Land Stories: A Simple Offering

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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.

4 thoughts on “Land Stories: A Simple Offering

  1. Anonymous

    Nevermind. I thought Corey said something about the firefighters. I see it was actually about the Produce Terminal. It's simple. He needs Buncher for future political contributions. What I don't get is Gilman's and Harris' abstentions. What's their angle?

  2. Shawn Carter


    This one is for Chris Briem and BrianTH.

    But the Southern Beltway, regardless of the original purpose for its design and alignment, can now serve the purpose of being an Interstate by-pass for the gaslands of SWPA to the Beaver Valley Expressway due north to Monaca, PA, where the Royal Dutch Shell Methane Cracker is being envisioned.

    It wasn't me who figured that out.

    A very smart guy looked at the PG map and said, “Hmm… Washington County, hmmm… Airport, Hmmm… Beaver Valley Expressway. Where is that cracker supposed to go, again?”

    And then it all made sense to the both of us.

    The Southern Beltway will allow Northbound traffic on I-79 from Washington County and points south to get North while avoiding any urbanized areas at freeway speeds.

  3. BrianTH

    But how many daily users does that add up to?

    Note they likely won't be moving the feedstock for the cracker by truck, and the finished products won't be going back to Marcellus-land (if anything, next-step manufacturers will locate near the cracker). Employees at the cracker itself will only number in the hundreds, and even if you add in employees at associate manufacturers, there is no particular reason for them to live out along the Southern Beltway as opposed to closer by (in Beaver or Butler), or elsewhere in the Metro (including farther north/west).

    Not to be overly cynical, but the most obvious beneficiaries at this point to the $600+ million it will cost to build the next section of the Southern Beltway is the entities expecting to get the $600+ million in contracts, and the public officials associated with those entities. Greenfield land developers along the route are the next most likely beneficiaries, and in fact the public case for the highway explicitly relies on them (although those expected benefits may be substantially inflated in light of recent trends in development patterns plus the disappointing traffic on the highway).

    And undoubtedly there are SOME actual users who will benefit, including some gas-related users, but I think the question always has to be exactly how many people you are really talking about. And I suspect the real world answer to that question is going to continue to be “as it turns out, not that many”.


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