Mayor Zober: In Charge, Autocratic, Political, Hostile to Communities and Labor

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The portrait which the Post-Gazette provides of InvestigatePGH’s latest and highest-profile person of interest encourages what was already widely conventional wisdom.

My own takeaways:

1. In terms of accountability and directives, even Sen. Jim Ferlo now acknowledges a “leadership vacuum” existed for the “last several years” (say, seven?) while crediting mayoral chief of staff / URA chairman Yarone Zober with all that is oft considered good about Frontman Luke Ravenstahl. And a lot of that seems to be organizing and fulfilling deals.

2. Why does the City bother asking residents and stakeholders to come Downtown to line up and speak at public hearings, and why do we seek out and waste the time of so many professionals volunteering as board members, if a boss can remotely fire off an email fixing a decision? It’s not an isolated incident — back when URA Director Pat Ford was around to provide Ravenstahl and Zober with an additional layer of insulation from public accountability, it was Ford who directed the Commission off-record to ignore community input. They often speak denoting it is already settled that projects have to “move forward” expeditiously.

“This is ridiculous” … Zober, on persons seeking community benefit for a subsidized hotel project on cheaply sold public land.

3. Power to shape the Lower Hill — to reclaim it, reconnect it, remedy and reverse mistakes of the past, build a neighborhood where one once was crushed — is now held jealously in the hands of an administrator profoundly skeptical of community groups, disdainful of labor, and presently under suspicion of pay-to-play wrongdoing.

Today’s profile covers Mayor Zober’s development strategy, which he described on camera better than any scribe might paraphrase during that tense interval with North Shore groups. You will go watch both parts now.


3A. “Every dollar that’s created in taxes… those are community benefits. Those go directly into worker training programs, into keeping our streets safe, clean.” For a short while, economic development equals community benefits was an explicit catch-phrase of the URA.

In actuality, City government does not conduct any worker training at all; if it does, it is a vanishingly tiny fraction of one percent of its budget and contingent upon grants. Tax dollars from a development certainly could be used for job training — but that would necessitate some kind of Community Benefits Agreement.

And although additional police and street sweeping are not typically demands expressed by these communities, even these are never assigned specifically to the poor neighborhoods burdened with the effects of disruptive large-scale entertainment and tourist complexes. Again, such a thing could easily happen — but only in the context of a Community Benefits Agreement.

Chicago Gazette

Ironically, the taxes generated from subsidized development often go straight to paying off the infrastructure necessary to support it by the terms of a TIF agreement. Otherwise it indeed goes to the City — which must use it to fuel the pension fund and bond holders more so than anything else. If any is left over after all that, one could more easily say it goes to subsidize the next development, than wind up in the capital budget and hopefully make it to a burdened community.

3B. “That’s not at the expense of neighborhood development. If you just look at the North Side there’s about $85 million in development right now, from Federal North, to, uh, Garden Theater…” First, the Garden Theater is part of the Federal North project, so that corner is duly noted. As is the new Carnegie Library on Federal, replacing the one struck by lightening in Allegheny Center. For all we know that comprises a portion of the $85 million figure.

The main point being in what has been the URA’s terminology, “X millions are being invested on the Y Side or End” as though it is distributed by crop duster. Why not jump up and grab it, community members? Not that simplistic.

3C. This leaves “jobs” as the sole and strongest argument for what I (not so effectively) call the trickle-down theory of community building. These jobs fall broadly into two categories: construction jobs, and permanent (usually service-industry) jobs.

Zober is delighted to point out that the building industry trades are supportive of his development approach. A friend of mine recently quipped, “They would build a nuclear power plant in a schoolyard if they could get a project labor agreement.”

That does not make the trades evil, but it does suggest this is merely a case where some of the goals of one subset of labor happen to align with the goals of “Getting It Done” development. The affinity for the trades does not seem to stem from any particular passion for workers’ rights or the struggles of the working man. It should be noted that the building trades are not famous for being particularly diverse or easy to break into either (outside of a Community Benefits Agreement).

As to “permanent” jobs, these also are real and people eagerly apply for them. That deserves its place and weight on the scale. But it should be acknowledged these are the very sorts of jobs which tend to generate noisome demands for improved benefits and conditions. Such demands sadly generate responses such as, “These require no special skills or education! Why do they feel they deserve financial security or health care in exchange? It’s economics. You’re not supposed to stay in those jobs, silly goose. Move on.”

When it is suggested we should arrange for these new jobs to be filled by organized workforces to negotiate some benefits, as in a “project labor agreement” which can be part of a “Community Benefits Agreement,” this is opposed by the administration as often as possible: see Stage AE, or the hotel in Bakery Square.

The key concept is not doing what everybody asks, but BALANCE. If a 1 is granting a developer every consideration and encouragement, and a 10 is total community preoccupation, strike a 5. Perhaps a 6 when one is remedying historic and still-painful injustices as in the Hill, or a 4 where there are few inherent burdens such as near Hazelwood. Mayor Zober seems to be all about murdering the Yin such that Yang can win forevermore.

Art or Consequences

3D. In today’s profile, we learn that Zober has partially inoculated himself against certain otherwise predictable populist criticism by bailing out the August Wilson Center and hustling to achieve what was the “exception” Community Benefits Agreement for the new arena in the Hill.

Here is where I am going to upset a lot of you, initially. But stay with this.

The August Wilson Center was built with the best and highest of civic intentions, on a grand scale and on prime real estate. We have since learned its initial business model is unsustainable. We are also aware that it is not going anywhere, nor should it. [UPDATE 1/21/13: It is going somewhere; we’ve learned it’s gotten so bad, it has to].

But in loaning the Center $2 million at 4.5% interest, Zober and the URA purchased new shares of the responsibility. With that funding 20 months ago, there should have been a serious intention to get personally involved with the cultural asset, and a process set up to begin identifying workable reforms. The URA in particular is well-equipped to communicate tough financial realities and assist in creative problem-solving. If however the URA simply cut a check, that looks more like a short-term fix to a political crisis. A kicking of a can down the road which one does not wish to stop and touch. The price you pay for doing business.

I would argue the Consol Energy Center CBA was as cynical a maneuver towards the same ends.

Efforts to lobby for a legally binding CBA for community-led development were evaded with characteristic charisma from the time the arena deal was struck in early 2007 through the first part of 2008. But on Wednesday April 9, the URA Director and the mayor’s Press Secretary left the City in a sudden Derecho of perceived conflicts of interest, and on Friday April 11 Zober claimed a “tentative framework” for a CBA was reached. Such was finally signed four months later, yet partially because coalition partners were exhausted and eager to declare a win the community-improvement fund dropped out and jobs were promised but not guaranteed, nor indeed did they materialize for Hill residents.

Characteristic of an agreement into which its executor was dragged kicking and screaming under resentful duress.

The centerpiece of the CBA was funding towards a grocery store, the cause clbre and the saving grace of the episode. Ominously, deadlines were missed, funding gaps erupted, and it seemed for a long time as though the City would only be held as personally accountable as it would in sustaining the August Wilson Center. But another four years later, in the run-up to what was expected to be Mayor’s reelection bid, peace was restored with renewed fanfare.

On those rare occasions that the stakes are extraordinarily high and politically applicable, this administration has been willing to play the role of community champion. This is politics after all.

But a fair reading of history indicates just what today’s reporting indicates and what Mayor Zober given the opportunity freely shares: that community and labor demands are noxious weeds which must be cut clear for the sake of cash-crop growth.

I am one who believes community demands and commercial growth go hand in hand if we are patient, creative and courageous. If you believe as I do, you ought like me be prepared that Zober could be cleared of every suggestion of pay-to-play wrongdoing. Or, if you share Zober’s one-dimensional convictions on growth, you should be prepared to accept it if he has been complicit in corruption which must be taken seriously. Or any combination thereof.

There may exist a Grand Unification Theory of Zoberstahl which explains why we see a one-note growth agenda, certain managerial foibles, credible indications of corruption, as well as the mayor’s own unfortunate personal drama all at once. However it may be wisest not to try to put too fine a point on it. We’re moving forward.

17 thoughts on “Mayor Zober: In Charge, Autocratic, Political, Hostile to Communities and Labor

  1. Buc It

    1. These long posts make it really hard to pick specifics to comment on. Not a criticism, just how I felt reading, and I hate to choose.

    2. I have a lot of issues with the North Shore development(a lot), but why would a hotel need a CBA? It seems to me that a business that brings outside money & attention into an area is positive enough on it's own. The rest of the Shore is a different story.

    3. Lately, there has been a lot of Vader-ing Zober/Luke & white-knighting Peduto. It's a little too reminiscent of Bush/Obama for my taste. Not that the former doesn't deserve criticism and the latter hope, but the outcome will still be the reality of a a messed up political mix.

  2. Bram Reichbaum

    Thank you and great comment. I had a golden opportunity earlier this week to provide a personal perspective on why the notion of Mayor Peduto makes my head dance with visions of ponies and confetti (it has a lot to do with his recent public statements on the Lower Hill, my own family's history there, and the tale of Peduto's removal from the Stadium Authority) but I alas I let myself get preoccupied. Perhaps another time. I have been overlooking a lot of other items.

  3. Anonymous

    Only gotten through half of it so far, but great post so far Bram.

    Have you heard any rumblings about demands for a CBA in Hazelwood vis a vis the Almono/LTV site development? Some say it's supposed to create a bazillion jobs for the neighborhood, but, call me a skeptic.

  4. BrianTH

    I am not at all opposed to CBAs being the norm, but I also think putting prime-location urban land to relatively intense use does in itself tend to serve a lot of worthy public policy goals.

    The thing is, this supposedly “getting it done” crowd has often done a pretty poor job of getting it done. Continual delays, and then inadequate scale/use/design once something does get done, have been the outcome far too often. And I am increasingly wondering how much of that is because “getting it done” has taken a back seat to “rewarding our friends”.

    One can cite many possible examples, with the largest stakes probably being the North Shore and Lower Hill and maybe the Strip. But in its own way, the attempted bait-and-switch on the former Saks site (where Friends of Zoberstahl got a sweetheart deal from the URA on the promise to do a combined parking/apartments project, only to then try to pull the apartments component a few months later with the apparent approval of Zoberstahl) is a particularly clear-cut example.

    Those Friends of Zoberstahl have vested interests nearby which explain their interest in the parking “getting done”, but also perhaps suggest a conflict of interest when it comes to the apartments “getting done”. And in my view, only “getting it done” with respect to the parking would not be “getting it done” in the way it should really be done, even looking at the issue purely from a pro-development perspective.

    So in short, it may even be giving the Zoberstahl Administration too much credit to suggest that they have a one-dimensional focus on getting developments done, because at least from my perspective, their commitment to even that narrowly-defined cause seems pretty suspect.

    And yes, I fully agree that it may be expecting too much of Peduto to fix all of these things to our full satisfaction. Generally, you never really know how someone will shift from a more limited legislative role to a more comprehensive executive role. And of course it is ultimately impossible to please all of the people all of the time.

    Still, within the range of possible outcomes, I do believe one can at least hope that even as Bram is happier with how communities are represented and rewarded in these cases under Peduto, there might actually be more “getting it done” as well.

  5. Anonymous

    It's frustrating that the impact of larger redevelopment projects are almost always couched in broad terms of jobs created and tax revenues generated. These projections comprise just a portion of the potential economic/fiscal impact of a development – and can often be some of the most misleading numbers.

    As you correctly point out above Bram, a significant portion of net new fiscal revenues (either through TIF, TRID, or even LERTA abatement arrangements) are used to finance a bond to pay for infrastructure improvements associated with the development. These concessions are circularly justified by citing the jobs created by the project. And justifiably so if this job creation is both “net new” and directly impactful to the local workforce. Yet, this is not always the case. The “net new” jobs problem is most evident in the subsidy of large-scale retail development projects (read malls/town centers/etc.). These almost always capture a portion of existing local market share, rather than increasing the overall market. Because new retail does not significantly increase per capita discretionary expenditures, we end up with a scenario in which one store opens and another eventually closes somewhere else (and a retail employee in West Mifflin becomes a retail employee at the Waterfront).

    At least the CBA process forces us to look deeper than the pro forma economic/fiscal impact evaluation – by asking how well that project integrates into the existing community. Is it transit-oriented? Are there public spaces or similar amenities? And, maybe most importantly, will the spin-off benefits impact the community (to what degree will the project increase expenditures at existing businesses in the community). It seems that this consideration is often overlooked in the end-all, be-all discussion of jobs and tax revenues.

    For example, while the Waterfront redevelopment in Homestead is unarguably a very impactful regional project (and an impressive re-use of a brownfield site) the development was constructed in a manner that has not had much of a positive effect on the adjacent traditional commercial district in Homestead. Rather than work to connect the project to the existing commercial downtown area, the raised railroad was used a barrier – hindering access and even sight of the adjacent area. At minimal cost, the project could have been better connected to the community and, in the process, sparked exponential revitalization of the area – all without much impact to the return of the project.

    The cognitive dissonance is deafening when the administration concurrently advocates transit-oriented development, green infrastructure/technology, positive community impact, and smart growth principals publically – yet deifies jobs/tax revenues privately. It's the same logic and approach that led to such unintended negative community impact greatest hits as the Civic Arena and Allegheny Center.

  6. Pete

    A better “getting it done” approach would be to fully staff and support essential city departments that are essential to community and economic development. City Planning is understaffed for a city with our size and development activity. How much of our city government still runs on paper records? Increasing and streamlining the service infrastructure that supports good development is both efficient and equitable.

  7. Anonymous

    What were the negative neighborhood impacts associated with the North Shore hotel? Certainly not additional traffic or noise. I thought the community just wanted concessions–i.e., neighborhood improvements paid for by developer in exchange for community support–and some job guarantees. The same types of demands that could be made in Hazelwood.

  8. Anonymous


    A good place to start would be the city's leaderless, Dickensian BBI. It's abominable & not accountable to anyone as far as I can tell.

  9. Bram Reichbaum

    One could view the hotel as merely that function of Steelers, Pirates, casino and general “North Shore” development which happened to be underway as the technology of CBA's arrived in Pittsburgh. Useful to remember the Steelers had ultimate development rights. The groups also cited a slum seizure and displacement process further back in history akin to what has been better dramatized on the Hill.

  10. Anonymous

    The Mayor would have been better served (and the City) if he had come in and brought in all of his own staff rather than keeping the cadre of primary staff from the previous administration.

    You look at the links in all of these wheeling/dealing, there are always fingers from the holdover staff — be it Zober, Kunka, Ford or Mazefski.

    Second, I thought a Chief of Staff was supposed to lead the Mayor's staff, not take over development in the City. So while Zober was busy fiddling with development, Rome was burning with police scandals, bodyguard scandals and funny purchases in the Fire Bureau.

    Third, a good Chief of Staff would have made sure that the Mayor kept director positions filled with qualified persons and not political hacks. Hence we, have no money to maintain city buildings, bureaucrats running City Information System and the Assistant Director of Emergency Services telling a sitting councilman that he did not have time to write a thesis when the councilman requested needed information on the purchase of new emergency radios.

    The same bad stuff, the same behind the door deals are still going on. It can only get better.

    Not giving the mayor a pass; but, he had a terrible chief of staff to help him keep his focus and do the right things for the city.

    I hope Peduto learns from this and DOES NOT appoint his Chief of Staff to lead any authorities or boards and does not let his director of finance sit and chair as many boards as is currently being done.

    January cannot come soon enough. Even with the Farmer's Almanac prediction of lots of snow — it will be better than the snow job that the city has been living with for almost 8 years.

  11. Anonymous

    I can't wait until January when people are running the city who know how to really run it like Ben Woods, Guy Costa, Doug Shields, the Depasquale brothers, Bob Kram and the rest of the new good government team.

  12. BrianTH

    Completely agree, Pete. The broadly shared vision being sketched here by Bram and some of us other commentators is great in theory, but it takes real work on the part of local government to implement it in practice, and that means providing sufficient staffing and other resources.

  13. Mark Rauterkus

    A leaderless city is often far better than one that is being pushed in the wrong directions. There are times when ZERO is a big improvement vs. NEGATIVE 5 or 7 on a scale that ranges from plus 10 to minus 10.

    Mr. Zober is still better than Pat Ford and perhaps 3 points better than the minus 9 of Mr. Tom Cox in the Tom Murphy years.

    The fix is not with Peduto's people. Rather the fix is with a liquidation of the URA. Nuke it. Blend it into various city departments.


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