Monthly Archives: January 2014

AWC needs Change & Funding. (in That Order)


Some commenters lately have expressed that they value reading my perspective on civic events, even if they do not always fully agree. I am going to take that at face value by airing reflections on a series of topics about which I would not ordinarily feel confident of having proper standing. Doing so will drain my reserves of good will amongst Pittsburgh’s brilliant and richly interconnected social activist community, but amassing and guarding such social capital is not the point of the Comet. That project is to foster clear discussion about public matters which are otherwise determined by closed-door intrigue and cynical posturing.

In regards to the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture, let me stipulate some opinions in bullet form so they are not overlooked:

  • Pittsburgh absolutely requires just such a Center.
  • The mission of the AWC is fine as it stands, and broad enough to attract a wide audience if interpreted broadly.
  • Since we just custom-built a facility to house it, appropriately in the premier theater district Downtown, it ought to remain there.
  • All cultural arts organizations, especially new ones, require ongoing capital from those few in the community (governments, corporations, foundations and individuals) actually possessing of capital, as well as an inclination to provide amenities which markets cannot alone.
  • The fact that errors were made in the past does not make it justifiable to now throw the baby out with the bathwater.
However, the present board of the AWC has run out of community confidence.
Strike that, and let us rephrase it: all the communities which must play a role in financially supporting the Center, have come to possess 100%, rock-solid confidence that the present board of the AWC will fritter away any further funding without transmuting it into cultural offerings.
It’s not the presence of the Center which frustrates funders — it’s an empty, derelict, joyless Center.
This is not to deny there are a few entities which would rather loot the assets of the Center than save it. After all, who doesn’t like to loot things? But those entities would not stand a chance if the board possessed the confidence it once enjoyed.
I have no presumptions about the nature of said “frittering”. Given the challenges we know exist in starting up any nonprofit arts institution, I certainly do not suspect it’s a matter of anything coarsely unethical. And I doubt it has to do with any lack of personal competencies.
Rather, I suspect it has to do with uniformity and entreanchment of the board in terms of background, perspective and approach. Also a certain pride and defensiveness or “siege mentality”. It appears as though that establishment political faction which did valuable work in launching the Center, continues to dominate the 501(c)3’s governance and vision. That is neither proper nor healthy — for the Center, for its mission, or for those represented by that faction moving forward.
Recent reporting about the course of the ailing Center has yet to view it through the prism of its two permanent Executive Directors and one Interim Director. From what I begin to gather, the Center did a lot better during its Directorless interlude than at any other period. There must be lessons to be drawn from that; let’s call it a “request” for further reporting.
It seems like Pittsburgh is nibbling politely around the edges of stating clearly, “The board needs to go.”  But the message is not being acknowledged. Meanwhile with liquidation and cessation looking like a real probability, the public is finally getting exercised about saving the Center, and is very alarmed and hurt over why it appears as though Pittsburgh does not value its AWC4AAC.
So let the Comet make it plain: the AWC board, that is a majority thereof, in the only possible remaining act which can demonstrate an enlightened fealty to its charitable public mission, needs to step back and assist in the replacing of itself.
If that important prerequisite is not undertaken, any grassroots pleadings or demands for financial support for the AWC, no matter how righteous, plain and defensible in the general sense, are going to be riotously rejected by funders and decision-makers. And then those pleadings are going to be disparaged in the crudest, ugliest, most unfair possible terms by the worst possible people.
Pittsburgh deserves an accountable, commonly held, and desperately engaging August Wilson Center. Not any other sort of August Wilson Center. Although it would be a very bad outcome, I personally would rather see it sold off to the Cultural Trust, UPMC or North Korea than continue to function as a sad, cynical and misdirected moral and political write-off. An insurance policy.
Those philanthropic dollars can now be put to better use enriching residents on matters of culture and history elsewhere. Only the AWC board itself can eliminate the need to find elsewheres.
Come to think of it, it is conceivable that the present board would rather see it foreclosed upon than loosen its grip. Community outrage can be extremely useful under the right circumstances. But I hope we’re not living in that sort of drama; none of us in Pittsburgh are bright enough to make that kind of thing work.

Monday: Governing amidst Chaos

Touchstone Pictures

The land bank debate heats up:

Rev. Burgess, who tried unsuccessfully to pass land bank legislation a year ago, is a critic of the current proposal by freshman Councilwoman Deb Gross of Highland Park. Councilman Dan Lavelle of the Hill District also has raised concerns. Both fear that the bill does little to ensure input from the affected communities. (P-G, Brian O’Neill)

It sounds like there is an agreement that the goals of land banking are widely sought, but the question is whether a standard board comprised 4 mayoral and 3 Council appointees will sufficiently address community concerns per exploitation and accountability.

The Comet has not yet learned Councilman Burgess’s notion of a superior and more equitable governing framework. His 2012 legislation authorized the creation only of an “advisory committee” comprised mostly of executive branch and Authority personnel.

But Pittsburgh shall work it out. Even more interesting in O’Neill’s column was Rev’s bit about planning revival from Homewood’s “prosperous edges” rather than “heart.”

For also in Homewood news:

“Normally in community planning, people who don’t live near other people are making suggestions for what should happen there. We thought clusters was an easier, cleaner way to focus. And it’s like the concept of how to eat the elephant — one piece at a time.” (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

Opportunistic corporate gentrifiers have several extremely positive roles to play in the next Pittsburgh. The Comet suspects however that to rebuild our neighborhoods properly, we may really have to “dive in” without these. It has not seemed to be their strongest suit.


State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is conducting an audit of Pittsburgh Public Schools under the hospitable protection of Mayor Bill Peduto.

The office of State Attorney General Kathleen Kane, in case you missed it, asked six specific questions of the court-appointed August Wilson Center conservator to clarify the whole situation and the conservator’s understanding of it before any determination on moving to a receivership. *-BREAKING: Judge is unmoved. Maybe we missed our cue to make a bigger stink, or maybe this is it.

State financial overseers are likely to approve whatever transition buyout and position eliminations schemata will emerge from City Hall, even though fundamentally, no one can know how many of which subsets of employees will take something before it is enacted. So we cannot say whether it is a huge budget saver or simply a wise and modest expenditure compared with the unpredictability of going without.

Finally, the large field of candidates for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Pennsylvania debated in Pittsburgh yesterday. Today slight and steady frontrunner Allyson Schwartz, a seemingly less-progressive candidate, picked up the endorsement of former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.

Making Murphy potentially important, once again. Being the gentleman, scholar, player and technology enthusiast that he is, we cannot fathom why he is not engaging in one way or another on social media? Let’s elevate the conversation.

USAir Scuttles Moon Program



Well, if the federal government is finding it to be of limited use, and we have problems on Earth…

US Airways has decided to close its $32 million flight

operations center in Moon and move the work to Dallas-

Fort Worth, where the new American Airlines will be based.

The move will affect about 600 employees at the center, according to Matt Dinkel, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. Most of the employees will be offered the chance to transfer, said Todd Lehmacher, a spokesman for American Airlines. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Wait, what? Oh, this is the Airport, or related to it. That old thing. Circa 1992.

It was built at the height of the big airport mall craze, in fact it is an AIRMALL. In the Comet’s own modest sample experience, the major airports of the world are not much into that these days. The major airports of the world are for running, being herded and examined, and fueling up. The major train stations of the world, now, there you will see some malls.

Plus, Pittsburgh International has a somewhat absurd people-mover, which is now integral to the system. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

So it was already in somewhat funky overbuilt shape when air travel profitability collapsed. Now it’s allegedly getting shabby.

But let’s look on the bright sides: At Pittsburgh International Airport, there is surely a lot of space available to make customs and security to flow sensibly. Because truthfully, a lot of airports in North America are confused about that. We can help you build a next generation international terminal from the ground up.

Additionally, we can exploit that airport investment with American-made, cleaner-burning natural petrochemical energy.

In a letter to operations center employees, Tim Campbell, senior vice president of air operations for American Airlines, said the transfer of employees won’t begin to happen for several months. (ibid)

Nice work. The Comet wonders what those waylaid employees think about… everything.

MORE: Trib, John G. Oravecz: Union president says workers are sad, feel as though they have done a good job. It would be hard to leave home. Null Space on airline bashing. Speaking of radio golf.

Reprieve? Wilson Center twitches.

An epilogue to this production in the cycle:

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto have been quietly trying to broker a plan to salvage the debt-ridden August Wilson Center for African American Arts and expect to make an announcement within the next few days. (Trib, Debra Erdley)

We are all agreed the Center still needs a strategic plan, and a center with community confidence. Anything from having to do with public schools to air rights seems up for debate.

RELATED: We should probably be reading more Wilson and building him less, but c’est la vie. Then again, why fight it?


UPDATED REFLECTIONS: The only visual design note in Radio Golf was a Tiger Woods poster. That’s not nothing. Also there was a solid menu note if the financial sustainability package includes food service. We have refined our preliminary exterior design notes for any new vertical construction thusly: “Brightly painted and well-crafted old home, artfully run down, with Play-salient art pieces adorning it baroquely, as well as a metal fire escape somewhat conjuring a treehouse atmosphere.”

More importantly: the insistent message of the actual play — the culmination of the entire Pittsburgh or Century cycle — seemed to be:

Conduct your business ethically. Yes, you know what that means already. Yes that can be hard, unfair to you personally, or seem unimportant compared to the great important things you are working on. But there is just no other way besides knowingly living as a total crook. And wherever that puts you, that puts you. (And depending upon what the viewer imagines happens next after the curtain falls, that might not be such a bad prospect.)

We do not feel comfortable describing why Radio Golf was so named. It has to do with the idea that when one works for and then experiences success, it becomes easy to convince oneself that one knows a lot more about achievement than one actually does. It can actually make one a bit dumber about it.

There must be considerably more to the whole Pittsburgh / Century cycle than that, but we have yet to read the preceding nine plays.

NEWS UPDATE: AG Kane and the board recommend a certain new conservator.


Yinz Town Land Bank: Who shall run it?

Six Revisions

The loyal opposition gets a gold star today for seizing an opportunity to open a ripe discussion.

City Councilors Lavelle, Burgess, Kail-Smith and Harris (in that chronological order) voiced concerns about Councilor Gross’s proposed ordinance to supplement the City Code.

The four explained that the proposal may cede too much “Land Bank Power”* to the Mayor, or that it may not sufficiently address the inequitable distribution of “Bankable Land”* across the city (it tends to collect in hard-luck tracts and pockets). These sorts of difficulties they suggested might necessitate more of a Council role at the code or general level.

There remains a special session and a public hearing to be scheduled. Burgess motioned to hold today’s considerations, having established that we ought get hype*.

*- Editor’s terms

BONUS: Transition buy-outs and position eliminations: this looks like the ticket.

Introducing, the Dollar Bank Center for Pittsburgh Political Culture


Having gotten to this point, it was fairly unavoidable:

“Thus, the conservator is left with an impossible task; that is, to conserve an entity that has no strategic plan and insufficient cash to operate — and has run out of time,” she wrote. (P-G, Mark Belko)

The organization truly did not seem to have any viable strategic plan. It certainly did not have a sufficient communications plan, and sometimes that reflects on overall strategy.

Now we have 1) a sizable, shiny, odd looking building at a nice location Downtown 2) that we had named after local playwright August Wilson and 3) said would be a center for African-American culture.

Actually, we don’t have any of those things. Dollar Bank has those things. A local bank, mind you. When it opened, Pittsburgh didn’t have an “h”.

MORE: On the ailing center’s mission as that of a real and metaphorical bridge, from the piping hot Duquesne Whistle. See also Null Space.

Sacrificing Privileges: ISO Liviousness

The Atlantic

Let’s elevate the conversation.

The most pertinent critique of status-quo urban redevelopment policy in Pittsburgh was lodged by a movement which had evolved during a sit-in on Centre Ave.

It later briefly occupied City Hall to circulate fourteen to seventeen demands.

It stopped by the Mayor’s home, leaving a message.

Ultimately it presented itself formally to the URA at 200 Ross Street, also bearing a love letter regarding Pittsburgh and “economic violence”:

The official response to the demands was perfunctory. Even after time:

Dear URA,

Last month we delivered a letter at your August 8 board meeting calling for a different vision for development in Black Pittsburgh. We asked for a response and we have not heard from you. 

What we did hear were your statements to the press that… 

(9/07/13 Pittsburgh for Trayvon)

In the same vein:

Dear Council Member Bill Peduto, 

We appreciate your detailed response to the Pittsburgh for Trayvon demands. We also look forward to building a relationship with you, and as a part of that relationship holding you publicly accountable to meeting the demands necessary to ensure that the Black communities of Pittsburgh are “Most Livable”. 

READ Peduto’s Response to our Demands HERE  

(8/06/13, Pgh for Travon

Most revealing in matters of economic development is #6 — both in terms of using public resources to foster “community benefits” along the lines which a coalition amongst labor, faith and environmental groups have been advocating for some time, and in terms of leaning upon community-oriented neighborhood planning.

In Bill Peduto’s URA, it is said:

As we build the team to join Mayor-elect Peduto, the vision, skills and competencies expected of all in City government are clear. See the full list of competencies that will guide our City. (Talent City)

Anon, some valued skills:

Educates customer—Proactively shares information to build the customer’s understanding of services, issues, and capabilities; manages customer expectations. 

Remains open to ideas—Listens to others and objectively considers others’ ideas and opinions, even when they conflict with one’s own. 

Determines causes—Identifies potential conditions that contribute to gaps or key variances; explores relationships between conditions and effects; distinguishes causes from symptoms and identifies primary causes. (Talent City)

The URA (in addition to HACP) coordinates with the City and the other Authorities in the transporting of hundreds of millions of dollars from our Federal and State government to development projects within city limits.


There is a sense in which everything the URA accomplishes is at first attributable to community entrepreneurs and partners, and then is attributable to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”. Although it has been a long time since then.

Not every cockamamie project, grant application or allocation is able to or will get cleared and approved by the higher levels and other branches of government. Yet even playing the game somewhat poorly, Pittsburgh’s URA cannot help but to produce public works with deep, lasting ripple effects across the city and region.

But what exactly will it do? With whom, and how? In what proportions? Towards what ends? That is a matter for strategic planning.

Pittsburgh deserves solutions for a host of difficulties in a manner that is holistic, sustainable, and equitable in terms of civic opportunity. Investment and resource allocation are precious powers which must be leveraged to further a whole variety of strategic public objectives. One such objective is the very process of large-scale community building and enfranchisement.

(And on that note…)

COMET RECOMMENDATION: When considering appointments of board members to various civic bodies, whatever we do in the end, let us make sure we are looping the social justice community early into the conversation. There is no substitute for direct engagement with the people out there pushing the envelope.

Burgess, Ferlo Opt Not to Respect


And then reared this:

It is protocol, Peduto said, for board members to resign out of respect to a new mayoral administration. But at least two — a city councilman and a state senator who serve on two of the most powerful Authorities in Pittsburgh — have said they’re not stepping down. (Trib, Melissa Daniels)

Alack, it would take a miracle to reduce gross friction.

MORE / THE SKINNY:  P-G in 2009

Land Stories: A Simple Offering

Warner Bros.

Many major political stories come down to questions of zoning and land use.

Here are five examples. Perhaps there are themes.

1. In regards to the chemical spill near Charleston, WV, some observations:

Errors were not exotic:

The failure of Freedom Industries, the plant’s owner, to make a functioning retaining wall a priority; the containment tank’s proximity to the river; and the lack of inspection of the site since 1991 means that hundreds of thousands of people will only get angrier as their hassles continue. (P-G, Tony Norman)

Regulatory authority was “obscure”:

Yet the article there does not even mention the one public agency that does have cognizance under the circumstances. We had an interesting little discussion of this here several years ago… but why so little mention these days of the Ohio River Valley Water and Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO)? (by Null Space)

And the environment was suited to “ultra-capitalism”:

This is SOP in West Virginia, a state that is defined by two mostly-opposing forces: wealth extraction and intense rural poverty. I have a great liking for the actual people of West Virginia, and a great mistrust of anyone there with capital, because they are obviously from out-of-state. Money doesn’t come to West Virginia without a good value proposition. (Duquesne Whistle)

In serendipitous enough fashion, County Controller Chelsa Wagner is one who shares verbiage about “responsible regulation and smart growth.”

That should set the stage.

2. The City Land Bank looks to sail through Council, eventually:

The legislation is a work in progress because Ms. Gross wants to get community input on many of the program’s details…. Pittsburgh’s land bank could take many forms. It could be a subsidiary of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, or it could be its own authority. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

The reasons these land banks are granted special powers is that, in accordance with state law, they are public entities whose structure is determined and appointed by elected officials, with all the attendant clear lines of accountability. The Pittsburgh Land Bank is bound among other  things to be a citywide speculator, developer and force in our neighborhoods, so you can be sure its composition will be a bone of political contention for years to come. The greater the grand consensus confidence in its framework, the more it will be able to tackle.

3. The fate of the historic Produce Terminal continues to sit oddly:

On Wednesday, Councilwoman Deb Gross, whose district includes the terminal, urged her colleagues to vote for the designation, saying the structure “really makes the Strip District the Strip District.” But Councilman Corey O’Connor said he saw no need for the designation since the URA, now under Mr. Peduto’s control, could reapply for historic status if there’s a need for it. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Of course the URA put an “option agreement” into effect with Buncher Co. to sell the building. And even before that deal progresses, our understanding is that the URA may not act or speak in such a way as to sour the potential deal.


The preliminary vote on the designation went 3-4-2, with Councilwoman Darlene Harris abstaining to see what comes out of further negotiations, and Councilman Dan Gilman abstaining to research a spot of law:

  • How hard it is really for a Historic Building owner to get a Certificate of Appropriateness so as to break out wrecking balls and dynamite, when City officials believe there are impassable hurdles to needed economic development?
  • Is it true that if Council declines historic designation in this instance, it cannot be sought on the building for another five years?

These are excellent things to be looking at. Without a full consideration of them, Council had little choice but to pontificate over whether community-driven Historic Building applications are really very good at all. The historic value proposition gets swept off the table by the fundamentalist property rights argument, even though the interplay among rights appears baked into the code already in terms of Appropriateness applications and appeals in case of an bad result.

4. Pittsburgh gets to keep Yarone Zober for kicking around, and right Downtown to boot!

“During the last eight years, I’ve been impressed with Yarone’s intelligence, creativity and passion, and have watched him use each to benefit Pittsburgh. His work has helped this city to grow, creating jobs and rebuild neighborhoods. He knows how to make things happen, and we’re excited to have him join our team.” (PBT, Tim Schooley)

“Things.” No objection. The continued dialectic playing out between the public and private sectors Downtown will be appropriate and constructive. Real news is that this ought to provide Ravenstahl’s former staff with a shot of morale. Not sure if Mr. Rudolph of McKnight Realty Partners is still on or is going to remain on the URA board (UPDATE: His term has expired, but he seems intent to serve until formally removed or reappointed) but having an insider like Zober aboard should help them stay connected.

5. Speaking of favorites, we are getting something called the “Southern Beltway”:

“When opened to traffic, the Route 22 to I-79 project will create economic opportunities in Findlay, Robinson, Mount Pleasant, Cecil and North and South Fayette townships,” turnpike commission chairman William K. Lieberman said. (P-G, John Schmitz)

Early Returns

Lieberman is a local figure that has long resided at the intersection of business and politics, now chair of a PA Turnpike Commission which still weathers scandal. He abstained from voting this contract at a telephone board meeting due to a conflict involving a client. Not sure what accounts for the month delay between board action and announcement.

$550 million for twelve miles of new toll roadway. Progressives must disdain the encouragement of sprawl, and the cost of all those millions not going into something like public transit. Then again, respectable self-loathing Neoliberals aren’t as sure how to criticize making life more convenient, and land more valuable, out in suburbia.

If rural areas and suburbs tend to vote Republican, and major cities and towns Democrat, that probably influences long-term statewide planning, no? Why lay any foundations in a sort of place likely to breed voters politically opposed to you and yours? We honestly wonder if some legislators reject public transit projects because they might be too successful, causing too many people to move into cities and catch the gaeity.

Anyway. Land, huh? Am I right? They’re not making any more of it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do to improve equitability.