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5/26/21: URA hears views of panel on FNB Tower, amid concern over conflicts
Most members of an oversight committee now support the Penguins’ plans to build on the former Civic Arena site, but some Hill District voices questioned the impartiality of that panel in public comments made at an Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] board briefing.
The Penguins and their chosen developer, Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG], want the URA and the Sports & Exhibition Authority boards to vote, on June 10, to transfer to them ownership of around 2.5 acres of Hill District land for a 26-story office tower and community open space.
In Wednesday’s non-voting meeting, the URA board heard from several members of the Executive Management Committee [EMC]. That panel is charged with overseeing the community benefits that must flow from the arena site to the entire Hill District, under a 2014 pact called the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan [CCIP].
The EMC includes three members picked by Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, three Hill District advocates and three named by the Penguins. Of the mayor’s picks, one – developer Irv Williams – is also a consultant to BPG, working on recruiting minority-owned businesses to the development project.
The development team has offered some $50 million in investments, grants and loans to back Hill District priorities. URA staff told the board that a survey of seven of nine EMC members gave the development team’s offers a combined 3.4 score out of a potential 5, characterized as a B or B-minus grade. They did not reveal which EMC members completed the survey.
The three EMC members picked by the mayor and the three picked by the Penguins then submitted a statement indicating their support for the land transfer.
“We believe that this project is a historic first step in the right direction,” said Tracey McCants Lewis, an EMC member and the vice president of human resources and deputy general counsel for the Penguins.
Two other members – Hill Community Development Corporation President and CEO Marimba Milliones and Rev. Glenn Grayson – countered that the development team had rejected many community requests, and should be required to reach an accord before getting land.
“The EMC is a little stacked in favor of the developer, and not so much in favor of the community,” said Milliones. She added that the EMC could hire an attorney to review whether members involved in the development should recuse themselves from its votes, but a majority of committee members have so far opposed that step.
“I don’t oppose the project. I oppose the current community benefits,” said Grayson.
The Hill CDC has asked the development team to agree to measures beyond the $50 million in investments and commitments to involve Hill residents and minority entrepreneurs in construction. For instance, the Hill CDC wants to set a non-binding goal that Hill residents fill 10% of the jobs in the office tower, affordable office space for neighborhood entrepreneurs and community ownership of outdoor entrepreneurial kiosks.
“BPG and the Pens said no,” said Milliones.
The third community representative on the EMC, City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, is also a URA board member. He said the Penguins and BPG should try to win the support of the Hill’s Development Review Panel, which has so far found that the community benefits offered do not meet the CCIP’s requirements.
“I do believe it’s important to finish the community process that you all started,” Lavelle said. He later added: “In my personal opinion, it’s time to move forward. … Unfortunately, this singular development can’t solve all the issues that have plagued our community since 1955, when it was torn asunder by government.”
Part of the proposed community benefit package is $7.5 million, raised using future property tax dollars generated on the site, which would back investments throughout the Hill. Several members of the public commented that there should be broad community input into the use of that money.
Numerous members of the development team congratulated URA board member Ed Gainey, a state representative, on his victory last week in the Democratic mayoral primary. Gainey made little comment during the briefing.
5/25/21: Children Initiatives director’s work will depend on dollars
A new Allegheny County director is tasked with better preparing children for success, especially in communities in which preschool and after-school programs have long fallen short.
Rebecca Mercatoris will be the first director of the fledgling Department of Children Initiatives, and will promptly start bringing county, state, federal and private dollars to early childhood education and out-of-school-time programs.
“All of Allegheny County’s children and families deserve comprehensive, equitable and high-quality early learning and out-of-school-time services if we are to continue to build our county’s reputation as a great place to live, work and raise children,” Mercatoris said at a press conference in the County Courthouse.
Her success may depend on funding streams that the county does not control.
“The more resources we can get the more robust the program can be and the more people can be served,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. He said he hoped that President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal would end up steering money to preschool funding, and added that talks with Gov. Tom Wolf, local philanthropists and corporate leaders have already started.
The department’s start-up budget this year is $443,476. Fitzgerald declined to set a target for spending for the department next year, saying Mercatoris’ experience may help the county to find new funding sources.
Mercatoris, of Ben Avon, leaves a role as consultant to the Child Care State Capacity Building Center and continues a career that has also included posts at the state Office of Child Development and Early Learning and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children.
Her new role is years in the making.
In 2018, a coalition backed a ballot initiative to raise property taxes by 0.25 mills, in order to fund early childhood learning, after school programs and nutritious food. Fitzgerald opposed the tax hike, which voters rejected in a close vote. Fitzgerald later said he’d pursue the goals of the initiative’s backers.
After introducing Mercatoris, Fitzgerald said expanded child care could quickly boost economic development.
“We see, if not a labor shortage, certainly right now places that cannot fill all of their positions, and one of the reasons is child care,” he said. Expansion of successful preschool and afterschool programs could allow parents to enter or reenter the labor force, even as they increase the long-term prospects of children.
While family circumstances certainly affect a child's prospects, neighborhood economics have a large impact, too, according to recent research.
A report on community needs released last week by the county Department of Human Services [DHS] found that people raised in low-income families, but in well-off neighborhoods, grew up to earn nearly twice as much as people raised in low-income families and in very needy neighborhoods.
DHS blended data on poverty, vacant housing, unemployment and violence, and found increasing challenges in places as different as the Mon Valley and Robinson Township, Whitehall and Penn Hills.
“If Becky can figure out a way to serve all of these underserved communities – again, equity, equity, equity – to give these kids the opportunity that so many others have in this region, I think it will make us a better community,” said Fitzgerald.
5/19/21: Allegheny County town hall meeting part of bid to reach struggling tenants
More than 7,000 households have applied for rent relief through Allegheny County in two months, and the county's Department of Human Services [DHS] is in the early stages of a push to reach more struggling tenants.
On Wednesday, May 19, DHS will hold a virtual town hall meeting on the program, which can cover the rent for households affected economically by COVID-19.
Since mid-March, the county has received 7,618 applications for rent relief, and has approved 929, paying out $4.34 million, according to Chuck Keenan, an administrator with the DHS Bureau of Homeless Services.
Very few applications have been denied, and the vast bulk of them are still being processed, Keenan said. Many households initially submit incomplete income information or fail to attach leases or other documentation, and staff then works with the tenant to complete the application, he said.
The county has nearly $80 million in federal rent relief funding, and expects to spend around $8 million administering the program. The rest has to be paid to landlords or tenants by September 2022, or it goes back to Washington, D.C.
Keenan said the county believes that residents of some low-income communities, and senior citizens on fixed incomes, may not yet know that they are eligible for the program. Even if a households doesn't lose income due to COVID-19, it may still be eligible for rent relief if the pandemic has resulted in higher utility bills, child care costs, or even burial expenses that have in turn made it impossible to pay the rent.
He said the county plans to advertise the program, double down on outreach to landlords and continue to collaborate with housing authorities to get struggling tenants into the program.
5/18/21: Civic Arena plan approaches next hurdle following loss of tax break
The apparent loss of a coveted tax break won’t slow the efforts of the Penguins’ chosen developers to break ground on a Lower Hill District office tower, a team official said Tuesday.
The Penguins and developer Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] had planned on receiving investments encouraged by the federal Opportunity Zone program. That program provides breaks on capital gains taxes when investors put money into development in any of 8,760 economically distressed census tracts.
The Penguins and political allies successfully pushed for a change in the boundary of a Hill District census tract, which appeared to allow Opportunity Zone money to flow to the former Civic Arena site.
On Friday, though, Bloomberg business news service reported that President Joe Biden’s administration had decided not to honor Opportunity Zone status where tracts had been changed in order to qualify development projects for that program.
The decision “has no impact on the Lower Hill redevelopment moving forward, and we are excited to break ground on the first phase FNB Financial Center this summer,” wrote Penguins COO and General Counsel Kevin Acklin on Tuesday, in a two-sentence response to 16 questions posed by PublicSource.
He added that pursuit of Opportunity Zone status was aimed at attracting greater investment to the entire Hill District.
At a May 4 meeting of the City Planning Commission, BPG co-president Chris Buccini proposed a $5 million Opportunity Zone fund for projects in the Middle Hill and Upper Hill.
At that meeting, the City Planning Commission voted to approve plans for a 26-story tower, anchored by First National Bank, near the 28-acre arena site’s border with Downtown. It added as a condition that future requests for approval of development on the site be accompanied by a “dashboard” showing progress toward community benefits the Penguins agreed to in a 2014 pact with Hill leadership.
Hill leaders have characterized that condition as a win for the neighborhood. “It provides some structure, within the regulatory process, to assess whether or not the Penguins are fulfilling the agreements they have with the community,” Hill Community Development Corp. Executive Director Marimba Milliones told PublicSource.
The next regulatory step could be votes by the boards of the Sports & Exhibition Authority and the Urban Redevelopment Authority – each of which own portions of the 28 acres – on whether to sell a slice of the site to the development team. Both boards meet on June 10, and the URA is in the process of scheduling a public, non-voting board briefing about the Lower Hill, to occur prior to that date.
5/18/21: Is a bank branch built in the 1960s 'historic'?
Back when it had tellers and safe deposit boxes, Mellon Bank took the architecture of its branches seriously, to the point of having an in-house design team.
Does that mean the bank’s former East Liberty branch deserves historic designation, even over the opposition of once-and-potential-future tenant Citizens Bank?
That’s the question Pittsburgh’s City Planning Commission mulled Tuesday, following the nomination for historic designation of a former Mellon branch at 6112 Penn Avenue.
The branch isn’t being touted as a site of historic financial transactions or banking innovations. Rather, Preservation Pittsburgh board member Brittany Reilly nominated it based largely on its status as an example of Mellon’s attentiveness to design.
The branch warrants consideration due to “its place in the collection that we have of Mellon Bank buildings and the fact that Mellon Bank thought [design] was important enough to have a whole department to handle it,” city preservation planner Sarah Quinn told the commission.
On first blush, the commission was divided. Commissioner Rachel O’Neill noted that there are lots of former Mellon Bank branches. “I don’t like the slippery slope argument, but I wonder: Where is the edge to that?” she asked. Will the commission be asked to designate every former Mellon Bank branch as historic?
Commission Chair Christine Mondor, though, was impressed with the building’s uniqueness, sensitivity to the neighborhood around it and quality materials. She urged the commission to “look seriously” at the nomination.
Citizens – which bought Mellon’s consumer banking operations in 2001 – closed the East Liberty branch last year. The building is owned by an Arizona-based company. Citizens hopes to revamp it and resume service in East Liberty, according to a bank spokesman.
Quinn said Citizens Bank opposes the historic designation, which would bar major changes without Historic Review Commission approval. The Citizens spokesman did not directly answer a question about the bank's stance on the designation.
The commission could hear public testimony and vote on the nomination at its June 1 meeting. The planning panel reviews historic designation cases after the Historic Review Commission – which approved the bank building application – and before Pittsburgh City Council, which makes final determinations.
5/14/21: Judge tells Oakland conservatorship contestants that new rules are coming
A bid for control over a dozen properties at one of Oakland’s high-traffic corners has turned into a tug of war between two prominent developers, and a potential test of emerging rules for conservatorship cases in Allegheny County.
The row houses along Bates Street between the Boulevard of the Allies and Zulema Street have been empty for at least a year and are becoming a public nuisance as they fall into disrepair, according to a conservatorship petition filed in January by Penn Pioneer Enterprises. That company is asking the court to give it stewardship over the properties, owned by Braddock-based Oakland Gateway Ventures. Penn Pioneer owner Aaron Chaney is a frequent filer of conservatorship petitions, under which courts can hand control — and eventually ownership — of blighted properties to would-be redevelopers.
In a Friday hearing on the case, an attorney for developer Walnut Capital asked Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge John McVay to throw out the conservatorship petition, and fast. Attorney Jonathan Kamin said Walnut Capital is in the process of buying the mortgage debt on the 12 properties, with an eye toward completing an already-filed foreclosure, razing the row houses and building something new. Conservatorship can’t be applied to a property that is subject to a foreclosure, he said, and Penn Pioneer’s petition is preventing Walnut Capital from consummating its plans.
A lawyer for Oakland Gateway Ventures also asked that the case be tossed.
Penn Pioneer’s attorney, Wayne Cobb, countered that his client is entitled to a hearing on its petition. McVay said he’ll rule on that.
McVay, who has been handling all conservatorship cases in the county since November, added that he's in the final stages of drafting a new order governing their management, and might issue it next week.
He said he'll ask that would-be conservators give him "a whole lot of stuff up front," potentially including affidavits documenting community perspectives on redevelopment plans.
“I’m very much concerned about community participation on these cases," said McVay. The conservatorship law, passed in 2008, doesn't specify a way for community advocates to weigh in on conservatorship bids.
Cobb said Penn Pioneer has gotten input on its plans from Oakland Planning and Development Corp., the nonprofit registered with the City of Pittsburgh to weigh in on plans in that neighborhood. OPDC leaders did not participate in the hearing, and were not available for interviews afterward.
Update (5/20/21): Penn Pioneer subsequently withdrew its petition for conservatorship over the Bates Street properties.
5/11/21: Three days yields more than 5,000 applications for Allegheny County housing vouchers
For three days last week, the Allegheny County Housing Authority accepted applications for Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers. On Tuesday, an authority official told PublicSource that 5,602 households applied and now comprise the waiting list for the vouchers, which allow the holder to pay 30% of household income for rent, with the rest covered by federal funds.
This week the authority will randomly determine the order in which the applicant households will get vouchers.
Last time the authority accepted applications, in May 2017, it signed up more than 9,000 households, according to Kim Longwell, director of the authority’s Housing Choice Voucher program. It took until early this year to get to the end of that list, because the authority’s federal funding covers just 5,892 vouchers, and applicants can’t get the benefit until other households leave the program.
Longwell called last week’s application total “a great number” because it suggests that the authority may be able to move through the list in fewer than four years, and then invite applications again.
She acknowledged, though, that having a voucher does not guarantee housing in the current market. Theoretically, any rental unit that can pass an inspection can take on a voucher holder, as long as the rents are below certain thresholds. But an authority web page on which landlords can post available rentals lists just 30 units.
“I will say with the eviction moratorium it is harder to find a unit,” Longwell wrote to PublicSource, referring to the Centers for Disease Control order which has reduced eviction filings and therefore slowed the normal churn in the rental housing market. The order remains in force while the Department of Justice appeals a judge’s order that would end it before its scheduled June 30 expiration.
Many landlords are remodeling and rents are rising in the suburbs, especially in low-poverty areas, she continued.
Last month, the county authority and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh won a federal grant to help low-income families with children to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods.
5/10/21: Legal help with eviction, foreclosure issues available to some city households
Pittsburghers facing eviction or foreclosure can now apply for legal help through a program underwritten with tax dollars and run by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
The Legal Assistance Program has $1 million to spend to help an estimated 1,300 households with incomes below certain thresholds. The city announced that five law firms are now available to provide five services:
- Mediating disagreements with landlords
- Advising on tenant rights and responsibilities
- Representing tenants at eviction proceedings
- Transferring titles to homes from prior owners to current occupants
- Helping to avert potential home foreclosures.
The money comes from the city’s Housing Opportunity Fund, which receives its funding from a 2018 increase in the deed transfer tax.
The city, Allegheny County and region have a variety of resources aimed at helping households to weather eviction and other housing-related crises.
5/4/21: City Planning Commission gives Penguins pivotal approval to start building on Hill
The Penguins’ development team crashed the first major goal on the way to a proposed billion-dollar build-out on the site of the former Civic Arena, overwhelming concerns of some Hill District advocates who sought more pledges to the community before construction can start.
In the City Planning Commission’s public hearing on plans to build a 26-story tower anchored by First National Bank, thirteen speakers expressed support for the project, in many cases indicating that they saw potential business opportunities during or after construction. Just six asked the commission to hold off on approving the plan, with one other expressing a nuanced position.
A key voice was Pittsburgh Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill, sits on community panels and co-signed a 2014 agreement outlining the benefits the neighborhood must receive from the redevelopment.
“I believe we’re there,” Lavelle told the commission. “This has taken a very long time to get to. This is 10 years, 11 years later, when we’re finally here. Because half of that time was a lot of discussions, bickering at times, fighting at times.”
A yes vote by the commission “allows me to unlock other resources that otherwise would never come to this community,” he said of the proposal that could trigger pledged community benefits. “I believe it would be immoral and unjust if we don’t move this forward.”
This year has seen intense negotiations between the Penguins’ developer Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] on one side, and the Hill Community Development Corp. on the other. They’ve focused on the degree of specificity of the development team’s promise to invest some $52.5 million throughout the Hill and the CDC’s concern that those pledges are mostly loans or fractions of the public subsidies attached to the project.
Hill CDC Executive Director Marimba Milliones told the commission she was “excited about the potential of this project. … But we must be informed by history.” That history, she noted, included broken promises made in the 1950s, before the Lower Hill was cleared to make way from the arena.
“We lost 8,000 mostly Black residents, 1,300 buildings and 400 businesses,” Milliones said.
Felicity Williams, the Hill CDC's programs and policy manager, outlined four conditions the organization wanted to attach to any approval:
- That 1 in 10 new hires on the project be a Hill resident
- Affordable commercial and retail space in the tower, rather than just in kiosks outside of the tower
- Shared decision making, including community input, on where investments are made using funds raised through the site’s status as an Opportunity Zone for tax-deferred investment
- Opportunities for members of the community to have ownership stakes in parts of the project.
Chris Buccini, co-president of BPG, described his company’s and FNB’s pledges to the Hill, including $12.35 million in up-front funding, $25 million in neighborhood infusions by the bank, $8 million for improvements to existing housing, $5 million in Opportunity Zone-backed investments throughout the neighborhood, and $2.5 million spent on an outdoor community events landscape.
“This plan is an opportunity for generational change,” said Buccini. And if the commission disapproved or delayed? “Any delay will negatively impact and in fact put an end to this project” because of FNB’s need for space and financial considerations including changing interest rates.
Williams said the community needed firmer pledges in light of the Penguins’ involvement in pushing the Census Bureau to move a tract line to make the site eligible for Opportunity Zone funding, without meaningful community input.
Crystalizing neighborhood divides, resident Phyllis Ghafoor described proponents as “the Black bourgeoisie from the Upper Hill … Everybody wants their piece of the pie. Everybody wants their $100,000,” she said. “In the meantime, a 17-year-old was buried yesterday after being shot with a shotgun in the back of the head,” she said, implying the plan wouldn’t address the Hill’s human needs.
BPG Vice President Bomani Howze, though, cited the Hill’s social challenges as a reason to approve the project. He described acquaintances who had struggled economically only to succumb to addiction, or whose job-interview handshakes revealed fingers lost to gunfire.
“We are in a community that has a median household income in the range of $18,000,” he said. “We have an urgency behind this plan that cannot be denied, that cannot be pushed back!”
Swinging behind the project was Bethel AME Church pastor Rev. Dale Snyder, whose congregation lost its longtime home when it was razed to make way for the arena.
“Some say we’re not entitled to reparations, but I think that we are,” he said, characterizing the Penguins as generally in agreement. “I think this is a wonderful opportunity for us to engage and to correct some past wrongs. … We want to reclaim our land, reclaim our history.”
The development team in its presentation to the commission did not make any specific pledges regarding the church.
While several commissioners were concerned that some Hill leaders were not satisfied with the developers’ pledges, none voted against approval. Two commissioners — Sabina Deitrick and Rachel O’Neill — were not present for the 7-0 vote.
The vote covers just one of numerous parcels the Penguins and BPG hope to develop into office space, mixed-income housing, entertainment venues and retail.
“I know we can do better the next time, and we have the ability to come back together and have this conversation,” said commission Chair Christine Mondor. As for the tower plan: “We’re going to recognize that it’s not everything to everybody.”
5/4/21: Commission wants clear picture of Duquesne University’s “new front door”
A stretch of Forbes Avenue just blocks from Downtown could look a lot different in 10 years, and the City Planning Commission wants a good view of Duquesne University’s plans there.
University officials came before the commission to present a proposed master plan for improvements on the 50-acre Uptown campus through 2031. Their plan includes:
- A new College of Osteopathic Medicine building in the 1300 block of Forbes Avenue, replacing a building the university bought in June for $5.74 million
- One new academic building and one new dormitory of unspecified size on Forbes across from the university's main parking garages
- A parklet or plaza on Forbes next to Fisher Hall on the campus' western end
- A Bus Rapid Transit station on Forbes
- Addition of a visitor's locker room, office space and press box to the Arthur J. Rooney Field for football, soccer and lacrosse
- A new alumni house
- Additional bike racks and six new bike repair stations
- More trees, intended to shade 15.2 percent of the total campus area.
While the 154-page plan is heavy on Forbes Avenue development, commission members said it doesn’t provide a lot of detail on the intended overall effect on the busy street’s character.
“Since Forbes becomes your new front door, I would really like to get a better sense of how you’re going to manage your new front door” into one streetscape, said commission Chair Christine Mondor.
Duquesne Head of Facilities Rodney Dobish said the designs of the three proposed buildings are at various stages of completion, but pledged that the buildings “are going to really activate that corridor.” He indicated that he would bring more details to the commission on June 1, when it expects to hold a public hearing and vote on the plan.
Duquesne boasts 2,632 employees and 8,848 students, down from around 10,400 around a decade ago, Dobish said.
If the commission approves the plan, Pittsburgh City Council would then vote on it.
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