Monthly Archives: September 2008

Tuesday: More On Crime

Churches “will be asked, for example, to volunteer a lot of information up front, to communicate with our Police Bureau on identifying and coming up with the gangs, organizations, et cetera, … so we’ll have a good gauge of who these criminals are in our communities,” Mr. Ravenstahl said, after honoring 18 faith-based organizations that joined his 52 Weeks of Peace effort. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Oh, right. We remember the press conferences. How did that go?

That effort had churches host anti-violence presentations for youth and encourage their members to anonymously report crime tips. Mr. Ravenstahl said that getting the organizations involved with law enforcement resulted in an increase in the number of anonymous tips, but had no statistics to back that up.

The effort didn’t lead to a placid year. The city’s 58th and 59th murders took place on Sunday, keeping it on pace to outstrip the decade’s worst year — 2003, when 74 were killed. The record is 83 slayings in 1993.

Didn’t we just receive something from the mayor’s press office about crime being at a 40 year historic low? Did anyone get any statistics to back that up?

Thank goodness (and the council representative of District 9) that something more palpable than the same tired old expressions of outrage and concern finally seems to be on the way.

“We’re terribly concerned by the recent spike in violence,” said Mr. Ravenstahl. “It’s unacceptable. It has to change.”


I know. I know! It must sound like an unending, one-sided drum beat. But does this Mayor have any notches in his belt?


Be that as it may, just because the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime sounds good to people like me and likely you, that does not mean it is playing so great everywhere. Not even among some of the constituents of the aforementioned rep from District 9.

Rashad Byrdsong, founder of the nonprofit Community Empowerment Association in Homewood, said access to jobs and affordable housing, not more aggressive policing, is what will stem violence in predominantly black neighborhoods.

He said programs like Operation Ceasefire are a “quick fix” to quell gang violence that won’t last.

“It’s a Band-Aid. They’re using a broad brush to get young people into a gang database,” he said. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Hard to imagine how more knowledge about the problem is a bad thing.

Frankly, it’s also a little hard to turn up one’s nose at a real life “quick fix”, so long as “more aggressive policing” means more aggressive appropriate policing of prosecutable offenses, not more indiscriminate brutality — as Byrdsong’s terminology might suggest.

My understanding is that the community, as part of its end of the bargain under such plans, is to speak up vociferously if and when the cops do screw up their end of the bargain. The theory is that with better knowledge of the criminal landscape, and with more structured interaction with the community, there should be less screw ups.

Judith K. Ginyard, a real estate broker and mother of two, said a lack of jobs for the unskilled is the biggest reason that some turn to crime.

“That’s really the biggest issue — that it’s very hard to earn money here in Pittsburgh,” said Ginyard, of Homewood. “And when you’re unable to provide for yourself and receive a decent salary, you’re not able to purchase your basic goods and services. It’s a domino effect.”

That sentiment is huge — that crime prevention is less about policing than providing opportunity. We have a lot of sympathy with it, though many who hear it persist in regarding it as a demand for a handout.

There should be more resources available for job training and job placement. Businesses themselves get repeated and truly massive handouts from the URA and other agencies because we so dearly need to spark large-scale economic activity; why is there no money available to spark individual economic activity?

Unfortunately, there are not a ton of jobs to be had in Pittsburgh (as we’ll get to in a moment), and some of that can be traced to there being no place to work within these very communities. Businesses will not locate to these large swaths of Pittsburgh until crime goes down and stabilizes that way.

It’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing — but if a “Band-Aid” can help move us toward a prosperous chicken coop, I’m optimistic about it.


These could be the first in a whole new genre of stories about how local political leaders are trying to help us weather the storm — or the End Times — whatever it is we’re weathering. Before long, the skill of “relating to the struggles of hard working families” will be at a premium at every level. (P-G, Mark Belko; P-G David Guo)

Schultzy points out that it’s all Altmire’s and Murphy’s fault. (Burgh Report)

Our Acquaintance is a little more politically liberated to prosecute whomsoever she might deem appropriate. (Trib, Jason Cato)

Telling you. Restoring street grids is the new black. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

Until the city boldly rebrands itself by changing its name, nothing will help in terms of tourism — not the biggest, greenest, shiniest, swoopiest, collapsingest convention center in the world. Or an adjacent hotel. More on this point eventually. (P-G Edit Board)

That Serendipitous Digital Billboard Proposal

A draft plan by California-based consultant The Active Network, picked by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s administration in January 2007, calls for a new network of electronic signs — among other things — to bring millions of dollars to the city. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Utilizing our Rich Lord Secret Decoder Ring, our very first question is whether The Active Network indeed suggested this plan involving more electronic billboards, or if the administration suggested to The Active Network that it suggest this plan to the administration.

Our second question is whether The Active Network has done anything else whatsoever for us since this extremely ancient Comet post of almost two whole years ago.

The Active Network started work in January [of ’08]. A month later, news broke that Lamar Advertising got approval for a 1,098-square-foot digital billboard, Downtown.

We’re getting mixed signals from the Decoder Ring on that tidbit.

That approval — granted without public hearings or votes, later revoked, and now the subject of a zoning fight — led to the resignation of Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford and calls by some for state or federal investigations.

Nonetheless, the first plank in The Active Network’s plan, floated to officials this month, is signage.

Never mind, now the dang thing is going berserk. This seems like A Curiously Active Network indeed.

Some city officials are leery of over-saturation, especially in parks.
“If [any] advertising would be involved, it has to be in an area where the public would expect to see it,” said Planning Director Noor Ismail. A logo on a basketball court may be O.K., but a soft drink ad at a playground might not.

I don’t ever expect to see a digital advertising billboard, personally. Every time I see one outside of the Cultural District and promoting something other than cultural events, I am surprised. Surprised and dismayed.

Now, that’s just me, but that brings me to my third and perhaps largest question: what is being suggested sounds vaguely reminiscent of the “6 for 36 Deal” and the Memorandum of Understanding all over again.

We have ordinances. We have a zoning code. We have a process for determining where and under what circumstances … yada yada yada. What is being proposed here precisely? We trust someone will reassure us soon that we’re not going down the rabbit hole again.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ravenstahl was just interviewed on WDUQ in regards to the grand opening of the Grant Street Transportation Center. Apparently, it’s exciting because it’s on a boring street corner where “nothing was ever really going on,” and now the building can be the gateway to the Strip District and be really exciting.

(Maybe you had to be there to see why that’s a little humorous).

Monday: Shock Therapy

Norman Harrison (sic) fears Hill District landmarks like the Crawford Grill and the Granada Theater might eventually fall prey to a wrecking ball.

“The Crawford Grill is like Stonehenge or the Blarney Stone. It’s a shrine,” said Harrison of Shadyside, a retired clinical psychologist who was among 40 “Heroes of the Hill” (sic) recognized Saturday at the Build the Hill community conference. (Trib, Rick Willis)

A fundamental point of contention during the movement towards the Community Benefits Agreement conjoined with the erection of the new Penguins arena was whether and how to address the root shock suffered when the neighborhood was decimated during 1960’s “urban renewal”, and further aggravated by riots sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Did the Penguins “owe” the Hill District community for affronts in the past? Did the City of Pittsburgh? Did the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority? If “owe” is not the right word, was there any special moral obligation entailed in this next arena-induced neighborhood transformation?

If obligations or imperatives do exist, how best to address them? Job guarantees? Economic empowerment? Strategic reinvestment? Creative city planning?

Are we trying to heal wounds? Are we trying to manage trauma? Or is redemption of any kind an illusion — will it be enough to avoid “repeating the mistakes of the past” and move forward with new development? (It’s a serious question.)

One concrete thing to consider is to what extent does the CBA that is now all but fully ratified enable, facilitate or encourage the kinds of things which will address the specific historic malady of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

It is one thing to arrange for a tranche of public benefits to justify public subsidies, or even for public rights-of-way and considerations. It is another thing diagnose a specific problem and prescribe an appropriate remedy.

It is also interesting to consider (and hard to avoid noting) that this Build the Hill conference seemed to be organized by folks more associated with the Hill Faith & Justice Alliance, formerly the Minister’s Group, formerly the “Hill District leaders” who had taken the lead in advocating for and negotiating for community benefits prior to the inception of the One Hill coalition.

The Hill Faith & Justice Alliance did not sign on to the contract, which pledges the parties to support arena construction as long as its enumerated obligations are met. Preservation Pittsburgh and the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP), both significant member groups within One Hill, according to our information (we do need to fact-check this) withdrew shortly before the signing of the contract.

Justice. Preservation. Empowerment. Root Shock.

Carl Redwood of One Hill was clear that this CBA is an important step in the right direction, but there is still work ahead — and much left to be determined. That seems like a fair assessment. It will continue to be a very interesting story for all to cover.


It’s too early in the morning to think about this shit. (P-G, Rich Lord)

If this guy doesn’t win his case, there ought to be a law. (Trib, Jason Cato)

A life sentence without parole is a long time for a minor — that’s all we’re saying. (P-G, Moriah Blangit)

Revenue is hard to raise. Money’s too tight to mention. Are we the only ones who would rather Our County Exec did the politically unpalatable thing on this occasion as well, and found a use for that little windfall? (P-G, Edit Board)

Everyone who’s worth their weight in salt has discovered already that this election over. (


Friday: Action!

Do you read the Comet?

Not out of a sense of, say, grudging dread and paranoia, but from a desire to be informed and info-tained, or at least gratified by reinforcement of your own preconceived worldview?

If so, you may be interested in surfing over to the Progress Pittsburgh PAC and giving them ten dollars right now.

They’re good people whom we can vouch for, and they’ll do righteous things with your money. Click the links, read up, and if you like what you see give them your digits. We’ll wait for you. Go ahead. Dum dee dum dee doo. You back? Good! We’ve got a swell thing going on out here in the Intersphere (as you know) but the rubber’s got to hit the road sooner or later. The spring primaries are right around the corner, and Pittsburgh’s more decent challengers need excuses to run — and excuses to demonstrate to even wealthier contributors that they deserve serious money.

Somebody vetoed campaign finance reform, after all, so now we all have to play like bigshots.

It won’t be the last time we ask you, but it’s important their little PAC enjoys an impressive start-up. Think of it like the Obama spam you’ve been receiving in your inbox. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for! Aren’t you proud of my husband! There is no try! Ditty mao!


So the annual budget first goes to the state oversight boards — and only then, upon approval, will it get submitted to City Council? Nice government we’ve arranged for ourselves!

The Mayor also announced that the updated plan will increase the City’s annual payment to the Pension Fund by 15 percent in 2009, cut 65 vacant positions, and put 40 more officers on the patrol by hiring civilians to take over administrative functions. (Pittsburgh, Doven & Zober)

One minor point for now.

Excellent that 40 more police officers are being put on the streets. Does that mean we are adding 40 brand new persons to the payroll? And will that mean it will be inaccurate to say things like “we’ve cut 65 jobs” — especially when the jobs we’ve cut have been long vacant, and the jobs we’re adding are, well, occupied? If we are expanding the workforce, we should be frank about that.

C’mon, people. That’s just off the top. It’s a budget — how hard can this be? [UPDATE: 50 bonus points if anyone can muster an argument that claims the budget is structurally unbalanced … or non-structurally balanced]


Three shootings this week that carried the deadly signature of retaliatory gang violence are the sort of attacks Pittsburgh police might be able to prevent by this time next year, city officials said Thursday. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

The perception sure isn’t that violence is at a “40-year historic low”, as certain press releases would have us believe. But at least the plan is being hastened, and that should be applauded.

“We want you to know, the hammer is coming,” [Burgess] said yesterday, in a preview of the message of that meeting. (P-G, Rich Lord)

You’re gonna send Jim Motznik after them?

But for those looking to escape thug life, there’s “a pot of jobs at the end of this rainbow.”

Only in America.


Superintendent Mark Roosevelt argues that the goal of the policy is keeping students engaged in the educational process. And Pittsburgh is not the only district to take this view of grading. In suburban Philadelphia, the Bensalem School District had a task force look into testing and grading, and the panel recommended the minimum score of 50 percent.

But giving students marks that are higher than they deserve is grade inflation, a practice that is dishonest and does a disservice to the students themselves. (P-G, Edit Board)

The Comet comes down with Superintendent Roosevelt on this one.

Let’s say there are eight exams during the term. If a student scores 20’s on the first three exams (let’s say due to a bad run at home, or prior to some intervention) he or she would have to score 85’s the rest of the way only to escape with a D. Hard to rationalize showing up for the rest of that academic year under those circumstances.

Meanwhile, if those 20’s were to be counted as 50’s, a student who picks it up to a respectable 70% average from there on out would get a passing grade. Any student capable of picking it up and maintaining a C average after that kind of start deserves to pass.

Failure is failure. The District is assigning a baseline value to failure on an exam, and ensuring that kids who fail a test or two especially badly do not to blow off the rest of the term, get held back and fall into more serious spirals. The difference between a mathematical 10 and a 50 is only the difference between guessing well and poorly on multiple choice tests. No one is being given a free ride, and we’re not allowing Western civilization to rot.

See, Rosey? We’re not so bad. Say, how is that community input committee that is supposed to decide “what to do” with the Schenley building coming along?

O Come All Ye Faithful

On What’s Been Happening

Now efforts to resolve recurrent city billboard conflicts have been overtaken by a debate over whether the Kraus measure [from April] was deliberately hijacked or merely overlooked. Either way, the city’s Planning Department managed to have de facto veto power over the legislation, which should not happen, and the city failed to get moving on a policy that keeps sparking controversy.

It’s time to get to the substance. (P-G, Edit Board)

Alright, if you say so.


City Councilman Ricky Burgess and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl teamed to spend $200,000 in grants to bring Kennedy’s expertise in crime prevention to Pittsburgh. Kennedy will work with the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work and city and county police to systematically identify gangs and other criminal groups that are responsible for most of the violent outbursts in the city. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

This may be the only significant news to have occurred in Pittsburgh since we started blogging.

The Comet’s sneak-preview of what is now the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime (PIRC) can be accessed HERE. We are told that for about fifteen minutes, it was to be called the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Violence. That was right out.

The big change since that conversation in July: it is no longer to be unfurled as a pilot program for District 9. The PIRC is to be city-wide at the very least, upon the advise of visiting experts. No sense playing cross-town whack-a-mole.

The encouraging news is that all major players on the Law & Order level who needed to buy in — the police commanders, parole officers, probation officers, magistrates, prosecutors, executives — have bought in. It wouldn’t be getting rolled out, funded, and endorsed by academics if it were otherwise.

Pittsburgh’s hardest young troublemakers will be identified, rounded up, and brought together.

They’ll be told that enough is enough — by grieving moms, neighborhood elders, ex-cons. Some will cry. Others will shrug. They’ll be offered alternatives to the street life. Few will bite.

Later, someone will commit a murder, and the full force of law enforcement will crash down on the perpetrator and their friends. (P-G, Rich Lord)

“Get tough”. “Crack down.” The P-G’s version of the story was awful heavy on the heavy aspects.

This is the root of some of the nascent opposition to the plan. It can sound punishing, although it is designed to be surgically discriminating. We suspect the P-G may have played up the harsh aspects so as not to make it sound liberal and effete.

“It’s not hug-a-thug,” [Prof. Kennedy] said. “We’re not asking. It’s going to stop.”

See? Wethinks they doth protest too much — but that’s fine. As some of the police commanders themselves have indicated, you can’t arrest your way out of this problem.

Pockets of grassroots opposition also have developed because some in the community have felt not quite as clued-in and consulted as one might have expected for a crime plan that relies so heavily on that community. Others feel the PIRC lacks a strong and clear enough economic development aspect.

To us, it seems like there was good sense in securing buy-in from upstairs levels before presenting the community with something with which to engage seriously. However, these are all things to pay increasing heed to moving forward. Without community buy-in, up to the level of ownership, there is no plan at all.

The Mayor’s website provides additional background on plans like this that have worked elsewhere in PDF formats: I, II, III, IV.


Back to that other thing.

Both the Kraus and Burgess bills would broaden the legal definition of electronic message signs to include electrical, LED, plasma and other displays. Under the Kraus plan, City Council would have to vote on their approval, where the Burgess measure would give that authority to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

A fair and rational interpretation of our present zoning code would include electronic billboards as one species of “electronic message sign” — and therefore prescribe conditional use approval, that is, the Council’s approval.

To illustrate this: we know “tickers” do require conditional use approvals. There is no way the framers of our zoning code intended that those narrow little scrolling message signs containing time, temperature etc. should be subject to a higher level of scrutiny than far larger and more intrusive illuminated billboards. To have demanded Council’s attention to the smaller thing and not the larger thing would have been absurd.

However, that was before the Ford Doctrine took effect — which informed us that somehow, due to dubious and carefully stage-managed precedents, electronic message signs only mean ticklers, whereas electronically illuminated billboards were as yet entirely undreamt of in our philosophy.

Mr. Kraus’s legislation therefore constitutes a reiteration and a restoration of the existing zoning code. Mr. Burgess’s legislation weakens that code in a manner that advantages the advertising industry.

“To bring [every permit] before council would be an undue burden on both council and the applicants,” [Burgess] said. There are more than 100 billboard permits on hold due to the moratorium. (P-G, Rich Lord)

The inundation of the Planning Department with troves of new applications just prior to new legislation being considered is standard industry practice; a form of intimidation and coercion. We can dispense quickly with that consideration.

The burden Kraus’s legislation (i.e. the status quo) would allegedly place upon the Council is still a legitimate matter for debate — as is the prudence of trusting the ZBA to these decisions in the context of a fiercely pro-advertising administration and an activist and well-heeled advertising lobby.

Such matters will soon be sorted out on the merits, or for other eminently rational reasons.


Thursday: More Mundane Mud

“I will be sitting down to provide [Ms. Buchanan] with information I have been made aware of,” Mr. Shields said, adding that he did not have a date for the meeting. (P-G, Rich Lord)

That’s great, but a watched pot never boils. The Comet is hereby rendering any chatter about pending investigations to be effectively inoperative.


The legislation by Councilman Bruce Kraus would have given City Council a vote on all new electronic billboards, and was sent in March to the Planning Department for a required planning commission review and vote. That vote never occurred, and without commission approval it takes the votes of seven of the nine council members to pass the legislation.

Effectively, city staff vetoed the legislation, said Council President Doug Shields. He accused Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s administration of “dumping our bill in a drawer somewhere. … There was a deliberate attempt to interfere with a legal process here.”

Planning Director Noor Ismail said the failure to get a planning commission vote on the legislation was “an oversight on our part.” (P-G, Rich Lord)

Shades of the August Wilson house fiasco.

It’s strange how this administration is constantly going hard to the mat for billboards. Our Mayor has put himself on record on how many occasions professing his great admiration for them? Even when the issue is the legality of a specific application under the code, the conversation always steers back to his grand opinion of outdoor advertising in general.

It’s strange because A) no one in their heart of hearts actually likes billboards that much [we will not argue this point], B) it’s not as though the “vibrancy” argument is so effective that he’s scoring major points with the electorate, C) the outdoor advertising industry is hardly the only industry that contributes significantly to his campaigns; i.e. he could afford to deal them a setback once in a while, and D) it’s not as though he hasn’t taken his hardest hits on this very issue. We even know that E) one of his closest political allies on the URA board has been an outspoken foe of the billboard industry.

Yet ever still, it’s Cheney : Oil :: Ravenstahl : Billboards. Why?

Last week Councilman Ricky Burgess introduced legislation that would give the Zoning Board of Adjustment — rather than council — the job of approving or denying electronic billboard permits.

“To bring [every permit] before council would be an undue burden on both council and the applicants,” he said. There are more than 100 billboard permits on hold due to the moratorium.

We wonder if this is prudent. The ZBA is subject to the mayor exclusively, and under most circumstances is so obscure as to merit very little scrutiny.

Monday: The Face of Hope

UPDATE: Emboldened by this uncharacteristic support from the Comet, Dan Onorato bursts into the Post-Gazette Editorial Sanctum to demand retribution from ATU Local 85 (P-G, Jonathan Silver, plus video).

The labor contract turned down by Port Authority’s drivers union would not have produced the multimillion-dollar savings sought by the transit agency.

The three-year contract recommended by a state-appointed fact finder would have saved the county’s transit agency just an average of $325,000 a year. (Trib, Jim Ritchie)

Although Port Authority management for its part accepted the proposal, it would not have come close to the $10 million in savings called for in the new budget, let alone $20 million required to fully balance the books.

(Or so it would seem. See NoComLefBehi. KZ’s analogy is eluding us, or perhaps it’s the calculus — we’re slow to apprehend how 3 x $325K can = $90M)

Anyway. The message we want to relay is that we’re starting to suspect that maybe, just maybe, both sides are hyping up the conflict (and fears of a looming work stoppage) out of convictions that a minor panic will help their own respective bargaining positions — when they are actually just haggling over the margins of a relatively routine contract renewal.

Maybe the change most opposed by union officials was having workers nearing the current retirement age of 55 to work longer to secure the highest level of post-retirement medical benefits.

We’re not loving every aspect of management’s approach to negotiations — in fact, it’s high time some meaningful shared sacrifice was offered — but a retirement age of 55? Followed by free healthcare for life? These don’t sound like things that organizations can offer in this day and age, not outside of Sweden.

Yet at the end of the day, no one seems to have the cajones to attempt fundamental reform of the organization and its culture: up, down and across the board. Each side is trying to face down the other and earn its attaboys. Tinkering at the margins.


Since Sarah Palin was unable as mayor or governor to sidestep the “actual responsibilities” of decision-making
[groan], she ought to tackle an issue like, say, “The Bridge to Nowhere” forthrightly by explaining the difference between the giving and receiving ends of the federal “pork” pipeline. A politician’s record can withstand a change in responsibilities, her thinking on an issue, or both. (P-G, Ruth Ann Daily)

Yes, but instead she haughtily boasted of having said “Thanks but no thanks” to said bridge. That’s not tackling an issue, that’s facemasking it — a flagrant, 15-yard-plus-loss-of-down facemask, not a 5-yard “unintentional” slip-up.

And Mr. McCain? He long ago staked out an unpopular position on the Iraq war, and it nearly ended his campaign. Now that the surge has succeeded, his unwavering stand has attracted gratitude — and voters.

Has succeeded? Ruth Ann breaks major news in today’s paper! When we pass the house in Deutschtown with the lovely garden and the “Mission Accomplished” banner, we must stop in to inquire further.


A cautious reaction today on the part of the P-G Edit Board, which seems confused and bewildered by the array of data points before it — and as yet ill-equipped to offer much guidance.

A long ordeal at Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has come to a costly, unsatisfying conclusion. Let’s hope cleaner operations lie ahead.


We can only hope Mr. Stephany, now that he is officially in charge, will steer this agency of 100 employees and $100 million a year in city developments in a different direction.


Let’s hope they mean it and that Mr. Stephany is up to his new task. It’s time to bring good-government practices back to the URA.

Update: Do you think Our Edit Board is being coy and suggestive? Could they really be that mischievous? That would be very blogger of them.