Historic Neighborhood Progress and other diversions…

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 5.10.25 PMLet’s get Pittsburgh’s Hill District out of the way first, because we know you’ve been asking.

Basically, the Hill CDC employed its ability to slow down development over a very legitimate issue — most likely, the City’s compliance with the Fair Housing Act. Having taken it seriously and gone to the mat for it, the City and the Penguins returned to the table with agreeable terms before getting bogged down in court. Now, everybody is cool and we’re about to see a host of investments explode up the gut of the Lower Hill and out east, like a tailback breaking into the secondary.

What additional did “the community” get, at the 11th hour?

  • Concessions on building heights, parking policy and similar, as well as a host of firmer definitions to provide legal accountability.
  • A trained set of eyes reasonably well under community control to monitor the Penguins’ compliance as to “commercially reasonable,” best-faith efforts to meet community workforce development, business development and affordable housing targets.
  • A new task force comprised of genuine heavies chaired by Councilman Daniel Lavelle charged with recommending a citywide strategy to provide for affordable and dignified housing, about which a needs study is being commissioned.

The reinvestment funding from the LERTA district was alongside this even beforehand; at least that was my understanding. But now it’s officially leveraging towards affordability.

That’s really about it, in terms of the deal which tore down that wall. Everybody sounds satisfied and guardedly optimistic. Time to rock and roll, as they say…

And that’s exactly how Pittsburgh rolls. Players compete hard down to some manner of standoff, then come together as friendly neighbors once it gets imperative. In this particular case, a broad base of community leaders, the URA and the Penguins enjoyed the creative space necessary to realize a big opportunity to greater potential.

Now the only question is what organizations will follow the lead of US Steel, which maintained its reserved confidence throughout? That is some deep karma, newly replenished and in a sexy market. Eat up. Even upon flashpoints related to public safety, all sorts of horizons are being elevated. Grab onto Pittsburgh while it’s still at the Mezzanine Level.

MORE: PGHMag’s Patrick Doyle.


Now let’s move on to something more crucial: Undercover Bossgate.

Ms. Wagner said she’s hopeful the board will not approve the second set of funds.

“If that’s not the decision, we’ll be back,” she said, adding that she would not rule out the possibility of withholding another disbursement. (P-G, Molly Born)

The Comet views this as an exquisite unfolding case study. “Behold, the lapse in judgement.” And a relatively minor one at that! But what are its results?

  • We mothball some legitimate tools, to the extent Mayor Peduto now recoils in aversion from trying something like that reality show again. Which is a shame, because audiences seemed to think it played well for the City in general.
  • It complicates conversations about making a valuable civic partnership like Visit Pittsburgh even more strategic and efficient – a subject about which I’m still waiting for Jim Ferlo to come in like a wrecking ball.
  • It feeds shrewd airwaves jockeys like Marty Griffin, who chum the waters and climb chaos like a ladder — which is rarely good for business.

Meanwhile, the Comet is a big fan of what County Controller Chelsa Wagner is looking into at the County jail and elsewhere. But increasingly, it’s hard to follow along without hearing the baseline from the soundtrack to House of Cards in the background. That smog of war now spreads and thickens.

Seemingly all because the Mayor was a bit cavalier and unprepared in how he seized an exciting and multi-faceted opportunity. Instead he might have first sought an advisory on how to handle promotional giveaways. Sure, it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission — but what’s best is a process which includes hearing out a diversity of independence and experience. Then everybody can relax!

HOMEWORK: Very little. On the School District, reread the P-G’s Eleanor Chute.

EXTRA CREDIT: If you have any idea why the “Turnaround Teachers” career ladder has not been implemented, please explain!

ERRATA: Wondering over former Pa. Treasurer, Rob McCord? A think-piece by PennLive’s John L. Micek provides fodder, and leaves a mark.

SPECIAL SHOUT OUT: To critically acclaimed Internet sensation Eat That, Read This. Just remember Adam, that with great exposure comes great illusion of responsibility. Shake it off!

8 thoughts on “Historic Neighborhood Progress and other diversions…

  1. Brian Tucker-Hill

    I know it is unwise to get too excited about a Task Force, but it is still good news that housing affordability is being characterized as a Citywide issue (really a whole urbanized area issue, but the City is a good start). However, will the Task Force address the elephant in the room, namely that anti-density NIMBYism, if left unchecked, inevitably limits the future supply of affordable housing? I can understand why it may not be addressed in precisely those terms, but if this issue is not addressed in some form, then the Task Force is almost surely doomed to fail in terms of practical outcomes.

    1. bramr101 Post author

      Brian, if I understand your concern correctly — and I’m not sure that I do, yet — how would you respond to a suggestion that greater “density” in affordable housing (which is one way to hold costs down) also produces greater “concentrations” of poverty, which exacerbate the very social ills we’re trying to lessen?

      1. Brian Tucker-Hill

        A very good question that requires a long answer, so I will divide this into two parts. Part One:

        Thinking about all this on a Citywide basis, ultimately what you want is to leverage all your better locations for housing development (places where you have a combination of developable land and either close proximity to important jobs centers or good transit links to them) to get as many new units as possible. That’s because that is your hardest supply constraint–developable land is more or less a fixed quantity (unless you want to start razing occupied neighborhoods and starting over), and capital for significant transit expansion is hard to come by, and really depends on higher levels of government you can’t control.

        It can in fact be helpful to try to set aside a good number of those new units to be affordable from the outset. But even new market rate units help because that is one less household to fuel the conversion of existing older, modest units into renovated and more expensive units (which happens a lot when there are not enough new units to go around).

        Anyway, even with such set-asides, these days there is not much danger of such locations ending up concentrations of poverty. Lots of people are still drawing on the experience of the post-WWII decades where things like white flight, an urban crime wave (possibly caused by lead exposure), and destructive urban redevelopment plans actually led to higher-income households abandoning many fundamentally well-located neighborhoods. Now, however, all that has reversed. As a result, there tends to be ample potential demand among higher-income households for new units in good urban locations. Even smaller units in low-service buildings will tend to at least attract lots of recent college graduates, empty-nesters, and so on.

      2. Brian Tucker-Hill

        Part Two:

        Of course I understand that many people still hear “high density development” and “affordable housing” in conjunction and immediately start thinking about the failed high-rise housing projects of the post-WII era But going forward, the problem is much more about making sure there are actually enough affordable units in good urban locations, not in keeping such fundamentally good urban locations from becoming concentrations of poverty. In fact, that’s actually becoming much more a concern in certain suburban and exurban areas where aging, low-standard, depreciating housing stock combined with poor transportation options and decaying local finances are starting to become the new areas of concentrated poverty.

        And none of this is speculative at this point. Other Northeastern cities are simply ahead of Pittsburgh along this path, and have seen all this play out. Although things like rent controls, affordable housing set asides, and so on have helped a few households, the vast majority of lower-income households have found themselves with fewer and fewer options in good locations. That’s because there is just isn’t enough new building going on to maintain a decent supply of affordable housing.

        So to be blunt, every time a person explicitly or implicitly cites the post-WII project high-rises as a reason to build detached homes instead of rowhouses, or rowhouses instead of apartment buildings, or a three-story apartment building instead of a seven-story apartment building, or so on, they are potentially condemning some future lower-income household to one of those suburban or exurban areas of concentrated poverty for lack of alternatives.

        Armed with all this information about what lies ahead, we need to try to do better in Pittsburgh. But I am not sure that we will.

      3. bramr101 Post author

        Very interesting defense of density in affordable housing, in developments properly conceived. Any particular “other Northern cities” that should be highlighted?

      4. Brian Tucker-Hill

        I 100% agree with the “properly conceived” part, incidentally. The material busesarebridges quoted seems very helpful on that issue. Basically, I think if you follow good, contemporary urban design principles in general, and provide a healthy mix of different types of housing (including smaller units in low-service buildings), you have the conditions you need for sustainable mixed-income urban areas. But if you don’t do enough of that in total, even the modest units will likely become prohibitively expensive.

        NYC and Boston are typically cited as the Northeastern cities with the least affordable core areas, and not coincidentally those are the cities where this process has been going on the longest. DC, however, is very rapidly heading in the same direction:


        Really, though, it is happening all over the country–the housing bubble-and-burst did not actually burst so much in most central cities. For various reasons Pittsburgh did not participate in all that in the 1990s and 2000s, but there is every indication it is now starting down the exact same path.

  2. busesarebridges

    Density of mixed income housing, with frequent, reliable affordable public transit, walkability, and bikeability to living wage employment seems to have the most sustainable results.

    From the Density Guide For Affordable Housing Developers

    Smart Growth, High-Quality Design & Diversity
    Smart growth design principles, which are often employed by affordable housing developers, call for higher density development, mixed uses, buildings that relate to streets, well defined open space, and buildings with individuality and a variety of color, texture, and materials. All of these strategies increase a neighborhood’s walk-ability, sense of place, and character. Well-designed compact neighborhoods also have different housing types. By balancing lower, medium and higher-density projects, communities can offer a wider range of housing types for different populations including lower income households and renters.

    Safety, Property Values & Overcrowding
    Studies have shown that high density development and affordable housing do not lower property values, cause overcrowding, or increase crime. The design and use of public spaces has a far more significant impact on crime than density or income levels. Affordable housing, which is often better maintained and designed than market rate housing, may even increase property values. In addition affordable housing developments are required by their funding sources to match unit size to family size, thus preventing overcrowding.

    Reduces Traffic & Pollution
    As a neighborhood increases in density vehicle mileage decreases because destinations are closer, so people can walk or bike to nearby services or take accessible public transit. Transit connections become more cost effective and common when neighborhood density increases. In addition, multifamily developments are known to have lower car ownership rates than single-family home tracts.

    Preserves Open Space & Reduces Costs
    Cities can meet local and regional housing needs without consuming open space or agricultural land by building on vacant acres in already developed populated areas and increasing densities. Infill development – building on unused land within existing developed areas also decreases costs because it makes use of existing infrastructure. Infrastructure costs per housing unit drop dramatically as densities increase. Communities can also revitalize vacant run down commercial districts by bringing in local customers and increasing taxable sales.with new high-density mixed-use development in infill locations

    Here’s the link to the source quoted above: http://scanph.org/files/Density%20Guide.pdf

    1. bramr101 Post author

      Sounds like the operative word may be “mixed”. Thanks.

      As well as reference to some “use of space” principles I don’t quite understand yet. Is Feng Shui City Planning the next Broken Windows theory?


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