FROM: The Penguins. TO: The Hill District.

(This is a fantasy, though not satire, of what frank and open communication from the Penguins to Hill District stakeholders might look like after last night’s meeting.)

Dear Neighbors,

In the interest of moving forward while retaining institutional and personal credibility, we accept responsibility for our role in encouraging what has become a significant misunderstanding.

We regret having informed you that we cannot pursue the Inclusionary Zoning practices used in the Almono development in Hazelwood only because the City will not allow it.

We regret using the term “affordable” housing to describe rental units accessible only to the upper middle class.

We regret having encouraged something called the Greater Hill District Master Plan, a fine and solid planning document with the legal weight of cotton candy to which we do not intend to adhere, least of all in the Lower Hill.

We regret having so often touted our willingness to “identify funding” for public art, infrastructure and residential affordability gaps — in an attempt to obscure that we already possess more than sufficient funding, or that via this business venture we shall soon possess it. We regret that in all past agreements, documents and contracts regarding jobs and business development opportunities, weak language such as “best faith efforts” and “minimum goals” is all we could muster — and there have never been enforcement mechanisms.

We regret having asked you to participate in the Curtain Call public art project in order to diminish your opposition in 2008 to our plans for the Consol Energy Center — and that we did not see the project through.

We regret that we always brand our development for you positively by putting overwhelming emphasis on the “green cap” over the Crosstown Expressway — while the costs, funding sources, and timetable for such a feature is literally the last thing on our agenda.

We regret having invited you to scores of community meetings over months and years at which our position on your specific concerns does not change, only so we can later demonstrate the quantity (not quality) of our community engagement.

We regret having hired enough consultants to give you inspirational speeches about our intentions, we might otherwise have funded several community projects.

The truth of the matter is we have no interest in addressing your demands. We are trying to find commonalities across two very different worlds. Our only concern is to parlay these 28 acres of the Lower Hill of the City of Pittsburgh into the greatest possible long-term profit for ourselves, because life is short and we want to live as grandly as we might.

But our efforts to get you to like us have become counter-productive and silly. In the interest of not generating further ill-faith relations, we suggest that you redirect all your concerns about affordable housing, place-making, shared prosperity and community building to your civic government.

Best of luck at the City Planning Commission on December 9th and thereafter. However, in this new spirit of honesty and collegial frankness, our impression is that you are not destined to make out very well there either — especially since we gave ourselves every advantage by submitting our plan at the end of the year during the waning moments of the Ravenstahl administration.

But in government at least you will encounter decision-makers whose capacity to feign a cooperative spirit has not been utterly exhausted.

Sincerely (at last),

The Pittsburgh Penguins

PS. By the way, thanks for your support in demolishing the Igloo, without our having to give up anything of substance.

19 thoughts on “FROM: The Penguins. TO: The Hill District.

  1. Anonymous

    Hi… We sat at the table together last night… This is AWESOME.. you are soooo creative.. I'm inspired to address my writing style and be more unique!! this is great..

  2. Rob Pfaffmann, AIA, AICP

    Great job, Bram. I feel sorry for some good intentioned people over the last decade who bought into the Penguins new urban rhetoric (aided and abetted by pros who know better) and resistance to real innovation in community engagement and development partnerships. Its not easy, but had they could taken a progressive approach in the negotiations for the new arena, they could have gotten the investment returns they wanted for themselves AND the community. What is so interesting is that the president of the Penguins worked in the Clinton White House and their owner was a big donor and FOB and Rendell. Rendell is the most to blame for this because he gave away the store while Lukie and Dannyboy helped.

  3. BrianTH

    By the way, I continue to think it could be very helpful if affordable housing proponents started talking in terms of the actual number of affordable housing units, rather than the percentage of affordable housing units.

  4. Bram Reichbaum

    Bri, I don't necessarily see that. I understand well from how a needs perspective, measuring your actual needs is necessary. But for starters, not simply the Hill but the whole City is in need of affordable and quality housing products. And then is the issue of what it is to be a neighborhood of mixed income, especially in regards to the dynamism. Which argues for use of percentages (not to argue here whose percentages of what percentages of what are the best.)

  5. Anonymous

    Care to comment on Kevin Acklin saying in the PG that the City Housing Authority is the ONLY Authority that is not cooperating with the administration? What's up with that?

  6. BrianTH

    The problem with insisting on making it a matter of percentages is it makes it a zero-sum game, which can cause all sorts of financing problems for the developer. Why do that unless absolutely necessary?

    Quick hypothetical illustration:

    Suppose the developer's current plan is for 1000 units, 20% affordable, so 800 market and 200 affordable. You could counter with:

    a) 700 market and 300 affordable (30%);
    b) 800 market and 300 affordable (27.3%)
    c) 1200 market and 300 affordable (20%).

    In many situations either (b) or (c) (or something in between) could be easier for the developer to finance than (a), and all three get you the same number of affordable units. And I don't see how (b)/(c) set a worse precedent for future discussions elsewhere in the City.

    And if your argument against (b) or (c) is “the issue of what it is to be a neighborhood of mixed income,” that sounds like you are saying having more residents who can afford market rate apartments is inherently a bad thing for a neighborhood. That is likely to be a politically untenable position, and also the sort of policy goal that is almost surely impossible to obtain in the long-run (because in the long run, developers will find a way to supply the market with what it wants). And, in fact, it is even bad from an affordable housing policy perspective–fewer new market-rate units means more upward pricing pressure on other units, such that you will very likely end up with fewer affordable units in the region overall if you pursue outcomes like (a) as a matter of course versus (b)/(c).

    So I would think very carefully about what you are arguing for when you insist on a percentages approach. Arguing for more affordable units is something you can often get broad support for. Arguing for fewer market rate units is going to make a lot of enemies, including some people who are actually committed supporters of more affordable housing. And insisting on a percentage-based approach de facto locks you into arguing for fewer market rate units if you want to argue for more affordable units.

    So again, why take on the argument that you want there to be fewer new market rate units unless you absolutely have to?

  7. Bram Reichbaum

    My comment is, that seems like bad news. I don't know how bad, because I don't know how purposeful is the cooperation failure. If its just “Neener neener, we don't want to hold off on major business like you asked,” that's obtuse and counterproductive but we can probably move forward. However if the idea was something like using up all the available Section 8 resources so as to rob the Peduto admin of the opportunity to apply them based on its own strategy, say, which might have prioritized affordable housing in the Lower Hill… like I said I don't know, but its an early indicator Rev wants to fight this new mayor.

  8. Anonymous

    I thought Pittsburgh was the most affordable City in the Nation? Also, I think what the hill needs as many people as possible with disposable income to help things like, um, grocery stores and the like. That is of course unless there is a different agenda, like making sure you don't get overrun with people who might not buy into your political stranglehold on the neighborhood. In that case, those politicians should fight to the end.

  9. Bram Reichbaum

    The quality of housing stock available to residents of low and working class income is poor, and clustered together unwholesomely in neighborhoods causing serious problems.

    We do need lots of people with disposable income in the Lower Hill (that's why nobody is suggesting less than 70% market-rate) but to call for “as many as possible” without roots, reference or reason to turn east won't be efficient for City needs and won't ever wow anybody.

  10. BrianTH

    “but to call for 'as many as possible' without roots, reference or reason to turn east won't be efficient for City needs and won't ever wow anybody.”

    I honestly have no idea what this is supposed to mean.

    As a general proposition, all sorts of good things are associated with more people with decent incomes moving into a particular established jurisdiction. A non-inclusive list: they will likely increase the local tax base, increase the market for local businesses, increase support for other local amenities, allow a variety local government services (from police to fire to transit and so on) to be provided more efficiently, increase the relative political weight of the jurisdiction, and attract additional investment that will lead to more local economic activity, including more jobs.

    Of course people are concerned about such influxes of new higher-income people crowding out lower-income incumbents, thus lowering the ability of those incumbents to benefit from all these good things happening in the jurisdiction. As an aside, though, strictly speaking NO ONE in the Lower Hill site will count as an incumbent, since currently no one lives there at all.

    Anyway, policies favoring affordable housing development are one way to address that concern about crowding out incumbents. But again for that purpose the actual number of affordable units is what matters.

    So I think you need to do a little better than incomprehensible slogans to explain exactly why you are committing yourself to this position that too many market-rate units in the Lower Hill site would actually be a bad thing, assuming the number of affordable units is kept the same. And I might note that such vague handwaving over this issue gets more and more suspicious over time, leading to the sort of speculation about ulterior motives that Anony at 8:39 engaged in,

    Basically, if there is a really good public policy case for actually wanting to impose a ceiling on new market-rate units, it should be possible to articulate that case in a clear and compelling way. So if you are not doing that, maybe it is because the real motives are not something that would be all that compelling if they were made clear.

  11. BrianTH

    Bashing the city planners of that era is basically boilerplate by now.

    Anyway, it is a good idea regardless of how it is argued for–that Penn Circle stuff is confusing and counterintuitive.

  12. Bram Reichbaum

    “Take a left where Penn Circle North used to be.”

    It looks like a well-grounded and conceived reform, and Charlie: Shawn's drama ranks high among his many redeeming qualities.


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