peduto in the primary (he worked for him in 05) and he never downplayed that support.

However, in the general election he supported the nominee enthusiastically like any good party operative, and by Election Day was considered useful and loyal enough to cruise around with Ravenstahl and Zober, getting into all sorts of trouble.

When asked what his priorities would be in Harrisburg, Paul went right for perks, bonuses, and kickbacks — cleaning up the system. When pressed for policy, his wonkish side seemed to gravitate towards health care and education.

One challenge as a candidate will be the degree to which McKrell looks and sounds exactly like a politician. This problem will not be fixed — yet might still be overcome.

We remember McKrell waiting outside the special public hearing of the School Board on Schenley. The hearing was just getting started, the anti-Schenley consultants were starting to offer testimony, yet the extra rooms were conveniently not yet open. Most of the crowd was gathered around the front door, blocked by officers. No one was rioting, but everyone was jockeying for position; people were upset to be missing out.

That’s when Paul McKrell, clad in his suit and his hair and looking every bit the important official, started yelling, “This is a public meeting, let us in!” Then ten seconds later, “This is a PUBLIC meeting, LET US IN!” This for about five minutes. Eventually we were let in.

Admirably, Paul maintained his control the whole time, despite the force from behind.

The Comet certainly can not yet endorse Paul McKrell for District 21. However, we absolutely endorse the idea of Paul McKrell in Harrisburg.