by Helen Gerhardt
Bill Rudolph seems very enthusiastic about Bill Peduto’s vision of a”grand boulevard” on Smithfield St, as laid out by Mark Belko in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past Sunday. “It could be the icing on the cake.” Rudolph said, “A street like that in the middle of Downtown could take it to a whole new level.”
Bill Rudolph has at least two hats from under which he can observe matters of downtown development. Bill Rudolph serves the City of Pittsburgh on the board of directors of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Bill Rudolph also serves as a principal and a member of the investment committee of McKnight Realty Partners.
Two hats. Two roles. Two angles of vision. If Mr. Bill Rudolph could stand in the middle of that not-yet-quite-grand Boulevard of Smithfield and look down toward the intersection with Sixth Avenue, here is what he would see:
Mr. Rudolph could look left at one of the properties on this street that McKnight Realty owns, 610 Smithfield, home to tenant Fragasso Financial Advisors, Flaherty & O’Hara Attorneys at Law, and, at street level, both the Carnegie Library and Brooks Brothers.
Then Mr. Rudolph could look to the right at the former Gimbels building where McKnight Realty not long ago housed their old tenant, Office Depot, the building that may soon house another clothier. Of course, the deal might be more tempting for possible incoming McKnight tenants if Mr. Rudolph can influence Pittsburgh decision-makers to clear the way for some more attractive peoplescapes. Those crowds of working people waiting for the bus on the sidewalk sometimes don’t look so grand,especially when they’re being rained or snowed on.
But then, Mr. Rudolph is one of those decision makers. As one of five URA board members, should we trust that he did not influence the URA vote in 2012 for what seems like a sweetheart deal for McKnight Realty, working hand in hand with our current Mayor Ravenstahl to secure the plum development of the former Saks Fifth Ave property, along with partner developer Milcraft Industries, including space for at least 600 car-dependent shoppers to park and pay big bucks? How can observers not be concerned that Mr. Rudolph and his development company did not directly profit from his position on that board in a clear conflict of interest
CLARIFYING UPDATE: Bill Rudolph did not cast a vote as URA board member on this decision. There’s a good reason why I framed our concern as a question about the disproportionate influence of his interests on the public development planning process and decisions that his position on the URA board allows him. But I see that without including information on Mr. Rudolph’s recusal from the vote there is a clear implication that he actually violate the legal parameters of conflict of interest and I apologize to all for my use of a phrase that allowed such a misunderstanding. I thank the commenter that pointed out that information, as well as for the further information that they provided that should surely be a matter for more public consideration.
In my radio conversation with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on Essential Pittsburgh, as Community Organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit, when I raised the concerns about undue influence of developers in the public transit planning process, and the need for more substantive public input, Mr. Fitzgerald yet again asserted that riders should not expect door-to-door service.
But how can we not consider the likelihood that Mr. Rudolph is not using his URA position to currently advocate for the comfort and profit of another future McKnight Realty tenant, the Embassy Hotel, about to move into the Oliver Building, just a little farther down Smithfield, where door-to-door valet curb service for the well-suited and high-heeled would evidently be inconvenienced by the current bus lane?
In our meeting with Mr. Fitzgerald yesterday, when PPT Coordinating Committee member Paul O’Hanlon, also a member of the Committee for Accessible Transportation and the Disability Rights Network, reminded Mr. Fitzgerald of the removal of the old highly-used bus stop at Fifth Avenue and Wood Street after pressure on Port Authority by wealthy developers, with numerous, widely expressed negative impacts on our community of persons with disabilities, Mr. Fitzgerald assured us that he had never heard of such concerns about that stop and that we should trust him that there would be no such influence by developers in current planning.
How can we trust Mr. Fitzgerald to listen and respond to drivers, who know the practical operation of the system the best, and the riders who are most affected by his decisions, when they have been ignored so many times in the past, when he flat out states to us, “there will be no buses on Smithfield?” He acknowledges that research shows that public transit is far more efficient for mass circulation, that cars cause far more gridlock, but states to us flatly, “No, we’re not taking cars out of downtown.” No plan yet, he states, but most certainly it seems that he has already made several unilateral decisions without either community process and without regard to hard data on comparable efficiencies and outcomes from across the world.
After all, the Embassy hotel’s deep-pocketed, out-of-town guests don’t really need those buses to travel through the showcase of an urban cake that is envisioned as the future of downtown Pittsburgh, for the profit of those developers that can afford to cater to those who can afford be served by hotel labor making far below living wage, customers who will shop at the fancy boutiques that will be invited from afar to occupy our city, who will fill the seats of stadiums, who will eat at fancy restaurants on the cleared sidewalks. The men and women who work hard to produce the wealth and have been shunted elsewhere, well, let them eat cake, if not the “icing on the cake,” as Rudolph referred to the Les Grand Boulevard Smithfield of at least some people’s future vision.
Such priorities can be seen in gentrified urban streetscapes across the globe, as described by economist David Harvey.
How often are developmental projects subsidized by the state in the name of the common interest when the true beneficiaries are a few landholders, financiers, and developers?…Quality of urban life has become a commodity for those with money, as has the city itself in a world where consumerism, tourism, cultural and knowledge-based industries, as well as perpetual resort to the economy of the spectacle, have become major aspects of the urban political economy… a ‘new urbanism’ movement that touts the sale of community and boutique lifestyle as a developer product to fulfill urban dreams. (David Harvey, Rebel Cities)
One of the things I love about Pittsburgh, after the far chillier civility of Minneapolis, is the way that people talk to each other, joke together, share stories, out on the streets, in checkout lines at stores, out at the bus stops, talking with each other across all the very real divides of race and culture and class. But I’ve got to admit real surprise at my long conversation with Mr. Rosenstock, the owner of what can only be termed a boutique shop, the Canadian Fur Company right next door to the old Office depot.
He did not look too hard at my scuffed tennis shoes, he very kindly showed me around, invited me try on a fancy, fur lined coat I couldn’t dream of buying, and then he sat down with me to talk. He spoke out strongly in support of both Mr. Bill Peduto, who we both cheered on in his campaign for Mayor, but also for the public transit roaring right by his door.
“If you move the transit to the outside perimeter of downtown, you’ll hurt local businesses, create worse congestion, block up those outside streets, take away our foot traffic” he said, and too many times under the current administration, “big businesses come from out of town, they make their money and send it somewhere else.” Mr. Rosenstock doesn’t want an exclusive protected habitat for his customers – and he does indeed want to encourage more of the shoppers who can indeed pay the big bucks for his luxury goods.
Such business can indeed bring in much-needed tax revenues for our cash-strapped city, to help pay for the basics we all need – schools, sewers, street repair, bus shelters. Development can be a great thing, Mr. Rosenstock said, but he knows the downtown is the main connective hub for the countywide Port Authority system. He couldn’t see good reasons for the city offering decision-making power, big perks, and incentives to tenants from outside our city that ultimately did not reinvest in the larger community and downtown business district. “But I’m very hopeful, I really think things are going to be changing for the better with Peduto. I’m going to write him a letter about this.”
I have no doubt that Mr. Rosenstock would have listened with just such respect to Patricia Bates, a resident of the Hill District. She makes it clear that her concerns are not just about her own comfort as a working person: “I spend hours every day commuting by the buses. I’m a personal care attendant in Dormont for an elderly woman who needs me – I get up at 4:30 am and go out a half hour early to make sure to catch an earlier bus than the schedule says, because if that first bus is late for me to make my transfer downtown, my client can’t take of herself. We’ve seen a lot of decisions made from above by developers like the Penguins here on the Hill that have had really bad results. We need to have more of a voice in what happens with our routes.”
And Ms. Bates is a very respectful listener herself. When it comes to the transportation planning decisions that affect us all so much, we need to have Mr. Rosenstock and Ms. Bates, small business people and personal care attendants and developers and hotel workers and drivers and transit planners and social service agencies and theater directors from the Cultural District, all talking together, sharing concerns, experience, and first-hand knowledge of how our communities and lives can better fit together as linked by public transit.
In his campaign, Bill Peduto promised to change the old patterns of Davey Lawrence top-down planning, to fully engage communities in the decisions that would affect them most. Ms. Bates and Mr. Rosenstock and me and so many other Pittsburghers who want to believe in a functional democracy, we will work to be ready to do our part. We will wait to see if campaign promises will roll forward into reality.
Pittsburghers for Public Transit invites all who are affected by or involved in public transit planning to participate in one or more of a series of public meetings to fully consider these issues. We will develop an outline of concerns, priorities and proposals to promote more inclusive and informed public engagement in public transit decisions. These outlines will be presented to media, transit planners and our elected officials in early 2014 as Mr. Peduto and Mr. Fitzgerald begin the work of bringing City and County together to begin planning new route configurations downtown.
All editorial views expressed at the Pittsburgh Comet are my own, and do not reflect the positions of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.