Lower Hill District parking lots, north of PPG Paints Arena. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Lower Hill District parking lots, north of PPG Paints Arena.(Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Develop PGH Bulletins updates you on the Pittsburgh region’s economy, including close coverage of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, City Planning Commission and other important agencies. Please check back frequently, sign up for the Develop PGH newsletter and email rich@publicsource.org with questions, tips or story ideas.

12/17/20: Allegheny County hires from within in bid to diversify contracting

Allegheny County has hired a new chief equity and inclusion officer, charged with increasing minority- and women-owned business participation in contracts, according to a press release from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office.

Lisa Edmonds, a Pittsburgh resident, has been the acting director of the county’s Department of Equity and Inclusion since 2019, and before that served as its deputy director beginning in 2005. According to the release, she was chosen from among nearly 100 candidates for the job.

Allegheny County Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer Lisa Edmonds (Courtesy of Allegheny County)

“I’m excited to see what she does there to ensure that we have a government, society, and business community open to all,” Fitzgerald said, in the release.

Prior to joining the county, Edmonds did stints as a project engineer and a city of Pittsburgh specialist on minority- and women-owned business enterprises.

“We have to listen, look inward, be open to addressing hard questions, and make change,” Edmonds said in the release.

12/16/20: Big grant could bring a new plan for Fineview housing

The Allegheny Dwellings public housing community, in Fineview, may be on its way to transformation, following a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announcement of a $450,000 planning grant.

The grant to the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] and the Fineview Citizens Council is part of HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, which is already funding the transformation of parts of East Liberty and Larimer. Planning grants can lead to much larger implementation grants.

Choice Neighborhoods sets out to coordinate the replacement of old public housing with improvements in education and other social services, plus enhancement of neighborhood amenities and businesses.

In a press release, HACP Executive Director Caster Binion called the grant “great news for the residents of Allegheny Dwellings and the surrounding community.”

He added: “Now that we have secured HUD’s support, the real work is about to begin and I’m confident that we are up to the task.”

Fineview Citizens Council  Executive Director Joanna Deming said, in the release, that the effort would prioritize “the retention of long-term residents” and include “support before displacement can occur.”

Allegheny Dwellings is home to around 160 households.

Binion said in a Tuesday interview with PublicSource that if HUD awarded a planning grant for Allegheny Dwellings, actual reconstruction would still be three to four years away.

12/10/20: Lower Hill development deadlines come and go

Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority eliminated one deadline from its Lower Hill District deal with the Penguins’ development team, but refused to extend another.

The eliminated deadline required that the team including the Penguins and developer Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] exercise its option to take control of 2.56 acres of publicly owned land on the northern end of the former Civic Arena site, by Dec. 10. That part of the site is slated for a 97,000-square-foot live entertainment venue, outdoor amphitheater, commercial and retail space, and underground parking, all expected to cost $127.5 million.

The URA last year set the deadline at May 10, 2020, and later extended it to Dec. 10. But the existence of a deadline related to that parcel was actually not consistent with the URA’s overall option agreement with the Penguins and BPG, said board Chair Sam Williamson. “What we’re doing today is making sure that our actions are consistent with the option agreement,” he said.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority board, consisting of (clockwise from top left) R. Daniel Lavelle, Sam Williamson, Lindsay Powell, Ed Gainey and Jodi Hirsh, debates, via Zoom, the Penguins’ plans to develop the Lower Hill District, in May 2020. (Screenshot)

The board did not have to vote on a URA staff decision not to extend the development team’s deadline to buy at least 6.45 acres of the 28-acre arena site, by October 2020. The expiration of that deadline means the development team has to start setting aside 20% of the revenue it makes from paid parking on that site, until it meets other targets.

“We are not extending that deadline,” said Williamson, who called that decision “fully appropriate given the context and the timeline” of the agreements the Penguins entered into, starting in 2007.

Penguins officials have said that the pandemic has slowed progress.

12/10/20: URA approves potential sale of land for four affordable housing developments

In a move that could foreshadow Pittsburgh’s next round of affordable housing developments in four neighborhoods, the Urban Redevelopment Authority board voted to authorize negotiations with organizations that want to buy publicly owned land and build a total of 167 units, the vast majority priced for households of modest income.

The board voted to enter into talks toward the sale of:

  • 17 city-owned properties in Allentown to the Hilltop Alliance, which is working with Gatesburg Road Development to build new rentals — all affordable — on a total of 31 sites scattered throughout Allentown
  • Six parcels owned by either the city or the URA, around the former Letsche School in Crawford-Roberts, to Catalyst Communities as part of a 46-unit apartment-and-townhomes development
  • Six URA-owned properties in Fairywood to Tryko Partners for inclusion in the 12-building, 46-unit Cedarwood Homes apartment project
  • 12 URA-owned properties to The Community Builders for construction of 44 apartments.

All but 22 of the units would be priced for households of modest incomes. The developers are all expected to pursue state-issued low-income housing tax credits next year before buying the properties and starting development.

Jessica Smith Perry, the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s director of housing lending and investments, describes a planned sale of Allentown lots to the Hilltop Alliance during a Dec. 10, 2020 meeting of the URA Board, conducted via Zoom. (Screenshot)

The URA and the city have, in the past, faced criticism for their failure to efficiently move publicly owned parcels back toward productive use.

12/10/20 Sale of South Oakland land authorized — pending contracting review

The Urban Redevelopment Authority needs money for its affordable housing and Avenues of Hope efforts, URA board Chair Sam Williamson noted at the city agency’s monthly meeting. It could pick up $1.03 million by selling four acres in South Oakland to a developer.

But first, the URA wants to see more minority- and women-owned business [MWBE] participation in the resulting construction project.

Elmhurst Development wants to build a 175,000-square-foot office, tech, manufacturing and research building on an empty part of the Pittsburgh Technology Center, along Second Avenue. The project would involve $47.5 million in construction spending.

Urban Redevelopment Authority board Chairman Sam Williamson introduces a proposed sale of South Oakland land to Elmhurst Development, at the URA board’s Dec. 10, 2020 meeting, conducted by Zoom. (Screenshot)

“If all goes well, we plan to start construction in February of next year,” Elmhurst Director of Development Brian Miller told the URA board.

But just shy of 5% of the construction spending is currently slated to go to MBEs, and a similar sliver to WBEs. Miller said he’d had a tough time finding MWBEs that use union labor and that are big enough to participate in the project.

“I believe those numbers can and should be higher,” said Diamonte Walker, the URA’s deputy executive director. Walker promised “a rigorous review” of Elmhurst’s effort to find MWBEs prior to the closing of the sale, and the board made that a condition of sale.

12/8/20: Planners now sweet on Strip office building that was once a lemon

Smacked down by the Pittsburgh City Planning Commission in September, architect Brandon Haw’s revised design for an office tower on the Strip’s flank with Downtown got the panel’s nod today.

After originally pitching a 14-story glass box atop seven floors of parking, Haw called his new design “a sort of pinwheel of the four quadrants” with “four distinct towers, separated out by double-height green terraces” and linked by a shared, glowing core.

He and developer JMC Holdings to replace the concrete box of the long-vacant Wholey Building on the 1500 block of Penn Avenue with some 556,000 square feet of tech-oriented offices.

The commission’s rejection of the original design resulted in “a better building,” said Matt Cassin, a partner at developer JMC Holdings.

Artist’s renderings of the original design (left) for a proposed Strip District office tower, and the new design by architect Brandon Haw, from materials submitted to the Pittsburgh City Planning Commission.

“The changes that you made, it shows that you were listening to our concerns, and that you embraced some of the limitations that those concerns represented, and kind of turned them into amenities in the building,” said commission Chair Christine Mondor. She characterized the result as “making lemonade out of what might have been considered a lemon by some.”

12/8/20: Downtown store on target for January vote

The City Planning Commission got a superficial look at Target’s proposed Downtown store, ahead of a vote set for Jan. 12.

Target plans to take up around 20,000 square feet of the first floor of the former Kaufmann’s, and later Macy’s, building on Smithfield Street. The iconic windows, long decorated during the holiday season, will be rendered more transparent, opening up the view into the interior. Target’s branding will be flavored with floral flourishes that draw from the stonework surrounding the iconic Kaufmann’s clock.

Downtown Pittsburgh’s iconic Kaufmann’s clock, along with branding proposed for the renovated facade of the building, presented by Target architect Doug Bartolomeo to Pittsburgh’s City Planning Commission in a virtual meeting on Dec. 8, 2020. (Screenshot)

If the commission approves the proposed exterior renovations, work could start next month.

The proposal comes even as Downtown retail struggles with the effects of the COVID-19-sickened economy.

12/8/20: Bid for affordable housing in Lawrenceville gets extension

Inclusionary zoning, piloted in Lawrenceville to preserve affordable housing in the hot neighborhood, was extended to mid-2021 by the City Planning Commission, giving Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration time to revise the innovative program and to consider making it permanent.

The city’s inclusionary zoning program, approved in mid-2019, requires that developers building or rehabbing 20 or more units in Lawrenceville keep 10% of them affordable to lower-income households. The commission and council put the rule in place for 18 months, with the option of a six-month extension.

The administration wants to review the program, potentially revise it, and “make inclusionary zoning permanent in the City of Pittsburgh,” said Planning Director Andrew Dash. But the department hasn’t had time to fit that into the broader ForgingPGH citywide planning effort, he said.

Pittsburgh City Planning Commission members LaShawn Burton-Faulk, (top left), Sabina Deitrick, Jennifer Askey, city Zoning Administrator Corey Layman, commissioners Becky Mingo, Rachel O’Neill, Christine Mondor and Holly Dick, meeting via Zoom on Dec. 8, 2020. (Screenshot)

The commission approved the six-month extension of the program, but member Sabina Deitrick urged the administration to bring details of the program’s impact when they return with a permanent version.

12/8/20: Strip to get “nostalgic” apartments

The design for a proposed 114-unit apartment building in the northeastern corner of the Strip District is “a beautiful combination of old and new Pittsburgh,” said City Planning Commission member Dina Blackwell. “It’s nice to see a building that is nostalgic, and yet welcoming to new development.”

With that, Blackwell and the rest of the commission approved Oxide Real Estate Development’s proposal to convert a longtime vehicle service site at the corner of Penn Avenue and 32nd Street into six stories of residences. The brick-and-wood design was meant to reflect the historic grittiness of the area, according to Oxide principal Shawn Kichline.

An artist’s rendering of a building proposed for the corner of Penn Avenue and 32nd Street, in the Strip District, presented by Oxide Real Estate Development to the City Planning Commission on Nov. 24, 2020.

The as-yet-nameless development will feature a bike room and a pet grooming room, plus a transit screen that will allow people to check arrival times for the nearest buses and rideshare vehicles. A courtyard looking out on placid Mullberry Way is meant to give residents a peaceful alternative to bustling Penn.

It also continues the conversion of that end of the Strip from low-slung industrial uses to livelier residences, according to the project’s architect, Chris Harvey of Hord Coplan Macht. “It’ll change kind of the vibe and the character of this little area here.”

12/4/20: Full jobs recovery depends on leisure rebound

As 2020’s end approaches, the Pittsburgh region’s unemployment rate is still significantly higher than it was at the year’s start, and the economy won’t fully recover until the leisure and hospitality sector rebounds, according to an Allegheny Conference on Community Development analysis.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania unemployment rate was around 5% in January. It spiked to 14% in late spring and early summer, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has since declined to around half that level, the conference found in its monthly read on state employment data.

This chart, produced by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, shows unemployment rates still much higher than they were in January, though down from their peaks.

The region gained around 11,900 jobs in October. Still, that leaves a net loss of 86,000 jobs over 12 months.

Construction, healthcare and social assistance, and retail have rebounded smartly. But “the arts, entertainment and recreation sector has a continued erosion in employment since July,” according to the conference, a business advocacy organization.

Leisure and hospitality has made up some of its losses, but “has struggled to rebound in the face of government restrictions, reluctant consumers and the virtual shutdown of all business travel,” according to the conference analysis. “Until conditions permit a rebound in this sector, a full regional recovery will not occur.”

November recap:

News from the City Planning Commission, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and more

House hunters: How an anti-blight law has become a tool for ambitious landlords in Allegheny County

A tale of displacement: A year-long fight against a landlord shows the struggles facing renters forced to move

All on board? Powerful Pittsburgh-area panels are more diverse, but progress is uneven

Mayor: Pittsburgh’s board tilt toward diversity is no accident

Develop PGH archives

A tale of two districts: In Strip and Firstside, the Peduto administration cheers some development, stops other plans

Not over in the Hill: Neighborhood leaders say the Penguins are coming up short

$2.5 million for steam? Allegheny County pact with Peoples raises costs, contracting questions

How fast has UPMC grown? The answer in four charts

October development coverage

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...