Monthly Archives: December 2012

Yuletide: A Circle of Friends

One thing we can say with confidence: if Pittsburgh has a shot at surmounting its challenges, it will be thanks to junior staff like Private Pansy, Clover the Clever and Smart Cookie.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

Buncher Co. Gets Strip District Zoning it Wanted

The Vantage Point: Dr. W.J. McKibbon

Who could possibly have doubted it?

Councilman Patrick Dowd has raised numerous concerns about the project, including the possibility of gated streets in a residential part of the development and what he described as an inadequate buffer between proposed buildings and the riverfront.

He has also raised concerns about Buncher’s proposed purchase of the historic produce terminal, now owned by the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority. Buncher wants to demolish one-third of the building to extend 17th Street to the river, and Mr. Dowd said Monday that the developer would use at least part of the building as a “crappy strip mall.” (P-G, Joe Smydo)

In response:

“He seems to be angry about a great many things recently. He usually gets that way around election time,” said Yarone Zober, the mayor’s chief of staff. (Smydo, Something completely different)

This was a tough one for this blog. On one hand, the opportunity for good things to develop on those parcels was always clear and tempting. And there was an extent to which we really wanted to demonstrate that we here are more than reactionary nay-sayers.

On the other hand, as time and the public discussion wore on, that very potential started to work against the urge to move quickly. It became less about breathing fiscal life into some barren asphalt, or cramming residents into a shopping district, than it was about pivoting Downtown and setting the tone for a whole riverfront expansion of it.

The revelation about private drives did not help matters. The extent to which surface parking will be tolerated came as a surprise. Assumptions were made as to the degree to which river life and riverside recreation would ultimately be accommodated. And former Mayor Murphy’s recollections about warring with the Rooneys on the North Shore yet later being thanked by them was illuminating.

Why was a majority of City Council so intent to press forward?

“I guess I just don’t have as many issues with the development as you do,” replied Councilman Corey O’Connor to Dowd’s presentation of proposed amendments. One of the few who spoke directly to them. Because that’s how these things typically work — listen politely to all the facts and arguments provided, remain silent in response and vote the other way anyway.

I’m not quite sure how it’s possible, to have no issues with the development. There was a lot to improve, and one would think, a lot of leverage to do it with.

That was the alarming part of this process.

“It’s their land! We can’t tell them what to do on their land!”

Well, to an extent we absolutely can. That’s what zoning is. It is really, honestly nothing else but that. Every time we hand over a ton of land or development rights to a sports team or another developer — we can’t tell them what to do on it, but we should be able to tell them categorically what not to do. The extent to which the “We have no choice!” argument was cavalierly put forward was a little disconcerting.

There is no turning back, once zoning is done. If they are permitted to do something at the outset, they can do it for all time, period.

Council President Darlene Harris mentioned to the Comet how this is all going to return to discussion of the Produce Terminal. The Produce Terminal. But if the mayor’s Historic Review Commission recommends demolition of it on Buncher’s terms, it would take six votes on Council to gainsay that. I’m not liking those odds.

Harris also insisted that development will begin with only the northeastern-most parcel and continue east, up the river. That nothing is going to be built on the majority of the land we have been looking at for at least several years. That interpretation has been disputed.

The question remains, why negotiate so little and move so quickly? It’s uncomfortable to contemplate, but was the argument that Mayor Ravenstahl couldn’t get something done for the business community that terrifying, that they pulled out all the stops? Raised all the sails? Made all the deals? Frankly, given the rhetorical bombs being dropped on Buncher’s vision and the lack of any vocal defense of it, I didn’t see a way the thing could pass after a certain point. I underestimated them.

Dowd’s many rejected amendments still exist, somewhere. On canary, or perhaps goldenrod paper. Mayor Peduto said he didn’t see in them anything that came out of the “Dowd playbook” (not sure if that was an insult or a compliment) but from the Allegheny Riverfront vision and others, and supported them all. Councilor Kraus said he was deeply impressed with Dowd’s work and his exhaustive knowledge of the issue. Councilor Rudiak was plainly flabbergasted that something so wonderful appeared on the Council’s table.

But no more votes. Not piecemeal, not for any single one of the scores of them. Nada.

The whole affair places Dowd at an interesting political crossroads, incidentally. He has gone quite far criticizing Mayor Ravenstahl for this, not to mention for the pensions strategy implementation and on character issues, or at least leadership issues. And suddenly Council members O’Connor or possibly Harris have supplanted him as the new swing votes.

It seems Councilor Dowd can either “reset” his political posture over the new year’s break, seeking to recapture the middle and all that comes with it. Or he can press forward as part of a faction whose members’ style and whose strategic capacity are not everything he desires — but where his own politics seem most naturally to belong. Stand where stands and let the chips fall around him.


I guess he’s going with Option B.

Bill Peduto campaign themes & vision: Courage, Efficiency, Collaboration and Clean Up

Brooklyn Bridge Park

* – UPDATED below with VIDEO from Announcement

To me, those four seem to be major themes on Councilman Bill Peduto’s own new mayoral campaign website.

Bill Peduto was the first elected official to call on the city to seek Act 47 status and was criticized for his stance at the time. Bill understood that the only way to balance the budget was a complete restructuring of city government. In 2003 Bill proposed a series of cost-saving measures to the city budget aimed at restructuring how the city spends money — although these measures were rejected by other city leaders at that time, these amendments eventually became part of the City’s Act 47 Recovery Plan. (Issues)

That includes courage and efficiency right there. It’s a strong argument for leadership chops, if you happen to be enthused about a city on an upswing.

Bill Peduto has also been directly involved in over $2 billion in transformative redevelopment of the city’s East End. Through his 16 years of work representing and working in Council District #8, Bill Peduto has had more experience in transforming Pittsburgh’s economy into a Med/Ed New Economy than any other politician. (About)

This could be trickier. Get ready to see Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s forces raise concerns about gentrification. No, I’m not kidding. Don’t click away…. expect the Ravenstahl team to find exceptions in and reservations about how Peduto applied a “growth” philosophy, maybe through strong surrogates and a fair number receptive to that argument in the community. If there’s one thing that’s always more controversial than development, it’s redevelopment.

There is even more material in the “Blog” section: the post on the parking lease is particularly strong. It alleges a $2 billion projected leak in the lease deal bucket that frankly is news to me.

Okay, enough. Own words. Enjoy.

UPDATE: Announcement video:

Ravenstahl Themes and Vision: Growth, Etc.

Andreas Munzer via rbbgear

Available freely as updates on the City of Pittsburgh mayor’s office news page:

[W]e must view these accolades as a challenge to keep improving.  Through partnerships that nurture innovation and job growth, and balanced budgets that hold the line on taxes and invest in programs to keep our neighborhoods safe and clean, together we will make sure that Pittsburgh stays on top. (Luke Ravenstahl)

There follow several recent examples and stories.

Growth, and the minding of the environment for it, continually emerges as a key theme.

Community is alluded to obliquely under responsibilities to provide for safety and cleanliness. Civic process, justice, data-based decision making and efficiency as well as key known hurdles did not make it into this one edition of the news.

Read it if you’re just getting started, and want to learn about the Ravenstahl administration in its own words.

Budget ’13: Serene and Satisfied

KushinagarOnline: A heritage of India

It’s almost too exquisitely quiet.

With little discussion, Pittsburgh City Council today gave preliminary approval to the city’s 2013 operating and capital budgets. (P-G, Joe Smydo; see also Trib, Bob Bauder)


So parking, pensions, development and vision aside, we of the many tribes are all agreed: this is a good game plan for running the City for the next year. Good!

We should thank Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, his Finance Department, the Harris Council and the ICA in that order if we seek to be perfectly appropriate. Yes? And the Controller. And labor leaders. Even the pension fund managers this year, who reportedly achieved about 12% returns!

And the Framers, and Providence.

The degree of unity is heartwarming. Onward into Fiscal Year 2013, Pittsburgh! Woo! Bugger your budget holes!

AND STAY TUNED:  For more on that riverfront situation.

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Political Notes 12/10

TV Tropes

One mayoral contestant from each land mass might not be such a pointless endeavor for challengers, suggests Joseph Sabino Mistick at the Trib.

That idea presupposes there are a large number of people in the south who would be excited to vote for Controller Michael Lamb, but absent that possibility will go ahead and vote for incumbent Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Hmmm. Possibly. Just another reason that if we don’t start seeing rich and publicly available polling data appearing by the early part of next year, I’m going to start vandalizing property.

He also writes:

Expect incumbent Ravenstahl to take credit for every good thing that has happened here since he became mayor. Couple this with blaming all the bad things on someone else and he has a pretty standard campaign strategy. (Trib, Joe Mistick)

But we are reminded today in an article lightly recapping Pennsyvlania Society festivities that this formulation leaves out the more-personally negative complement of any good strategy.

“Bill and I have been opponents now for six or seven years,” Mr. Ravenstahl said. “Since the day I walked into office he was running against me.” (P-G, Olson & Langley)

Expect a fair bit of this: “Peduto is a bitter and jealous man.” Again it’s been suggested that three challengers might make it harder for an incumbent to effectively go negative, but I don’t know. We have noticed zero PA Society recaps mentioning Lamb, nor in order to draw a contrast did Lamb appear conspicuously in the community over the weekend. We shall see.

Meanwhile, Brian O’Neill at the P-G finds the mayor “never gotten over [the lease] defeat” and more importantly, “chronically unable to get five votes for anything”.

It occurs to me. The only present Council member who was around back when Ravenstahl ascended is Bill Peduto. All the other names and faces have changed over the six years. Yet at each epoch in the archaeological record the Council has remained only halfway stocked with halfway, uncertain, situational Ravenstahl allies.

This mayor has made a lot of hay vilifying City Council. But at this late date, isn’t this more or less the Ravenstahl Council? Love them or hate them, isn’t this about the best Captain Ravenstahl has been able to manage?

FAILURE AFTER FAILURE: From the Parking Lease to Riverfront Redevelopment, Mayor Ravenstahl disappoints

Futil1ty; Knowyourmeme

Part One in an occasional series.

Corrected and Updated.

The administration of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl exhibits a lot of great qualities: a good nose for commercial growth opportunities, a baseline respect for data and research, a nice wide daring streak, a creative bent and a burning desire to transform the city for the better. And it doesn’t hurt that the man at the helm is very well-spoken and sharp.

Mayor Luke’s greatest difficulties have lain in execution.

Take the current talk of the town, the Allegheny Riverfront: long in the making along the north bank of the Strip District and Lawrenceville:

Mr. Murphy, who made re-imagining the riverfronts a priority as mayor from 1994 to 2006, made a rare return to city hall to speak to city council on legislation that would create a special zoning district for Buncher’s 55-acre mixed-use Riverfront Landing. Councilman Patrick Dowd circulated 15 proposed amendments, and council postponed a vote for one week. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Dowd’s amendments to the proposed zoning legislation would give several principles and features in the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan ( a 20-year conceptual reorientation) the force of zoning law, among other things. He and Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who represents the area now, say they hope the amendments will pass final legislation will pass so the proposal will not be “deemed denied” at the end of the calendar year.

That’s a lot of work for three weeks, while the budget is being completed. And that’s if the Buncher Co. declines to openly revolt against radically changing their development vision, multiplying the setbacks and givebacks and other costs and delays.

There are several ways Mayor Ravenstahl might have avoided this. Any one of which might have sufficed:

1. Been far more realistic with Buncher since 2006 (or at least 2009!) that whatever develops in the westernmost Strip (“Riverfront Landing”) will have to be of far greater public utility and interest

2. Negotiated a more transparent and conservative program for tax-increment financing of the entire project

3. Done a better job organizing, communicating and deal making with Strip District stakeholders

4. Comported himself with City Council in such a way that he could have achieved one or two more votes on the nine-member body through charm, deal making or prior political conquest

Pgh. Biz Times: Joe Wojcik

Instead, the ineffectual execution has resulted in necessary growth of Pittsburgh’s central business district stalling out. The drinking well itself has been permitted to go all murky and strange. CORRECTION: The special zoning district is in fact moving forward with de minimis alterations, although the tax increment financing for the project is still up in the air. The lack of meaningful concessions demanded of the developer come as a disappointment to many.

For another key example in a similar vein, flash a take backwards to Mayor Ravenstahl’s parking lease proposal for pensions solvency and security:

Architectural Drafting Servicff

City Council last week defeated his plan to lease parking garages and meters for a pension bailout in a 7-1 vote (with one abstention). Mr. Ravenstahl has called for a pension summit Monday while bashing council’s parking-for-pensions alternative and offering to compromise on his proposal to lease the parking assets for 50 years.

As if overwhelming defeat of the parking proposal weren’t enough, council members also accused the mayor of bad policy-making and a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. (P-G, Smydo & Lord)

The City might have successfully brought in $400 million+ of investment for the pension fund and for capital needs without raising taxes and without cutting core services if the administration had only done any one or more of the following…

1. Written a more realistic, flexible and demanding RFP and gone on to negotiate a more assertive deal with winning bidder LAZ/JPMorgan right off the bat

2. Proposed committing more of the revenue to pensions and less to capital budget caprice

3. More aggressively and persuasively sold it to the people of Pittsburgh, instead of ceding the battleground to its opponents throughout the summer and early fall of 2010

4. More attentively nurtured his own reputation for ethics, such that stakeholders might have trusted him to negotiate a complex, high-value deal with the private sector

5. Comported himself with City Council in such a way that he could have achieved one or two more votes on the nine-member body through charm, deal making or prior political conquest

So what we were left with come the end of that full, unnecessary year of bitter stalemate and stonewalling was a short-term, small-bore solution, including a budget hole that actually remains curious.


Time and again, the best laid plans and protestations of the Ravenstahl administration for how to move the city forward get rebuffed in acrimony, incredulity and failure. That’s no way to move a city forward so it can continue generating dividends for the next generation.

In future blog posts we will examine how this pattern of political failure repeats itself in ways sometimes as crucial and as potentially transformational as a long-term infrastructure lease and Strip District redevelopment.

UPMC’s Tax Exemptions on the Watch List: This is what a Grand Coaltion looks like.

Marvel Database

New from Scaife’s Scythe:

On the “Watch List”:

• UPMC. The tax-exempt status of the health care giant is under increasing scrutiny. Its untaxed holdings have become quite vast. Compensation for more than a score of executives is quite high. Its charitable care, while numerically high, is a small fraction of its income pie. Expect the matter to end up in some court somewhere sooner rather than later. (Tribune-Review, Edit Team)

The right-leaning editorialists didn’t deign to mention the contemporaneous labor organizing drive (and why would they?). This feels like an endorsement for consistency under whatever regime of government redistribution reigns lawful, and a demonstration of empathy for a public which feels starved of economic justice.

Empathy, and a little qualitative empirical support.

MEANWHILE: Rich Fitzgerald pounces (Trib, Bobby Kerlik). The P-G offers several Collected Works worth of background.

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