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.
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:
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.”
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?”
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.