Transforming What? The Hill District story remains old-school.

Pittsburgh took the head off of a diverse, blighted but thriving neighborhood near Downtown, and built an arena with a retractable dome, and lots of surface parking lots. Yet despite assurances of follow-up investment, we saw the broader neighborhood descend into deeper disinvestment, isolation, segregation, poverty and breakdown.

50 years later, Pittsburgh demolished the arena. Now thanks to public money it will be the new home of US Steel as well as other businesses and offices, some retail and entertainment, and apartments or condominiums — by and large sold at surging local market rates.

It will be a new planned community catering to the affluent. employing many, and with some vague promises to poor and minority Pittsburghers for future access to the fruits of that opportunity – vague, non-binding, and through yet-to-be-determined processes separate from the one before us at “today’s meeting,” whichever one that happens to be.

If it’s a nexus of anything, it’s the same old business as usual.

What are we transforming?  

Call it whatever you want, but it’s Lawrencian:

“We have had, since the days of [legendary Pittsburgh Mayor] Davey Lawrence [1946-1959] a top-down structure for the way that power is in the City of Pittsburgh. It’s a relic of an industrial age. There are a few people Downtown that basically decide what the core priorities of the city are, and then they make sure that the government adheres to them.”


“It’s about engaging people and allowing them more of a say in the process, and, in so doing, empowering them to allow innovative ideas to occur in every neighborhood.” (Candidate Peduto, 90.5 WESA h/t Homewood Nation)

Sure, we have been to these meetings to engage and say. Refugees of the old Mayor Lawrence coalition engage right there with everybody, too. They are very good at it! Is Mayor Bill also engaging in that process, to counterbalance Davey?

When it comes to responding to the distressed calls to action of those poor and minority communities neighboring titanic Hill District developments, the City leaders have pacified frustration with a succession of at least three (3) toothless and vague agreements, in lieu of yet making anything happen.

Is the third time the charm?

The Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan (CCIP) is at issue now — whether or not its “statement of affirmation” pertaining to enterprise, job and ownership inclusion and other initiatives will be serious.

Prior to that, we had the Greater Hill District Master Plan, an aspirational “vision” document which may have birthed the negotiations of this CCIP.

And prior to that, there was the 2008 Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) nobody even deigns to talk about anymore. It failed to meet targets such as for job and vendor recruitment or for the “Neighborhood Partnership Program” , although it did initiate the Master Plan process.

Non-binding agreements do not tend well for the community, because time is on The Man’s side. And meaningful accords between should have meaningful mechanisms encouraging fulfillment.


In a broader sense, the historical echo harking back to machine politics does not end with flimsy agreements. Take a look at the Planning Commission, a 4-0 vote on an eight-member board, questions about whether that board was unsure of its role and scope… it is patterns like these that are disturbing.


There are several reasons why this is so challenging:

1. PENGUINS POLITICS: While their prospective profit margins are understood to be rather healthy, the Penguins plead that “the numbers have to be made to work” when it comes to making promises. Owners Mario Lemieux and company probably will earn the means to comfortably and responsibly fulfill these modest demands of the CCIP several times over, bringing peace and no tiny amount of prosperity to Pittsburgh’s Hill District — but imagine what their buddies in industry would say. “Sell out,” they’d call him. “Cashing in to be a hero on a pedestal, setting a standard for civic partnership that will squeeze all our bottom-lines collectively, now and forever when they invoke your famous name. Be instead like the robber barons: when you give back, give to charities, be philanthropic. It justifies profit-maximization. When you take any money off your plate dealing with the state, you legitimize liberalism. Why, doesn’t the whole thing stink? Ha ha.”

2. MAYORAL POLITICS: Mayor Peduto last year was elected by a left-leaning coalition of Democratic Progressives with respectable support also from the Black community, but he is burdened by knowledge that it was a unique set of circumstances. He must be worried that if he leans on the scale in favor of CCIP strengthening, people could red-bait him, or make fun of him for “strong arming” and even perhaps embarrass him for ”slowing down development,” now on a second occasion, which might draw a furrowed brow equally in South Pittsburgh, at Google and with the President.

3. HILL DISTRICT POLITICS: Newsflash: there have long been some. It is basically the worst kept secret in the Hill District that its mass community expression is dominated by a group, the Hill CDC, which has very close ties in government. That domination has bifurcated the Hill community effort in a series of eras, and includes class overtones. For the record, I believe the Hill CDC and its allies to be fine and well-intended people — it’s just that groups like the BGCELDI, the LC  and the WPP are not disinterested freedom-fighters, either. To the extent that a development concern’s stock in trade is bartering community support, it’s difficult for them to forcefully express certain community concerns. The Hill CDC is not without a success story, and most residents seem loathe to challenge its leadership. Which to me, as an outsider, would make perfect sense in the name of unity — except its inclusivity at key discussions is a sensitive subject, and sometimes its leaders’ expressions of upset seem too careful by half.


This is all in front of Pittsburgh City Council right now, through new zoning. Thanks to the tradition known as “councilmanic prerogative,”* home-district Councilman Daniel Lavelle is likely to be deferred to by his colleagues on whether or not to green-light the development. So either the Councilman must provide leadership, or the other man who represents the Hill and signs off on new legislation enabling construction — the Mayor.

“I tell you now, there is nothing wrong with the institutions of this city that cannot be repaired by good faith, fair dealing and hard work,” he said to the sound of applause in the hall. (Mayor Peduto, Day One)

These lax, lazy agreements are not “fair dealing,” nor worth the trouble. If the Mayor doesn’t try to put a thumb on the scale to clarify, test, alter, fix, communicate, provide security… we might have to wonder about hard work or good faith.

Peduto said he would make changes at the URA and would place greater emphasis on community input, not less. He favors “triple bottom-line economics,” which means evaluating development projects based on profitability, how a project benefits people and whether it minimally impacts the environment. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

That sounded pretty convincing.

The time is right for this breed of pro-growth progressive. In Pittsburgh, for example, the population of young, liberal college-educated residents is growing after decades of decline and investors are taking notice. A hipster-luxe Ace Hotel is under construction, and Google, lured by a growing tech scene, recently opened an office in a 100-year-old Nabisco factory. Development is in the air. The growth, of course, brings excruciating questions that none of Peduto’s peers has yet answered, like how to allow for growth but not displacement, and how to give all residents equal say in the future of their neighborhood. (NC, Jonathan Geeting)

That frankly sounds a little more ominous. Maybe we do need to rely on Councilman Lavelle. Or maybe Chief McLay should be looped in?

Mayor Peduto is not without his claims to transformative progression. It may be out of order to bring it up here, but there is every likelihood that future DPLI Directors will be just as incorruptible as typical DPS Directors, and there is every chance that Mayor Michael Nutter made a panicky and radical change to Philadelphia’s organizational structure to cover for “a lack of staffing and funding as well as poor management” resulting in tragedy. Today’s regime is pretty good at reengineering the ship of state.

Regarding the Hill District, it’s either the navigation, or the captaincy skills that need an adjustment.

Just as we make our own luck, we get the opportunities for which we fight. Does Peduto fight for poor communities? Or is he mainly a booster for the idea of it?

Where is the creativity, the application of history and leadership when it comes to this Specially Planned District? Can’t find it.

*-TRIVIA: By the way, over-reliance on the “councilmanic prerogative” leads to more parochial, hyperlocal politics while inhibiting class-based, citywide organizing. In my estimation.

31 thoughts on “Transforming What? The Hill District story remains old-school.

  1. Flummoxed in Friendship

    Can you explain what you mean by this Bram?

    “For the record, I believe the Hill CDC and its allies to be fine and well-intended people, but neither the BGC nor ELDI are disinterested freedom-fighters, either.”

    1. bramr101 Post author

      @Flummoxed – As Community Development Corporations, all three are nonprofits, but draw strength and power from acting as pass-throughs for public and community monies that flow into development. They work hard at staying the point-people representing sentiment in their respective neighborhoods, to be positioned to gain more most times business gets done.

      Often they provide much-needed organizational and technical expertise, but CDC’s are frequently at-risk for being run with exclusivity — I could have named the WPP or LU just as easy or with as much regret as any other example. They can have a material interest in a portfolio, transparency is prone to be shaky, and great power lies in bargaining away the community’s capacity for political opposition.

      That such few can act as the voice or agent of whole neighborhoods, can result in a lot of conservatism.

      (UPDATED: I updated the post for clarity etc.)

  2. Anonymous

    Honest question: Is there an example of a neighborhood improving without displacing residents? Aside from crime reduction, I just don’t see how a neighborhood improves without lower income residents getting pushed out with rising property values.

    1. Brian Tucker-Hill

      The literature on this issue suggests it is a matter of degree, and that various policies can help or hurt. If you google something like “anti-displacement literature” a ton of stuff will come up, and ultimately you can find various real-world case studies.

      1. Anonymous

        Yes, of course, the “literature.” Because in reality on the ground improvement means higher prices and more stuff that people like and want, which means new residents who want to be around that stuff. Demand means rising prices. Very simple actually.

      2. Brian Tucker-Hill

        The complicated part is to what extent new residents displace or rather end up living alongside the pre-existing population, and what sorts of policies affect the degree to which that happens. I guess Anon at 4:46 is saying he or she already knows the answers to all those sorts of questions without having to look at any of the available information, case studies, and so forth on the subject. But for those who are legitimately curious about these matters, I do suggest looking further into it.

      3. Anonymous

        I suppose BTH already has the answers because he read a few articles about it and uses catchy phrases like “those who are legitimately curious,” as opposed to the crowd is not legitimate or curious, whatever that means. Instead, I go back to the first callers question about a single example where a neighborhood improved without pricing going up. Despite all this talk of legitimate curiosity and literature, no one has actually responded with an example of a neighborhood. Instead, like most narcissists the focus will be on pointing fingers at the system and ambiguous bad guys who lurk behind non-specific policies for the purposes of forcing people out of their homes. Then, surprisingly, there will be a call for votes and support for the literature readers and against others. Man this is complicated, but at least we know who the enemy is.

    2. bramr101 Post author

      Anons 8:50 and 4:46 – I’m a little confused. If either there are or could be ways to “improve” a neighborhood while displacing less of its lower-income residents than otherwise, would you be interested in pursuing that?

      1. Brian Tucker-Hill

        Perhaps the point is that when it comes to community development, there is a phrase that has always rung true…you can’t make an omelette without cracking some eggs. Mix this in with the political cycle, and you have a pretty muddled stew. There comes a time when mayors have to own the projects that take place on their watch, instead of dwelling on the missteps of predecessors, and in each case you have displacement and change to some degree. By all means the new guy should work hard to proceed while pleasing everyone, but it must be acknowledged that this rarely works as intended. There were some really solid, seasoned people involved with development in the prior administration whose hard work the new folks should be thankful for. Let’s hope the good momentum continues and that it does so equitably, whatever that may prove to be.

      2. Anonymous

        Of course, but it already exists, and it is called gentrification. It is complete myth that people are displaced in myth. That is why people trying to score political points have no concrete examples to cite. What happens is this. Over time people start to buy houses in a neighborhood and fix them up. Usually, it starts with abandon houses or those that older people are selling because they are moving. No displacement there. As things get better a few cool coffee shops pop up and maybe some restaurants. Prices increase and long time residents start to cash out (a good thing for them, but portrayed as a bad thing by political cheap shots). More people fix up houses and prices go up. But guess what, crime goes down, amenities increase and public services increase. Long time residents who choose to stay get the benefit of all those things. Now, what could slowly force them out are taxes. That is the real kicker. Increasing property taxes does make it harder for long time residents because simply owning their home (or renting from someone who passes through tax increases) makes it more expensive. But that doesn’t happen overnight either – especially not in Pittsburgh. When taxes increases significantly value does as well, which is a benefit to long time residents.

        Soooo……if people really want to help long time residents of gentrifying neighborhoods they would do a few things. 1) encourage gentrification in the first place. If we aren’t talking about issues surrounding gentrification, then it is just another forgotten community of abandonment and disinvestment. 2) fight property tax increases. 3) offer services to help lower income home owners challenge assessments and prosecute appeals. 4) Offer services to make sure long residents sellers don’t get taken advantage of in the sale process. 5) stop vilifying anyone in the process. It is a natural cycle that is far better than any alternative.

      3. bramr101 Post author

        So we have an argument that we should continue giving tens & hundreds of millions in public money to outfits like the Penguins and US Steel, because gentrification is better than the alternative and will ultimately help the poor. But to spend a few of those millions on things for which poor constituents are actually asking, is a naive and inefficient waste.

        If that’s what’s best, okay… but then let’s not waste everyone’s time on Community Benefit Master Implementation Plans, or the rest of the rhetoric. If trickle-down subsidies are the best we have, “fair dealing” means we need to explain that.

      4. Anonymous

        I agree, we shouldn’t engage in a bunch of disingenuous gladhanding about community-oriented development. Either it’s a foundational principle, guiding our every move, or we should shut up about it, of a quickness.

        Or, we should recognize the value of public-private partnerships, and seek to achieve meaningful compromise, and then adhere to the compromise. The truth is, we can’t pay for all of this development without private capital, which necessitates a certain profit motive. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

      5. bramr101 Post author

        “meaningful compromise”… “a certain profit movie”… lots of wiggle-room there.

        Is merely “a lot” of profit ever enough to provide motive?

      6. Anonymous

        Not sure where anyone said giving tens of millions to for profit corporations was better than the alternative. That was a straw man argument built up by you. Massive public private projects that typically benefit the private part are very different from neighborhood gentrification. Public/private partnership usually means duping the public so that the private can get rich and the politicians save face.

      7. Anonymous

        I’m also confused. I don’t see where I was vilifying anyone, trying to allocate credit/blame between different mayoral administrations, trying to score political points, or anything like that. My suggestion to consult the available literature on this subject is pretty much the exact opposite of that–rather than focus on local personalities, old gripes, political factions, and so forth, I am suggesting we focus on trying to actually understand the issue and further understand what sorts of policies help or hurt.

        On two substantive issues–first, it is absolutely true that gentrification can help a lot of pre-existing residents improve their financial circumstances, and in fact it can do so without them needing to move. That is one of the common observations in the literature I noted, and many of the recommended policies take the basic form of trying to help as many existing residents as possible to benefit meaningfully from re-investment in their neighborhood.

        Second, I agree private capital and public-private partnerships are both necessary components of equitable redevelopment strategy. However, that doesn’t mean there are not better and worse ways of attracting private capital and entering into partnerships with private entities.

        For example, one of the most basic recommendations is that opportunities for capital investment or partnerships should be bid out in a fair way, meaning without regard to political favor. That, of course, is a very large part of what was wrong about simply giving the development rights for the North Shore to the Steelers/Pirates, and simply giving the development rights for the Lower Hill to the Penguins. In general, there is no reasonable expectation that giving out development rights on a no-bid basis for political reasons will lead to the best possible outcome. And that is particularly likely to be true when the favored entities have ulterior motives (such as wanting to use those development rights to enhance the value of a sports team).

        So again, one does not have to be against gentrification in general, or against private investment in general, or against public-private partnerships in general, to recognize there are better and worse public policy choices that can be made in these contexts. And taking the discussion about those issues out of the realm of local political machinations and into the realm of what experience suggests will actually work better or worse is very much what I would like to achieve.

      8. bramr101 Post author

        Anon 10:36, if you have links you like to recommend to support how “it is absolutely true that gentrification can help a lot of pre-existing residents improve their financial circumstances, and in fact it can do so without them needing to move,” I’d probably like to read and share them.

      9. Brian Tucker-Hill


        This NPR article provides an overview of Lance Freeman’s work in this area and also a link to a recent Fed study:

        I should emphasize that assuming this general proposition is true, that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t care at all about the issues of gentrification and displacement or gentrification and housing affordability. Rather, it means you should be looking at policies that allow for neighborhood reinvestment and the resulting gentrification, but also try to minimize involuntary displacement. Here is a nice literature review on that subject:

        As you know, I also think we should also be looking for policies that will effectively increase the total number of future affordable units (emphasis on effectively and total number). Here is one article reacting to the sorts of studies the NPR article is citing in a similar way, with yet more links to policy proposals at the end:

    3. bramr101 Post author

      Anon 8:00pm – Maybe I misattributed it to what others were saying, but it’s not a “straw man”… we can point to it happening twice here, literally one on top of the other. Maybe it would be helpful to talk about “P3’s or other subsidies which foster unmitigated gentrification.”

  3. Brian Tucker-Hill

    Food for thought:

    (1) Adopting and following through on public policies that will be to the long-term benefit of present and future poor people is complex, difficult, often unpopular work; but

    (2) Sticking something in a deal that can plausibly be labeled as “for the poor” is relatively easy, as long as there is not a lot of critical examination as to how much it will actually address the needs of present and future poor people–and doing that can be to the personal benefit of those making the deal.

    Given this, does it help or hurt to frame these issues as being about benefits to a specific “community”? How much does that help achieve policies that will truly benefit present day poor people? How about future poor people? If the pool of dealmakers is expanded by 1 or 2 to include some nominal representatives of the “community”, does that make it easier or harder for the dealmakers to then do deals of Type 2?

    Note one might think that a “community” has a right to seek benefits for itself regardless of how much that helps or harms present and future poor people in general. But in that case, either someone else has to be looking out for the poor, or no one will.

    1. bramr101 Post author

      I’ll take a crack at some of these very good questions:

      a) There is a lot to be said for the reserve and reasonableness of the joint affirmations of the CCIP. It’s mostly about access to economic opportunities. I grant it would perhaps be more efficient to target these investments as for Pittsburghers by more categories than topography, but I bet that can evolve.

      b) I feel like there was so much time by all parties put into the evolution of what eventually became an “agreement”, that it might be fairly well-vetted.

      c) I believe the fact that so many in a neighborhood have so long reflected upon, worked towards and spoken these affirmations, means that each merits serious consideration.

      Do you have any specific hesitations BrianTH? About the CCIP’s reasonableness in terms of truly benefiting the poor of Pittsburgh, or in terms of its executability? I’ll grant you “Housing Affordability” may be hard to satisfy literally on the disputed site, but set that aside as the outlier. Today there are 7 agreed-upon strategies. They’re etched on ice.

      If we can leverage this wonderful investment to ease misery in poor and disadvantaged City families, will that not bring second-order benefits? To all stakeholders? Granted, this is where Peduto talks a lot about education, and public safety. But economics is also vitally important, and this is a BFD.

      1. Brian Tucker-Hill

        “Do you have any specific hesitations BrianTH? About the CCIP’s reasonableness in terms of truly benefiting the poor of Pittsburgh?”

        Oh, certainly.

        I’m not going to fisk the whole thing, but if you look through the various focus areas, action items, and metrics, there is very little that is actually targeted toward poor people. There is an awful lot targeted to minority, women, and local business owners, and minority and local residents in the jobs portion, but the only substantial, direct targeting of poor people is in the housing portion.

        And the housing portion merely targets 20% affordable, of which 15% is at 80% AMI. Combined 60% and 70% AMI only gets 5%.

        Moreover, as you know, I don’t believe a percentage target is the right sort of target at all. What really matters is the actual number of affordable units. And on that subject, although the specific goal is left TBD, they also have set as a conceptual goal a large home ownership component. Further, although I don’t believe this is explicit in the CCIP itself, those claiming to represent the incumbents in these neighborhoods have generally been pushing for a lower-density result, such as through lower heights, and that dovetails with a TBD home ownership goal.

        So if on the one hand you are de facto pushing for fewer rental units in total, and on the other you have defined your affordable housing goal as a percentage of units (and a low percentage at that), you are really not adopting an effective approach to increase the supply of affordable housing.

        “I’ll grant you ‘Housing Affordability’ may be hard to satisfy literally on the disputed site, but set that aside as the outlier.”

        Just to repeat, that was really the only part of the CCIP directly targeted at poor people. You could maybe hope some of the jobs training stuff might help too, but the relevant metric doesn’t guarantee that (it is a local/minority metric only), and the track record on such job training initiatives actually benefiting the really poor is not so good.

        I don’t want to be overly cynical here, but the fact is if you are the right sort of business owner, you could see a lot to love in CCIP. If you think you will be able to control or otherwise get the direct benefit of the Fund (and there is likely going to be a lot of overlap here with the prior group), same deal. If you are a local politician or otherwise benefit from serving the interests of such people, then you too.

        But how much are poor people going to be benefiting? Maybe not so much.

    2. Anonymous

      certainly agree. The Pens deal is a complete fraud. Increasing slightly the requirement for WBE and MBE contractors is very easy. It is all passed down to the general contractor anyway and then they just use a few suppliers owned by women and minorities that are basically pass through middle men to order product. Complete scam and the Hill just got scammed.

  4. Anonymous

    What i thought interesting was Bill’s comment that he “didn’t want to be the Mayor that lost US Steel.” In typical Bill fashion that is all about him and nothing else. It didn’t matter whether the development is good or whether the deal is good for the community, he just didn’t want to be the one responsible for what happened had he gotten his way when he was on council.

    Also, nice work Bram pointing out that 4 people on PC voted! Wow, what happened to all the professionalism and wonderful things Peduto appointees were supposed to bring to the table?

  5. Dropouts

    Four PC members voting surprised me, too. I thought there were at least a couple more of them present for the lengthy East Liberty/Walnut Capital presentation that immediately preceded the Hill District matter. Who recused themselves? Why?

    1. bramr101 Post author

      Carl, do you know where they are going? Is something else in the City being set up and if so what is it, or are they being scattered to the four winds?

      1. Brian Tucker-Hill

        I believe the policy is that residents displaced by a redevelopment project get priority when they put together the wait list for the replacement units, and in fact it doesn’t have to be the same wait list. So someone displaced by the Addison Terrace redevelopment could get priority on the Skyview Terrace wait list, which is the new name for the replacement development. But they could also get priority for the new units being developed in, say, Larimer. Or vice-versa.

        Obviously one big question is whether there are enough priority slots to go around. As I recall, typically in most cases like this, a lot of the former residents do not come back seeking replacement units, so they almost never provide for a one-for-one replacement (and have not in this case).

        But that is not necessarily a good thing depending on why that is happening. So you want to do outreach, provide transition services, help people with understanding the options and submitting applications, and so on to make sure that everyone is getting the fairest possible opportunity to use their priority rights.

  6. Anonymous

    Here is my real question. Did our progressive leadership hobnob all week at expensive and elitist parties at the PA Society and ignore the protests? One would think that real progressives would ditch the parties and stand with the protestors.

  7. Tired of Privileged Perch

    Unfortunately, Bram, you create articles from your privileged seat of voyeurism and wannabee progressive-thinking. Which means that there are so many things wrong here that I can’t even take the time to deconstruct. Your ignorant and confused views of the Hill District are not helpful and therefore not welcomed. Where’s the blog on your neighborhood? Where do you live anyway?


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