Monthly Archives: July 2010

Let’s Just Do the Tuition Tax 14 Times!

Opposition to leasing out our precious parking spaces — which would raise over $200 million to pay for what the City has put off many times over — is coalescing around a familiar theme:

Penguins’ Redevelopment Concept to be Scrutinized, Discovered

Haven’t seen a good must-read news article in a while, but this Adam Brandolph joint qualifies with credits to spare.

The report by 4Ward Planning says the Penguins’ plan to add 600,000 square feet of office space around the new arena likely would pull tenants from Downtown office buildings, create vacancies and ultimately drive down rents throughout the city.

It predicts the 209,000 square feet of proposed retail space — including eight restaurants roughly the size of SouthSide Works’ Cheesecake Factory — would take away business from existing merchants, and the 16-screen movie theater would saturate the area. (Trib, Adam Brandolph)

First of all, there must be some miscommunication, right? That has to be eight commercial lots the size of the Cheesecake Factory, some of which will be used for restaurants, correct? Because who’s going to eat at these, are we also installing a new Army barracks?

Either way, the general idea of the report commissioned by the preservationists — aside from critiquing previous studies commissioned by the Pens and the SEA — is that this new sprawling complex could theoretically napalm everything between Stanwix and Wood, and then everything to either side of Piatt Place until we hit Smithfield. Which might be the plan, who knows.

And then there’s this:

“We believe in the potential for economic development here,” McMillan said. “We’ve always thought the best use for the 28 acres is to bring down the obsolete arena, restore the historic street grid between the Lower Hill and Downtown, and create a tremendous development opportunity for the city and the region.” (ibid)

The historic street grid featured twice as many streets — hence these eight much larger proposed new blocks — and the historic streets would plow through straight the U.S. Steel Building and One Bigelow Square. But let’s say the vectors of these connections to Downtown can be reconnoitered.

There’s been some official talk about “ultimately making the Crosstown Expressway a tunnel”. If the restoration of blah blah blah Downtown is part and parcel to the logic of demolition, we should start examining the nuts and bolts of that ambitious undertaking. How much would it cost? What would it look like physically? What is the time line? Who would pay for it — the Penguins, the government, maybe a yet-to-be-conceived-of P3?

If this is the plan — and in pure theory, it would be pretty bonkers fantastic — then let’s really treat it as part of the plan. As it stands, all of the official drawings get kind of vague at just that point before petering out near the border of the page.

Monday: It’s the Politics, Stupid.

Here it is, late summer, and there are so many weighty issues being addressed right now!

Drilling regs, policing plans and oversight, the capital budget, Hill planning and a courageous and possibly unholy concession to actual real communism, electronic billboards, storm water management — there’s even public transit, though that seems comically out of our hands. If we include genuinely contested gubernatorial and U.S. senatorial races, it’s enough to keep anyone overloaded and distracted.

Yet one thing persistently excites our imaginations beyond all else: THE PENSIONS CRISIS AND THE PARKING LEASE.

And one thing, it suddenly springs to mind, lurks squarely in that thing’s shadow: Council members Burgess, Dowd, Harris, Kraus and Shields are up for reelection in May of 2011 — that is, right around the corner from the fallout of this vote. And I guess Lamb also.

(Tangent: potential serious challengers would have to be getting their ducks in a row right about now. Know any?)

What does this mean in terms of the parking issue? It means that if there is an argument to be made that Pittsburgh ought to allow its public pensions to be taken over by the state, you won’t hear it out of Burgess, Dowd, Harris, Kraus or Shields, or possibly even from Lamb.

I think that means you can scratch it off the list entirely.

That leaves two real options: either do the deed, or borrow the $200 million plus at interest over 20 years, and raise the parking rates (or like, taxes) considerably anyway.

The Reelectables probably aren’t salivating to defend a vote to lease away parking spaces and appear responsible for rate hikes — but are they any more more excited about defending a vote that still results in a rate hike of some kind, and in new debt, and therefore a decreased ability to raise money for capital needs and withering infrastructure?

And so, the Comet has the deal’s odds at 80%

… and odds for those individuals of reelection dependent upon A) whether they voted to support it and fail to make it appear as a sufficiently inevitable and responsible “tough choice” or B) whether they voted against it and cannot fend off attacks fueled by wounded-feeling city workers, some discouraged corporate-types, and a wrathful Mayor.


Animal Blogging

First item:

“They panic when they see these things,” said Wildlife Conservation Officer Beth Fife of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “I’ve had calls where people say, ‘You have to remove wildlife from the Pittsburgh area. They don’t belong here.’ Well, they do belong here, it’s their home, too, and when they’re not bothering anybody, we say just leave them alone.” (P-G, John Hayes)

But once again:

Thanks for drawing attention — with the news story “Fowls foul River Walk for pedestrians” (July 1 and — to the problem of geese in Pittsburgh and the negative effect of excessive numbers of geese in terms of cleanup costs, landscape damage, lost recreation and safety (remember “Capt. Sully” landing on the Hudson?) issues.

Pittsburgh has gone to great lengths to beautify its shorelines and parks and remove negative images, but this isn’t helping. I disagree with the assertion in the story from Mark Johnson, Sports & Exhibition Authority facilities director, that permanent solutions are hard to come by. We’re not talking about oil gushing from an uncontrolled deep-sea well here. We are talking about geese, in unholy quantities — and as far as I can tell, these geese are not laying golden eggs. (Trib letters, Barry Fraser)

The political implications are ginormous.

This Week in CPRB: Nothing Happens. (*-CORRECTION)

Things didn’t go as anyone expected, much less predicted, in terms of the process of confirming or rejecting the Mayor’s questioned nominations to the Citizen’s Police Review Board — even though lots of folks obviously spent a lot of time arranging their Stratego pieces across the board.

When Mrs. Harris announced she had decided to delay a confirmation vote on the nominations, council members Bruce Kraus, Bill Peduto and Doug Shields challenged her authority and demanded that council take a vote on postponing the confirmation proceedings. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Right. What?

At 2:43 in the PM — after a long procedural debate and discussion featuring Yvonne Schlossberg from the City Law Department (pictured) — Councilman Daniel Lavelle moved to read the Mayor’s nominations to the Board into the Council record, and then to postpone (not table) the vote (and the discussion) upon them until Tuesday, July 27th (after Council possibly fixes the nominating process). Councilman Bill Peduto seconded this arrangement. It passed 8-0, and *-CORRECTION: Burgess, though off-camera, voted aye; someone else was absent or abstained.

Councilman Burgess then moved that a public hearing be scheduled on the CPRB issue now, so as not to further extend the process. Councilman Shields made sure to recommended this be broadcast on Pay Per View cable television. This passed by unanimous assent.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning also that Shields and Lavelle each introduced bills seeking to fix up the nominating process, and that Burgess has legislation already on the table which among other things would affect that board’s powers.

IDEA: If it weren’t for the G20 — and the notable lengths to which Chief Harper appears willing to go to defend either the City’s legal liability or the discretion of his riot officers — very few of us would be contemplating the CPRB let alone obsessing over it. Nobody ever accused it of being an overly consequential organization until just now.


Tom Corbett: Goes with what he Knows

Elections news:

HARRISBURG — With state government facing multibillion-dollar deficits, Attorney General Tom Corbett won’t be able to keep his promise not to raise state taxes if he’s elected governor, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said today. (Trib, Brad Bumstead)

…and that’s coming from a fire-breathing Republican.

If Pileggi is right, the next governor would have to cut almost one out of every five dollars from the budget just for the state government to stay afloat in 2011-12. Corbett is not saying yet where those cuts might fall. (AP, via Trib)

“This kind of ‘Read My Lips’ crowing is great when you’re trying to collect votes — but frankly the breadth of the ignorance involved here scares me in someone who is supposed to know something about Pennsylvania’s budget.” Is what I would say if I were running against Mr. Corbett for something.


Have a happy and safe Independence Day, Pittsburgh!


RELATED: In the Post-Gazette, Prof. Andrew J. Bacevich.

I’m not sure whether our movie, which Bacevich references by association, provides any satirical support for his train of thought so much as suggests an answer to the dilemma he presents. Gary’s famous speech to the U.N. would seem to recommend something in the direction of full mobilization (that is if we want to listen to Matt and Trey’s puppets).

Sometimes I think that without this film giving Americans pause, they’d have insisted upon the U.S. leaving the Iraqis and Afghans to their joss by now.

SEE ALSO: In his weekly “radio” address (LINK), POTUS insists we will get through all this like always — after accusing his partisan opposition of intransigence in opposing his liberal domestic agenda, and announcing $2 billion in new development deals in Arizona, Colorado and Indiana.

Do you feel the clash?

I’m not sure it makes sense to try and transform our energy economy, fight two wars, and assertively defend the public welfare all at the same time — but I’m not terribly sure even this president can inspire us to “truly mobilize” for successful diplomatic counterinsurgency warfare. To my imagination it’d be like, think Peace Corps on a massive scale, only eventually an IED gets you and they send in someone else. That’d be our beaches at Normandy. I’m pretty far from draft age, but I do get dispatches from OFA so along with others I could get fired up and… yeah, that’d make for an interesting presidency. Certainly historic! Or we could all stop listening to Matt and Trey’s puppets and walk away with an appropriate amount of shame. Also historic only less so. Jeez, I don’t know.

Are we beyond the point of no return? Maybe we’re an empire now, like it or not. And though our nation is a glorious 234 years old, this empire is only 9 and there’s no reason to believe it can get through anything.

Hill Leaders, Preservation Community break Bread at Church Meeting

Dr. Kimberly Ellis, AKA Dr. Goddess, AKA the Executive Director of the Historic Hill Institute, facilitated a catered gathering on Tuesday evening at Ebenezer Baptist Church, for the purpose of properly introducing those interested in preserving the Civic Arena to those in whose community it is located.

“Do you know Kimberly Ellis?” the two young white architects seated next to me asked. “She pretty much speaks for the Hill District.”

What a difference two years and an election make!


Ellis led off with a slide show update on the progress of historic preservation initiatives already underway in the Hill, including:

  • Greenlee Field (named for Sam Greenlee, a numbers runner, and provider of loans, initial investor in the Crawford Grille for the purpose of “laundering his money”)
  • The Kauffman Auditorium at the Irene Kauffman Settlement House
  • The Crawford Grille, which has new investors (including Franco Harris, a retired Pittsburgh Steelers running back)
  • The August Wilson childhood home
  • The New Granada Theater

Summarily, “historic preservation is alive and well in the Hill District”.

This history is poised to be leveraged as part of a community development campaign which will promote “Pittsburgh’s most famous neighborhood.” Ellis explained that although the Hill District does not qualify to be on the National Register of Historic Places, it is exploring forming its own Conservation District.


Nevertheless, “reconnecting the street grid is not of ultimate importance to us,” said Ellis on the topic of the 28 acres of the Lower Hill on which the Arena stands. The paramount goals seem to be jobs, community empowerment, and economic and other development which will encourage vitality and livability further up the Hill.

The slide show continued telling the story of urban redevelopment in the Hill, including: neighborhood demolition, arena construction, official plans to extend the Golden Triangle much further east, promises made and the reality which unfolded, and the community response.

It was pointed out several times that the Hill District leaders of that era were initially excited and supportive of coming redevelopment efforts, although little-to-nothing in the way of community jobs, relocation for the displaced, and new low-income housing ever unfolded. After nearly a decade of this disruption and disappointment and the riots following Dr. King’s assassination, the Hill fell into disrepute as far as redevelopment energies.

According to Ellis, at a recent meeting with the Penguins, UDA architects stressed that “We’ll reconnect your historic street grid!”, representing that their plan is “the only way to make the Hill District whole again.” Ellis acknowledged that the Penguins’ new plans do not actually reconnect anything historic to anything else, but also suggested that the magical palliative of streetwise connections is somewhat beside the point.

This brought discussions to the present. When the Penguins were accorded development rights to the land it became mandatory for them t go through a “Section 106 process” to identify historic assets, gather public input, and assess the effects of a variety of options. Failure to compete the 106 process results in the loss of any federal money going into the project, including for infrastructure. The Sports & Exhibition Authority asserts that they have “about two more meetings” to complete the 106 process, though that claim is controversial.

“We’re here!” was one message Ellis was interested in getting across. “We’re engaged!” in the processes of determining what is to become of the Lower Hill and the arena itself.

Next on the agenda was testimony from select Hill District witnesses as to their lived Civic Arena experiences, and what specific memories that structure preserves for them.

During the years-long process of hammering forth a “community benefits agreement” with the City, the URA and the Penguins, Kimberly Ellis and some of her compatriots were frequently shouted down and disparaged at meetings of the One Hill coalition for insisting on dredging up “all this history” — even when that “history” dated back 2007 and a meeting of the Sports & Exhibition Authority. Now the coalition was doing everything it could to make sure its history was related in what it considered the proper measure and context to what they refer to as the “preservation community”.

Brenda Tate, whose personal history includes sparking more assertive negotiations for that benefits agreement, led things off by saying, “I’m really not here to bash the arena.”

Tate did recall that as construction in the Lower Hill got underway in the 60’s, kids began mysteriously transferring out her her grade school classes. She remembers soot and plaster everywhere during those times also, on her clothes and in her lungs. She remembers regarding the eventually completed arena as a bizarre “spaceship”, although she did say that as an early concert-goer she was wowed by the spectacle of the arena opening up as it did.

Sala Udin, up next, began, “Everyone knows I’d be glad to bash the Civic Arena. But I won’t.” Yet his remembrances of the structure were even less positive on balance.

“We don’t have a current consensus on what ought to happen to the Lower Hill,” he eventually summarized, “but we all have in common a desire to see the rebirth of the Hill District itself.”

And later: “We need to make our decision based on our best interests, and what will maximize development throughout the Hill. We have to ensure a development that nourishes the entire Hill.

“And if that building stands in the way of that kind of development, it must come down.”

And summarily: “It’s not because I hate hockey — which I do,” (a laugh line), “but I would love to see the preservationists fight as hard for the preservation of a people as they do for the preservation of a building. Talk. About. The people.”


A certain Dr. Glasgow [sic] was invited next to relate a historical analysis and some pointed though vague recommendations. He said that “hopefully” something will appear in the Post-Gazette this coming Sunday, which will even further lay out his findings and impressions.

I took less notes during his presentation because I was somewhat spellbound, and if something like it does appear in the Sunday P-G you’re all in for a real treat.

Among his quick-reference recommendations to the neighborhood were 1) Be careful what you wish for, 2) Don’t take anything at face value and 5) Once something gets demolished, you lose all your leverage.

Carl Redwood pointed out that one of the 19 development principles spelled out in the CBA was to “leave no remnant” of the Civic Arena — but volunteered that that is a plank that “could change” if a credible preservation plan that suits the community’s wishes were to come forward. (Another of the 19 development principles was a requirement to reconnect the street grid “with Downtown”, and that seems to be morphing.)

Jason Matthews, an official involved with the development group that seemed for a while to entice Kuhn’s supermarket to the neighborhood, and is continuing to seek replacement grocers for that development (“We’re working hard, and we’re moving forward. We’re working hard, we’re moving forward, and that’s all we’re allowed to say at this point.”) said that “fond memories” of concerts cannot be what the question is about — it must be about economic benefit.

“You’re not going to get a deal done, if you don’t have a relationship with the political leadership” Matthews warned.

More speakers followed. There was concern that if the arena is to be preserved, it cannot be permitted to become “a mothballed building”. There was pointed skepticism that “that architecture” is going to benefit anybody moving forward. There were pointed admonitions that anyone seeking to deal in that neighborhood must “respect us as human beings.”

Yet somehow everybody came up conspicuously short of saying, “I’m against the arena” or “We must tear it down.”

And then, two hours into the history lesson and the relaying of impressions, and after establishing by a literal show of hands that everybody in the room learned something during all segments — Preservation Pittsburgh was invited to present its case.

Scott Leib, volunteer president of Preservation Pittsburgh, held his own shorter slide show which seemed to roughly echo a fair bit of the history covered in the first sessions. A case was made in very general terms that historic preservation can be beneficial for economic development, and can be used as tool to ensure that something enriching to the neighborhood manifests itself on that land.

As for the process being undertaken currently by the SEA, Leib opined, “I think we’re all getting snookered” (borrowing the term from Dr. Glasco’s historical segment). He predicted it would result immediately in no more than 28 acres of surface parking — the most valuable surface parking in the city — and complained that the Penguins have “very little incentive to commence development” any further. In response to some immediate consternation, he agreed that there are deadlines in the lease agreement with the SEA, but insisted, “I don’t think it’s clear,” and reminded the assembled that the Steelers had been permitted to miss deadlines on the North Shore.

After the brief presentation, Marimba Milliones drilled down tightly on one question, as is her practice. “If we decide ultimately that preservation is something we don’t want, will you proceed with historic designation efforts?” Her concern was that this would further delay development.

Leib and the preservationists didn’t answer the question directly. Instead they suggested that two groups needed one another — one had an undeniable history in need of a solution, the other had a building with some public processes attached.

At this point at least a couple in the audience began letting less diplomatic impressions be known.

“There is disingenuity here. The approach of the preservation community has been highly problematic,” offered Bonnie Laing.

Laing explained that in her opinion, “The preservation community has been privileged” in the discussion, and, “there’s a real history of superiority that I see going on. We’re being portrayed as sentimental, emotional.” Preservationists were even accused of suggesting that the issue be mediated “by therapists” because they believe the community suffers from some sort of mental trauma.

This was met with quite a bit of shock and horror. It was shortly discovered that preservationists had floated the idea of utilizing professional mediators care of the Pittsburgh Mediation Center — which only recently has been absorbed by the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime. The idea of some neutral mediation was defended again for an instant, but was waved off by a great many attendance.

Although attempting to rally, the preservationists were now accused by Bonnie Laing of approaching the discussions from a “white supremacy” point of view. As Leib and company protested this characterization, Bonnie’s husband Justin Laing chimed in to counter, “It doesn’t surprise me that would surprise you. You would not be aware of it. That white racial framework is something that you bring with you.”

Finally Sala Udin stepped in again to interject, “The preservationists are not the primary enemy here.” He brought the focus back to the Penguins and the city, and the deal they had struck.

Someone in the Hill community actually said, “The division may not be as wide as I originally thought.”

“We don’t like the word, ‘Snookered’,” Dr. Goddess decided, to pretty much everyone’s delight — and the conversation continued more along the lines of what both sides were trying to do and what they had in common.

Sala Udin had to cut out during the first wave of people cutting out of the gathering, so I caught up with him in the parking lot.

Udin had asserted that if the Civic Arena stands in the way of a development plan that will nurture the Hill District, that arena has to come down. What happens if a plan…

Before I could get the question out of my mouth: “I will fight for it to stay,” Udin said.

I asked him, have those who have come out in support of arena demolition — the Mayor, the URA, other politicians — have they come forward to offer anything in return for the community’s support for demolition? Does the fact that the “power structure” supports demolition make it easier to go along that route?

“No, I wish they would,” on the question of whether they had been offered deals. And to the later, “No, because the power structure won’t…” and then I couldn’t keep up taking notes.

“We’re at square one,” Udin summarized. “We’re at the beginning.”

Given how much Udin talked about hockey, I asked him whether he thought the drive for arena preservation was about the Penguins, the stars, the championships.

“A good portion of it, but no I don’t confuse them with the Preservation movement,” he said. “Those guys are coming at it from a whole ‘nother aspect.”


Back inside, things seemed to be winding down. Someone suggested that if any memories from the arena deserved to be preserved, it would be the history of urban renewal itself, so everyone could learn. That evoked a room full of sympathy.

Kimberly Ellis picked a few people who would get to speak last and that would be it, except for sidebars in private. David Bear was one of the last speakers.

He thanked Ellis for the history presentations and acknowledged that they were useful, but asked plaintively, “At the same time, I was hoping we’d have some time to get into the nitty gritty of the land, the plans…”

There were some noises to the effect that this would not be the last meeting. [These concerns are fairly well addressed by Ellis in the blog post comments underleaf.]


I had asked my new “two young white architect” friends whether any Hill District residents were there in support of Civic Arena preservation. They pointed me in the direction of Beatrice Binion.

Binion told the Comet that although no longer a resident, she lived there for years and years — and by next year will have actually worked at the Civic / Mellon arena for fifty years, doing concessions and the like.

I pointed out that she won’t quite make it to the Golden Anniversary.

“Yeah, but I was among the first to get moved to the new [arena],” she said.

I asked Binion why she was in favor of historic preservation for the Civic Arena. She answered that with its demolition, “they’re not going to give them anything anyway.”

“It’s not a white-black thing,” Binion said, in her opinion. “I’m getting tired of hearing that.” She also offered more generally that she was tired of “all this”, gesturing toward the remainder of the meeting that was breaking up.

I asked what it is then that she thinks ought to happen to the Civic Arena.

After only a second’s pause, she said it’d be nice if they had a skating rink there.

Would people in the Hill be interested in ice skating? I asked a little dubiously.

“Oh yes. Absolutely.”