Modern Pittsburgh and Community Building

Amish America

“Community building” means different things depending on whether you put the emphasis on the “MUNE” in community or the “BUILD” in building.

In the former instance, community itself is what one sets out to build; in the latter, building is in some manner undertaken by a community.

We should like to do some of both.

To paraphrase a former Defense Secretary, “community building” also means building with the communities you have — not the communities you might want or wish to have at a later time.

Development forces are already at work in different theaters as we begin our civic transformation.

The Hill theater is fiercely engaged at the Lower Hill / Upper Downtown, and can be defined by the following:

  • High civic demand for development
  • Zoning still up in the air
  • Private entity owns development rights on entire footprint, Sports & Exhibition Authority owns land.
  • Development rights will begin expiring in years, absent new development.

Impasses between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Hill District community in rezoning the quasi-City land include affordable housing, inclusive workforce and commercial development practices, neighborhood legacy acknowledgments in naming and place-making, identified source funding for some Greater Hill Master Plan (pdf) and neighborhood initiatives, and enforcement provisions for whatever is pledged. To that grand neighborhood consensus, the Comet and others like to add that anything purporting to connect Downtown to the Hill District ought to have brilliantly complete streets, suited to the needs and aims of the environment.

Councilman Robert Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District, Downtown and parts of the North Side, duly reminded the Penguins at a recent community meeting that he can “tear [their] plan up.” And this is a Councilman that has been anxious for the prosperity of new development.

More on-point, recently to the Times:

Mr. Lavelle, the city councilman, said the Hill District tumbled into poverty and crime with the demolition of many blocks in the 1950s to make way for a civic arena. It wiped out a grid of stores and jazz clubs that the poet Claude McKay once called “the crossroads of the world.”

“When you tore down the Lower Hill District, you took away the entrepreneurial spirit,” Mr. Lavelle said. “The extreme poverty was a result of that.” (NYT, Trip Gabriel)

That gets me thinking upon dirigisme.

The rules of any “nuclear endgame” between the City and its hockey team may involve not just a stalled transformation, but the lease for the Consol Center. If the City moves to solicit new proposals for any Lower Hill parcels upon whose rights the Penguins’ have or will soon expire, that could entail the Penguins making vague (and likely erroneous) references to that 30-year lease, which will get every sportswriter and sports broadcaster in Pittsburgh mad.

Few desire mad. Everyone wants significant commercial and residential development happening in the Lower Hill soon that is smartly tailored for Pittsburgh.

Making it so means pruning only the most unsustainable of avarice from what are otherwise responsible, unobjectionable plans presented by the Penguins:  that which involve sealing off too much legitimately available opportunity and benefit to the community, or that which will consume very many public funding opportunities without reasonable collaboration.

Basically, it’s just a routine matter of urban planning and negotiation among several parties.  It’s a simple microcosm, but high-angst due to historically challenging topography.

National Get Outdoors Day

The Allegheny River theater is different, where until the train tracks opposite in the Strip District, land sprawls flat into a post-industrial distance and the Buncher Company is further along.

Here is what we see at “Riverfront Landing”, that section nearest to Downtown:

  • Low-to-moderate civic demand for development.
  • Zoning fixed at private entity’s behest last year.
  • Entity owns most property free and clear.
  • City retains provisional power over historic 5-block building at heart of immediate plans.

When we say there is low “civic demand” for development near the site, we mean that those who traverse the Strip District near Downtown — whether it be for a commute, work, shopping, a meal, a drink or to visit to the Heinz History Center — are not given to turn their heads and say, “Come on already. What a mess.” It just looks like Pittsburgh: a river, parking lots, greenery and small industrial relics; and there is enough excitement going on around it, it doesn’t seem such a shame.

But of course Buncher Company is willing and now able to transform things at what it calls Riverfront Landing, so change is due. Creating jobs and attracting new stake holders is nice, besides.

Buncher Company is a company with a fascinating history, which might account for its nuanced and evolving tone on whether to proceed despite what comes of the historic Produce Terminal.

It makes a fine point:

Mr. Balestrieri cautioned that development could be slowed and marketing affected if the produce terminal is excluded from the project. He said a prospective condominium owner or building tenant might balk without knowing the future of the hulking Strip District icon.

I think it’s important to know what it is,” he said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

What Buncher misconstrues in the discussion of “What happens when the City declares a building historic?” are all the thoughtful processes and resources assembled at hand to weigh what are the civic (including economic) needs outweighing aspects of preservation, and what are the mitigating or creative adaptations that can be explored while maximizing historic value.

Buncher pays enough for architectural and design consultants. It is unknown, aside from undue self-securitization, why it seems averse to taking advantage of the City’s own resources and expertise in pursuing that course with some optimism. The City and its URA might be best-suited to devise commercial uses for its prized past possession.

On the other hand, much was said last year about the ecological health of our river and the vibrancy of public space along that river front. This is the province of zoning and planning. The property owner’s zoning was duly passed. It might be tempting for Mayor Bill Peduto to hold a punitive line over the Produce Terminal in order to convince Buncher to readdress that past perceived avarice, but doing so now to any excess would probably fall into the province of political vanity.

While the scope and potential for both development and its challenges expands as one travels upriver, Riverfront Landing is just a routine matter of urban planning and negotiation among several parties.


Doing things right takes a little more time than doing them heedlessly. We all know this from experience.

If the Hill District and the Allegheny Riverfront theaters are complex due to inherited urgency, the Hazelwood, the Homewood and the At-Large theaters all represent different sorts of clean slates.

By all accounts in Hazelwood, at the former LTV Coke works site along interior of the Monongohela, we today see few intrinsic challenges and a developer in ALMONO who must patronize many fine planners, consultants and advisers. The City also did patient work. Councilman O’Connor of the area voiced no concerns. No major concerns arose from the community, aching for jobs lost years ago.

The opportunities lie in what exactly spreads from that footprint.

Housing renovation? Mainstreets development along 2nd Avenue? Claiming Junction Hollow? A greenway corridor connecting towards Downtown? Something heavier, transit-wise? It’s all in play, and the City will have opportunities to encourage community building and improve some more crassly expedient practices.

Conde Nast: Julian Capmeil

Digging a network of canals is one idea. The feds are requiring expensive upgrades to our storm water infrastructure, to meet its volumetric calculations of need. Intelligently designed landscaping and canals would satisfy a portion of that need as determined by a judge, much like a holding tank. Water features enhance both community sentiment and commercial demand. The ability to host kayak racing competitions through an interlocking series of canals along the Mon would be gin for Pittsburgh.

We shouldn’t be shocked if some our more dazzling fantasies fail the reality test, however. Next-level success is just a routine matter of organizing, city planning and negotiation.


While our previous theaters were given massive nudges by some developer, the Homewood theater appears on the agenda due primarily to Mayor-elect Peduto.

Knockout development in northern Shadyside, East Liberty and southwest tip of Larimer is causing ripples of interest, recently evident deeper into Larimer. Councilman Ricky Burgess is not unwelcoming of investment. The community is vocal for change. Homewood itself is blessed with not only flat land but a square corners, rectangular street grid; miraculous in this city.

Yet by investing so much symbolism in his commitment to Homewood and by choosing to name it properly — not to creep towards the troubled and traumatized community — Peduto has committed to build a Homewood for Homewood; for its own sake.

I will not speculate on what that means. There must be a blizzard of stakeholders, property titles, built environments and natural resources to sort out. The chaos of its eager unpreparedness represents the cleanest of all possible slates within which to organize, plan and negotiate.

City Parks Blog

Finally there is the At-Large theater, or as I like to call it “The West End” but really the other 80 neighborhoods now less conspicuous on the development radar.

Like a ninja, the City will have to recognize, concoct and seize opportunities to build community in ways smaller for now, but no less burdensome of history and no worse as investments.

Markers of progress in Greater Homewood, along the Mon and in places like the West End will acclimatize Pittsburgh to more deliberative and sensitive city planning functions on titanic-sized items.

The demonstration of real productive engagement with the Penguins and Buncher Co. and the eventual implementation of some community-building in the Hill and the Allegheny Riverfront will reward patience and alert Pittsburghers to an enlightened vision.

A selective embrace of market forces, together with the respect dividend for building community in challenging theaters, will enable Pittsburgh to follow through in rehabilitating its vast, half-abandoned and poverty-stricken expanses properly — and will act as the most encouraging and illustrative diorama for why to invest in a smart, collaborative and efficient government.


30 thoughts on “Modern Pittsburgh and Community Building

  1. Anonymous

    Speaking of community building, how about a little crowdsourcing on the transition teams? Monday's email from Acklin said they are expecting a few hundred to show up at the kick-off meeting at Pitt's David Lawrence Hall. Over 1,000 folks applied. Thoughts?

    Here are some selectees as self-exposed on Facebook and other sources (I'd be interested to hear about anybody who WASN'T selected):
    Rob Pfaffmann
    Louise Carlino
    Ken Doyno
    Ron Gaydos
    Karen Hochberg
    Chris Zurawsky
    Christiane Leach
    Jodi S. Kraeuter Klebick
    Eric Singer
    Irene Habermann
    Terry Irwin
    Kristin Hughes

  2. Bram Reichbaum

    I understand they decided to include everybody who applied (you can add Tony Ceoffe and myself to that list) though I'm not sure the process from here. I assume they're still splitting us into 8 teams…?

  3. BrianTH

    There are so many great opportunities it can be dizzying. So I just want to nominate a couple core issues where I think some consistency, and related advocacy, are warranted.

    1) All these opportunities should involve serious multi-mode transportation planning (meaning planning for not just cars but transit, bikes, and walking, and not just as an after-thought but as a consideration in how development should be shaped such as to maximize utilization of alternative transportation modes). Fortunately there are a lot of people these days on top of this issue and pushing in the positive directions. Unfortunately some of the necessary investments will take state and federal cooperation, which may take some “regime change” at those levels of government, but at least the region can get together on lobbying with a more or less unified voice;

    2) At every turn we should be pretty much maximizing the intensity of land use resulting from new developments, subject to available financing and well-considered historic preservation constraints. The amount of developable land is one of the few really hard constraints on a locale, and many, many good things flow from maximizing its use (including with respect to Issue (1) above). However, this is the sort of issue where there can be a lot of contrary voices, and in fact in the United States in particular there have been so many successful efforts to codify anti-density policies and obstruct specific densifying projects that there has been a massive shortage of new higher-density developments in recent decades, which in turn is the biggest single cause of the unnecessarily high housing+transportation costs facing many lower-income households, and also a major contributor to the energy intensity and emission rates of the United States, various adverse health outcomes, and so on.

    None of this is to suggest there are not other important policy considerations that will cut across these various areas. But transportation and land-use policy are two of the most important, and getting them right in the long run essentially requires a broader view.

  4. Anonymous

    I signed up to help on a transition team not to be part of some deliberative democracy experiment. I think I'll resign.

  5. Bram Reichbaum

    Brian – In #2, are you using “intensity” and “high density” more or less interchangeably? It occurred to me last night (I'm kind of slow) that one method of approaching the “affordable housing” issue in the Lower Hill is to zone for greater residential density and less wine cellars.

  6. BrianTH

    Intensity of land use is a broader concept since it can apply to all sorts of different possible uses of land. But density can be a useful measure of intensity for many common uses–e.g., you can measure the intensity of land used for housing in terms of residential density, or the intensity of land used for a jobs center in terms of employment density, and so on.

    In the case of the Lower Hill, I think the maximum residential density allowed by its zoning will just be whatever is in the approved Preliminary Land Development Plan (at least that is how I understand how that process works). So that is indeed exactly what I had in mind when I was saying affordable housing advocates could be talking in terms of the total number of affordable units rather than percentages.

    For example, I believe they are currently talking about around 1200 units for the whole 28 acre site (admittedly with other uses on large chunks), so 30% affordable would be about 360 units, leaving about 740 market, and 20% about 240 units, leaving about 960 market. But if you “up-zoned” the PLDP to 1320 units (de facto making it denser), you could do both 360 affordable and 960 market. And if you up-zoned to 1800 units, you could do only 20% affordable and still get 360 affordable.

    Note that doesn't have to mean “less wine cellars” however. If the developer wants the same amount of square footage per market rate unit, but the number of units has gone up, the solution is just more square footage. Assuming you don't want to take any land away from other uses, that means building up a bit more.

  7. Anonymous

    Maybe keeping whoever shows up at Pitt Saturday will be the first step in separating the wheat from the chaff. Or maybe it's all just a put on? Although maybe 125 people per team will be manageable, although I'd hate to be the person who has to keep track of all the edits.

  8. Anonymous

    I can't believe I am saying this but the Rev is right. The Act 47 plan bans all pension enhancements. How did Bill's team miss this? I want to retire!!!

  9. flybylight

    Commenting on the original article (as opposed to transition teams), and regarding your Theater No. 1 (and I prefer to think you refer to these as “theaters” in the staging sense and not in the war sense).

    I think regarding the Hill District and the Penguins we gave away too much when we did not insist that the developer lay down plans and garner input, have conversation, and gain overwhelming approval of everyone and first develop the 24 acres not containing the Arena before ever tearing down the building.

    By saying “go ahead and tear down the four acres of building first,” we gave tacit approval to almost anything, including years and years of large parking lots.

    In contrast, my sense (in a marginally participatory manner from the neighboring community) of the ALMONO site in Hazelwood is that the community held strong for active input, and really pushed for something new and different and future-oriented, and the developers and foundations and others listened because they wanted to.

    ALMONO is on track NOT to become just another concrete-block-and-sheet-metal development slapped together pretending to be great modern architecture, set to house national chain restaurants and dollar stores. There are plans to involve several different areas of the development, and to align the street grid with the Hazelwood business district as it currently stands, and not to compete with it.

    We ought to make certain of the same for the Lower Hill, and push for creating something worthwhile to residents and to the citizens of Pittsburgh.

  10. BrianTH

    Due to its position, shape, and scale, the Civic Arena was an impediment to developing the whole site–there is really no way you could have started developing any significant portion of the site without first determining the fate of the Arena.

    I mean imagine having a conversation with a possible apartment building developer on the upper portion of the site:

    Q: So what streets are going to be in the site?
    A: We don't know.

    Q: So what sort of development will be between the apartments and Downtown?
    A: We don't know.

    And so on. People can argue about whether or not the Arena should have been preserved, but one way or another that decision had to be made before the site could be developed.

    The real fundamental problem was including development rights for the Penguins as part of their bribe to stay in Pittsburgh. Of course there were some strings attached, including a CBA, but invariable those prove inadequate to protect the public's evolving interests over time. We'd be in much better shape if the Penguins had been sent packing (if that is really what they would have done), and the development rights to the site parceled out in a competitive process.

    But even with those fundamental mistakes, the Penguins still need to get City approval for their specific development plans as part of the Specially Planned District process. So to me it is quite odd to lament the loss of some theoretical indirect planning leverage the City might have had by keeping the Arena around to make bluffs about, when they already have planning authority directly.

  11. Anonymous

    ALOMONO has been decades in the making. Lets pray the Pens don't take that long. There hasn't been a single thing built at ALOMONO but for some reason they get praise while the Pens get body slammed. Why is that? The arena absolutely had to come down. It was old, expensive to maintain and had no historical value, other than the history of displacing thousands of people and businesses. Can the pre-arena Hill come back? Probably not, but we can try our best to breathe some life into it.

  12. BrianTH

    You are missing the point. Of course if we had decided to keep the Arena in place there would have been answers to my questions. My point is that the answers to those questions depend on whether or not the Arena was kept in place, and no one would invest in developing any significant part of the site without knowing the answers to such questions.

    So that is why a decision had to be made, one way or another, before development could start. And that would have been equally true even if the Penguins hadn't been granted the development rights.

  13. Anonymous

    Old? expensive to maintain? and had no historical value? The standard charges when a building stands in the way of “progress”. Sound familiar? Have you been to Toronto or Seatte where they made a different choice? No you wouldnt hear about it because the sports-industrial complex and white guilt wound not allow it… its amazing how short our memories are. There was a plan that demonstrated how to keep the Arena and build housing and connect to the city and hill with walkable streets. Had Peduto been mayor we would have had a least a serious development competition to test the ideas in an open way. He would have led a delegation to Montreal to convince billionaire Guy Liberte to work with Mario on a US training and ops center at the Igloo. We would have been able to demonstrate that the operating and maintainace costs could be covered by pop up events and festivals using the open dome in the mean time. The housing could have started on the upper lots with a clear alternative plan. Look at New York's Highline. A structure nobody wanted except a few who could “think differently” If Pittsburgh wants run with the big dog cities it has start acting like it.The Lower Hill, Alomono, Howewood and the Strip are a few good places to start. Unusual “hard to reuse” historic structures like the Igloo and the Terminal are tests of our innovation skills rather than demolition skills. Demolition is lazy thinking…just like our fathers before us.

  14. Bram Reichbaum

    Anon 2:53 – While I don't want to get drawn into a Civic Arena discussion — and congratulations on getting me to do it anyway! — I agree with Anon 10:56 that a sincere exploration of adaptive reuse possibilities was never permitted to take place. No RFP was ever issued. Me, even if the outdoor mall and public square ideas fell through, I'd rather at least have seen a bit of the wreckage preserved as a monument to the condescension and tragedy of Urban Renewal; I'm not sure something like that exists anywhere else in America.

    But anyway. You talk about development in Hazelwood and the development proposal on in the Lower Hill in a general sense as if it does not matter in the slightest what is being built; as though it's all the same so long as someone is making a buck, and as though the Pens would be doing us a huge favor in redeveloping as though nobody else now could take it on. Are you not willing to consider *%#”WHAT”#%* is being put in its sizable place as worthy of discussion, or does it not matter to you so long as something, and who cares what, is being “developed”?

  15. Anonymous

    Anon 2:53 I have been in Pittsburgh for 30 years and I can tell you that ALL major development projects take decades to develop fund and develop infrastructure, recruit tenants and build. Oh and and yes debate the design to make it better. Developers/Promoters/Pols on a 4 year development schedule want to tell you otherwise. Almono is not that old, and not that unique as Pittsburgh redevelopment time goes. Each plan will evolve over time, economy and administrations. Each of the current projects attempts to “fix the street grid” …politicians love that planning rhetoric, which we will laugh at someday especially when a street grid project fails to meet expectations. The question is which ones will matter and which ones will get done right, go deeper, innovate and resist the temptation to get 'er done. These are long term investments, not short term political wins.

    It dirves me nuts when people opine about these plans without realy understanding what they realy mean. We do a crappy job of providing objective assessments of a project because crits are seen as anti-development rather than constructive attempts to make a project better and meet the aspirations of the community AND the developer. How many architects and planners do you hear critiquing anothers' work? They are all afraid to particpate in this discussion for fear of being blacklisted…thats about to change, I hope.

  16. Anonymous

    It drives me nuts when I hear things like this. Constant criticism of how things could be better and wild ideas about “had we only traveled to Montreal.” Give me a break. Every single major development project has been criticized by the same people claiming to have “unknown investors” who would come in and save the day. But yet every time something is done and finished everyone enjoys the development. Besides, if you are so concerned about demolition, why is it no is out actively supporting adaptive re-use and anti-demolition in neighborhoods? It is going on all over the place but no one ever shows up. Oh well, i guess it is only important when the cameras are on. My bet is that Peduto's team works behind the scenes to ensure that the terminal building is NOT given historic status by a 5-4 vote so that he can save face, but let Buncher do what it needs to do.

    Architects and developers being blacklisted? They are more afraid now than ever.

  17. BrianTH

    The participants in the Historical Review process prior to the Arena's demolition seemed pretty “sincere” to me. Proponents of reuse included professional architects, they held design competitions, and they hired their own economic consultants (4Ward). The problem is at the end of the day all those sincere efforts just served to show that any reuse plan was going to sharply limit the overall development, and 4Ward was left arguing that the Penguins' plan was too ambitious to work.

    By the way, in order to attract real RFPs, you'd have to commit to making the Arena available for reuse. Firms aren't going to invest serious time and money into coming up with proposals for an opportunity that doesn't actually exist.

  18. flybylight

    There was no all-fired rush to tear down a building taking up four acres of a 28-acre site. This was a building on numerous Pittsburgh postcards over the years. This was a building prominent in so many photos of our city. A photo of this building was in my high school Algebra book, with a caption “An estimation of pi was used in building the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.” Market houses are the new old fashion. Yet we tore down a large building, centrally located, an attraction to a neighborhood, under the premise that somehow we will be able to “reconnect” the Hill to Downtown, despite Crosstown Boulevard and the other road connections in between.

    No decision had to be made, BrianTH, on tearing down or not tearing down prior to someone actually beginning to plan the redevelopment of the area with solid welcome community-based ideas and with a good handle on how work would be progressing. Leaving those four lousy acres in place would not have been a deterrent. It might have even set the standard for innovative architecture, something some of our new developments seem to be lacking recently.

  19. BrianTH

    You are significantly understating the problem by claiming this was only about four acres, as if they could be isolated from the rest of the development plan.

    The Arena, being circular, effectively blocked more land than a rectangular building of the same square footage would have blocked. It was also located right in the middle of where the site is narrowing as it approaches Downtown, and therefore it served to effectively block the entire upper portion of the site from the lower portion of the site and Downtown. And finally it was tucked up against a sharp grade change, which will need to be addressed if there are going to be any roads and paths running east-west through the site.
    So yes, a decision had to be made one way or another before any serious development could start on the site, because it would require two radically different plans depending on whether or not the Arena was kept.

    Honestly, this is the sort of issue where two seconds looking at a satellite map of the site with the Arena in place (still available on Google Maps as I write this) will debunk the notion that this was just a random four-acre issue. Of course I understand there are still people around who think the wrong decision was made, and much of your post appears to be arguing in support of that view. But that is a very different claim than saying we could simply refuse to decide one way or another.

    And to be blunt, I think it is pretty transparently the case that those still saying today that we should have kept the issue in limbo indefinitely are saying that largely because they didn't like the answer that was reached. And even if you think no decision would have been better than what you view as a bad decision, and even if you think waiting some indefinite period of time would eventually give you a better chance of getting the answer you desired, you should at least have the courage to admit that the price of waiting for another chance at the answer you wanted would be to delay development indefinitely.

  20. BrianTH

    “I think we can move past this if we agree to disagree on our definitions of 'due' diligence.”

    I don't think so, or not entirely.

    Certainly I am responding in part to the argument there should have been something like an RFP for reuse proposals prior to making a demolition decision. But I am not making a definitional argument, I am suggesting that you wouldn't be able to get real reuse RFPs without a decision on the Arena's fate first. That is a practical, not definitional, question.

    I have also been responding to the argument that development could have started elsewhere on the site while the Arena's fate was left undetermined. Again, nothing in that exchange depends on a definitional question–my point is that no developer would be willing to do that.

    So it is all well and good to “define” a diligence process to include certain steps, but if there is no practical chance those steps can actually be carried out as envisioned, they won't actually help resolve the issue.

    Finally, you seem to have a problem with my use of the term “indefinitely.” But look for example at flybylight's posts of 5:12 and 10:50, or Anony at 10:56–is it possible to identify some definite point in those posts at which the fate of the Arena would actually be determined? I think “indefinite” is perfectly fair, and indeed what they want to be true (that the Arena's fate could be left undecided indefinitely as people kept trying to come up with some compelling reuse plan). It just depends on an extremely unrealistic notion of what developers would be willing to do.

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