Monthly Archives: September 2012


South Park Studios

The resignation of the director of the Housing Authority is placed in better context alongside other agency departures, including that of its general counsel (P-G, Rich Lord). Additionally, demolition and reconstruction of Addison Terrace will now be sped along significantly, though at a cost unspecified (P-G, Rich Lord II).

Celebrate? The Port Authority funding deal hammered out between its workers, the State and the County looks safe for at least a year thanks to the RAD board (Trib, Zlatos & Fontaine).

You got Bill Peduto running for that mayoral office over there (P-G, Joe Smydo). In the latest iteration of the news, Michael Lamb takes a couple of digs, citing blurry campaign finance regulations (background) and the urgency of other races for the Party at this time. This should indicate to Mayor Ravenstahl it is time to start preparing for the coming election by pulling together his reclining deck chair, beach towel and tanning mirror. Der City Paper Blogh has more.

Did you notice this? Somehow it took less than 24 hours for Post-Gazette editorialists to discover that the mayor’s proposed 2013 budget (a rather large document, actually), still warm and wet from the printer, submitted to state overseers before bouncing back to Council, is workable, solid, unproblematic, smart and realistic. The ICA board itself will give themselves a whole month to pour over the thing, and then of course City leaders will spend most of the rest of the year highlighting various features buried here and there.

Behold the power of “No new taxes.”

Port Buncher development creeping forward

Newgrounds, Alvin Hew

What a difference a month makes!

A month ago, City plans for the “Allegheny Riverfront” invited a torrent of criticism which perhaps culminated in a widely circulated and powerful editorial:

Let’s not.

That’s a useful two-word assessment of the Buncher Co.’s plan for a riverside development adjacent to the Strip District. Let’s not make $50 million in public financing assistance available for a huge private project that pays scant attention to a city-sponsored master-planning process for that area. (Tribune Review)

Who knows what has changed since that time?

Perhaps the prospects of 3 thousand new permanent jobs, 3 thousand construction jobs, and tax revenue of $33 million per year softened people’s thinking. Perhaps a fear of parties and interests getting labeled as “anti-growth” loomed large. Perhaps the desert of asphalt gave lie to gentrification-style complaints.

Maybe the opposition just never bothered to count votes.

But after a special public meeting on Monday and a public hearing on Tuesday, Councilor Patrick Dowd said, “We have a lot of work to do,” but “I’m eager to support this.”  Councillor Bill Peduto said, “The soup isn’t ready yet,” yet that “given another six hours, the people in this room could figure it out.” Councilor Theresa Smith said, “developers work with communities all the time,” and that she “wants to bring the parties together.”

Neighboring stake holders, concerned organizations and public speakers approached the development with likewise equanimity.

If only delivery access through Smallman St. can be preserved…

If only the buffer zone from the river bank could be made larger, to protect the health of the river and the flood plane…

If only the old produce terminal could be better incorporated and utilized…

If only the general character and design of the development was harmonious with what we have in the Strip…

If only we knew what sorts of commercial tenants are going in there, exactly…

If only there was a better certainty of parks, open spaces and pedestrian river access…

If only the railroad right-of-way could be accommodated, perhaps enabling commuter rail one day…

If only the development could comply with the City’s new storm water regulations for public development in a more fully rigorous and generously interpreted way…

And, surrounding it all, if only about $50 million in tax increment financing (TIF) wasn’t necessary to provide the sewers and streets generally required in any brand new neighborhood.

Flickr, RJ Schmidt

So you see what is happening here. The environmental advocates are developing a keen interest in railroad rights-of-way. The preservationists are beginning to learn things about the wholesaling business. The kayakers and bicyclists are learning all about TIFs, and to develop expectations.


To be certain, the project has so many outstanding unresolved issues, it’s a little embarrassing to have it in the spotlight in this condition. Yet the zoning changes it apparently necessitates simply had to move forward, lest disillusionment and inertia risk being allowed to set in. Alas and alack, lines in the sand and on the table are now being drawn with furious and political aplomb.

A text amendment will be necessary!, declared Peduto, a likely mayoral challenger, having finagled a legitimate parliamentary excuse from his colleagues to speak freely during a public hearing while reporters were still at work. To earn Peduto’s vote — which these days, translates to three votes out of nine, maybe four on a good day — any new zoning legislation Council passes must be changed contingent upon points he will outline a letter he is about to refine and release.

(Meanwhile, fellow likely mayoral challenger Michael Lamb would have been elsewhere, as is his accustomed privilege as City Controller, biding his time on thorny development issues while perhaps catching up on some old-school prothonatation.)

Three or four votes is not five, however — and most members simply desire to responsibly navigate the legal snafus while striking the best deal that is strike-ready between communities, the property holder, and the City. One could say that is Council’s position.

A lot of the disparate concerns boil down to that accessory area of the Strip maintaining its residual magnetism as a delivery hub, a port really — multi-modal, spacious, spontaneous and full of opportunity. We see those parking lots as “seas of asphalt,” but heck, they’re probably welcome hotels and storage lockers to the occasional visitor.

Pittsburgh Vendor: Whoa, whoa… what are you doing here, buddy?

Random Trucker: Oh, man. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get these paw-print sweat pants off the street and I’m looking at this map…


The one and only Klozetmonkey

That is one reason the Comet strenuously prefers the name “Port Buncher” over the imperial and soullessly bourgeois moniker, “Riverfront Landing.”

If only the developers can be perceived to be presiding over a curated marketplace of opportunity: combining old-world elbow-jostling esprit de corps within the newer-school vertically integrated framework. The giveaway is the fact that this area once combined shipping access with train access with functionally public portage platforms and terminals. Those specific commercial tactics are gone, but the strategy underlying those tactics might still be employable as an accessory — the success of today’s Strip District proves that it merits serious creative deliberation.


Mr. Balestrieri of Buncher Co. did a more than fine job depicting his development as “connecting residents to the river front,” which would also, “connect the Strip to the river, and build the Strip, Pittsburgh’s next high-growth neighborhood.”

Because after all, “The central business district [the Golden Triangle] needs to expand,” and so, this “Can’t continue to be a surface parking lots for the next several decades.”

Of particular note is that Buncher already owns the vast majority of these 55 specific acres of land, as well as land way up the river front into Lawrenceville. This distinguishes it from other recent controversial developments, in which large parcels of public land were being released into the wild of the private sector. Additionally, the desirability to most City leaders of residential growth in locations such as that is great — it’s legacy building.

It is not known what is Buncher’s “Plan B” for all this riverfront property if the zoning changes and other arrangements made in collusion with the Mayor and his URA fall through. Perhaps they will go a’fracking; 55 acres would be more than sufficient under new proposed legislation.

Loading “Riverfront Landing”…

Meanwhile, see the Trib’s Bob Bauder

Marcellus Playbook: Zone, Baby, Zone!

Madden NFL 95 Genesis Gameplay, bgasman

As is known to sometimes occur, this blog having espoused a position less reflexively liberal than completely, local officials have begun shouting, “Quick! Through the dimensional portal! While there’s still time!”

And so last week, a City councilman proposed zoning regulations on “mineral extraction” which would could replace the city’s current outright ban on drilling, and the County executive sent out Requests for Proposals to natural gas companies to drill on County airport land.

We kid, of course. These initiatives have been in the hopper for some time. Let’s examine them separately.


Intended to replace current language in the City Code pertaining to “the horse you rode in on,” Councilman Patrick Dowd’s “due process” proposal to regulate fracking in the City as presently written would:

  1. Require that drillers submit a “Master Plan,”
  2. Mandate an area of at least 40 acres of land (i.e. over 30 football fields),
  3. Require a hearing at the Planning Commission before it makes a recommendation to City Council, and a City Council hearing prior to its final vote to approve or deny,
  4. Mandate that these panels deny an application in the cases of discovering any adverse visual impacts, transportation impacts, operational impacts, health and safety impacts or property value impacts,
  5. Require water and soil testing before and after fracking,
  6. Require that operations control for lighting, dust, vibration, odors and other annoying effects.

The energy and business communities have made it well-known that they truly do not appreciate hearing words like “ban” or “moratorium” being bandied about — either due to the implied offense and effrontery, or the publicity it creates that such conditions might indeed be possible.

The proposed legislation would narrowly succeed in relieving that source of industry annoyance.

Mr. Dowd criticized Mr. Ravenstahl for opposing the ban without proposing health-and-safety safeguards for residents. “His only position is a simple-minded position,” Mr. Dowd said.

Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said Mr. Ravenstahl broached the subject of safeguards in 2010. At the time, she said, council had no appetite for anything except a ban.

“If you want to talk about simple-minded, I think the ban was the most simple-minded thing that’s occurred in council’s recent history,” Ms. Doven said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Is that your final answer, Joanna? You may want that one back.

So it looks like Councilman Dowd’s legislation would for all intents and purposes keep the urban core of Pittsburgh footloose and fracking-free through different means. It would however get us out of the business of “activism” and overt defiance — and perhaps, get its public servants back into rooms with energy executives and other economic development enthusiasts for the discussing of other matters of mutual interest.

Afro-Squad, Snow

However. It may not be that simple.

The zoning mechanism used for this “due process” is what is technically called a Conditional Use exception — a recommendation at the City Planning Commission followed by a vote at City Council.

The last occasions on which Conditional Use exceptions have been in the news, quite frankly, both involved Adult Entertainment uses.

I know. Sorry.

Aside from any tasteless metaphors you may wish to draw regarding towering drill rigs, patient pumping and gushers, the two land uses involve A) activity which is consistently and outrageously politically unpopular near anyone’s own backyard but B) enormously lucrative and sought-after by many, even as a matter of pride and principle, which as a Conditional Use would be C) permitted by our Code with extensive qualifications yet understood as a practical matter to be challenging to allow, so long as we trust the system to hold and our leaders to operate as expected.

We find two archetypes for outfoxing Conditional Use approval in Adult Entertainment.  On the North Side, extraordinarily well-financed interests made ligitous claims that our regulations were subjective and unconstitutional, and wrangled a settlement. On the West End meanwhile, public officials inexplicably wound up stammering, pointing fingers at each other, and referencing a deleted e-mail in the City Clerk’s office as their excuse to have failed to execute the maneuvers a Conditional Use application requires.

So the natural gas industry should take heart. Pittsburgh’s new zoning proposal may entail some real, meaningful liberalization.

PUBLIC NOTICE: Of course, this may all be academic and quaintly quixotic. If you wish to extract minerals from the ground to which you possess ownership rights, you don’t go to Grant Street in Downtown (lol) Pittsburgh to ask permission. You google the Pennsylvania DEP, that is the Department of Economic Promotion Environmental Protection, and submit an online application. They should get back to you within weeks. Of course that may change on October 13 or thereafter, meaning we would then need sustainable, practical local ordinances; it’s a fluid situation. Go and read one radio host’s take, in which Pittsburgh’s “The horse you rode in on” ban was actually characterized as the reason the State “responded” with Act 13’s “The remnants of Old Republic have been swept away” preemption of localities.

And then there is County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s drilling play. Thanks for hanging in there with us.
Sure wasn’t expecting him to move this quickly. I suppose safety and suitability studies have already been conducted on both the Airport lands, owing to last time. But here are maps of Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport; where are the safest and most suitable spots precisely? Northwest of Imperial-Enlow? East of Prospect Park?
Have to admit, two things I like about the idea of airports are, not many people around, and plenty of truck access to most spots already.
But are we really going to just let just any old drilling company in? Not all Marcellus Shale operators are created equal; we might be better off focusing our inquiries on relatively superlative companies like Consol Gas and Cnx Gas, than say, recidivist violators like Cabot Oil & Gas or XTO Energy.
How are we evaluating the bids? I hope dollar signs are just one consideration.


Monday: The Deft and the Inept

The ALCOSAN public meetings are characterized as thus far not exactly rising to the level of a Green Revolution. (P-G, Don Hopey)

City Controller Michael Lamb suggested increasing the Homestead Exemption on property taxes. A smart person once thought this to be a good idea. Hey, look, Ravenstahl’s office is also working on increasing the Homestead Exemption! IT BEGINS.
The City is on track to get its first “green bike lane” in the coming months. No, it’s not made from broccoli and compost, it’s literally colored green. They’re all the rage. Bicyclists be voting, when they’re not getting run down. (WESA, Emily Farah)
I wish I had more advice for County Council as it explores ways to generate revenue with cell towers and billboards. Be selective. Do some of it, not all of it. Maybe levy a billboard tax while you’re at it; regional consistency is important. (P-G, Len Barcousky)

In a School District wherein the majority of students are African-American, it does not look like its school board map will be able to maintain a ratio of one-third “majority-minority” districts. We could hold out hope that some white people will vote for some black people, but for some reason nobody ever seems to mention that outside of Presidential politics. (P-G, Eleanor Chute)
Sugar Top is Schenley Heights, and it has middle-class bones. I learned something today. (P-G, Diana Nelson-Jones)
As I was struggling to understand what the embassy attacks were all about, in this short article it suddenly struck me. In Muslim nations, we (the US) are abortion. We are abortion and gay marriage. That is who we are. Well, that plus the culture is quite a bit more accustomed mob violence as an everyday fact of politics. Pittsburgh should count itself lucky. (Albawaba via Daily Star, David Ignatius)

Image source: Trib, Chaz Palla


Schools Failing, Debate About Schools a Pompous Mess

A large urban school district, in the full swing of a major rebuilding effort, suffers a tremendous setback just prior to triple-digit layoffs of teachers.

In a year of disappointing results on state math and reading tests, most schools in Pittsburgh Public Schools saw their scores drop in reading, math or both, with six experiencing double-digit dips in the percentage of students proficient or advanced on both tests. (P-G, Eleanor Chute)

Whether something particularly awful was going on in our District alone, or in many urban districts, or more generally statewide will not be known until statewide reports are released.

Days later, elsewhere in the P-G, a rant appears chock full of outrageous-sounding anecdotes and character attacks, casting all who believe something real must be done to instill a culture of urgency and efficiency in America’s public schools as enemy saboteurs trying to destroy public education and workers’ rights.

It’s back-to-school time! Time for the editorialists and the Tea Party, the GOP and Barack Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan to rip into the people who dare teach in public schools. And in Arne’s old stomping grounds, Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is stomping on the teachers, pushing them into the street.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. This is what Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and Arne Duncan and Paul Ryan have in mind when they promote charter schools and the right to fire teachers with tenure: Slash teachers’ salaries and bust their unions. (P-G, Greg Palast)

Teachers unions are about to solidarity public education out of existence.
The crux of the last-ditch argument to save public education from itself, when political rhetoric eases up and allows anybody to think dispassionately, tends to return back to the legitimacy of using standardized test scores — which are already used to determine school funding, student advancement, and in some cases teacher merit pay — to evaluate and identify teachers that are doing great and teachers that are being less productive than others for their students.
A Harvard / Columbia study seems to demonstrate that if you have enough data and control for enough variables (this is very important) the evidence is clear and striking — that great teachers can not only be identified regardless of who it is they teach, but their influence can be relied upon to make their students wealthier and more successful for years and years.
But wait, not so fast, say critiques of that study and the others which are starting to circulate. And the truth is, no study or counter-study says exactly or only what the person waving it in your face insists it says.
The result is what Tunch Ilkin calls “paralysis by analysis,” and then a reversion to comfortable political talking points.
In the end, although urban public schools were doing poorly already and apparently on the way toward doing even worse before payrolls were slashed, the solutions to the problem offered by the public labor sector has been to restore cuts and increase budgets.
Of course that also invites counter-arguments:

The money missing from the education budget was federal stimulus money. Over a two year period the prior administration actually cut the state’s share of funds in Basic Ed and backfilled and then topped it off with the stimulus money. School districts ended up paying salaries and benefits with this money as if it would be there the next year. Instead, we had a $4.2 billion deficit to fill. Corbett restored the state share to Basic Ed to pre-stimulus levels and this year he added more. (Dennis Roddey, Special Asssitant to Gov. Corbett, timely correspondence on a related matter)

Now, the way to increase education spending regardless of where it truly started would be as simple as raising taxes on corporations, capital gains and high wage earners so that everybody is paying their “fair share”. Politically and practically speaking however, taxes may go up and taxes may go down, but only a little. We may in fact be on the low side of that pendulum presently, but one can not rationally expect that in a few years, American public opinion is on the brink of undergoing a drastic sea-change, leading to gouging millionaires and profitable companies like perhaps we should.
Meanwhile, students will suffer, attaining an education abysmally out-of-step with those in most other developed nations. And we shall all get to proudly wave our banners stating who is truly to blame. My hunch is that the subset of people who actually desire to eliminate public education through indiscriminate use of vouchers, charters and budget cuts eventually will be successful — with the help of a general public frustrated by the failure any public school reform efforts to gain any traction. But Labor will still get to blame conservative saboteurs for tricking a hapless public ignorantly fascinated with “teacher accountability”, so who really loses?
Aside from students, teachers, parents, the poor, the Country, and everybody whose first concern is not the ideological Cold War.

The Darlene Harris “Advertising Justice” Bill…

is an outrage. The City should be demanding at least 20%. Netting only $4 million would be a largely symbolic drop in the City’s nightmarish operating, capital needs and human resources budgeting — in exchange for all the roads we maintain, plow and police right through Billboard Country. Unlike the Festival of Lights, it’s a year-round and citywide display.

How did they arrive at the figure 10% anyway? The establishment Democrats on Pittsburgh City Council are once again being way too business-friendly.

Stan Geier, vice president and general manager of Lamar’s Pittsburgh office, said in an email that the proposal is “unconstitutional.”

“Outdoor advertising is a speech protected by the First Amendment, and a special tax levied on any one industry engaging in First Amendment activities is unconstitutional,” he said. (Trib, Bob Bauder; h/t Blogh)

Advertising is speech. Renting out your privilege of speaking with a privately owned billboard is commerce.

Every time you sue us, Lamar, those courtrooms you drag us into — you didn’t build that! Somebody else built that for you.

Image: GoM Oil Spill Blog.

A Fracking Good Time

Pittsburgh’s ban on natural gas drilling or “hydro-fracking” goes way too far, according to recommendations from a State commission as part of an advisory opinion requested by the city’s Legal Department. (P-G, Olson & Smydo)

Meanwhile at a Consumer Energy Alliance Energy & Manufacturing summit held on the South Side, a frustrated Mayor Ravenstahl encourages residents and stakeholders to ask that City Council lift the City ban. (PBT, Anya Litvak)
And for those who failed to notice, deep within this post your true progressive Pittsburgh Comet came out in favor of gas drilling on public County lands.