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.
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.
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 célèbre 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.