Develop PGH Bulletins: Oakland conservatorship case becomes tussle for control of prominent property

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Houses owned by Oakland Gateway Ventures on Bates Street are the subject of a hotly contested conservatorship petition. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Houses owned by Oakland Gateway Ventures on Bates Street are the subject of a hotly contested conservatorship petition. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

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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.

Area including Oakland properties for which Penn Pioneer Enterprises seeks conservatorship, in a photo included in the company's petition filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

Area including Oakland properties for which Penn Pioneer Enterprises seeks conservatorship, in a photo included in the company's petition filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

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.

Aggressive use of the conservatorship law by some developers has made it controversial, leading to legislative hearings.

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.

To access the program, city residents can contact RentHelpPGH or the Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corporation. Undocumented residents may apply.

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.”

A map of the 28-acre site of the former Civic Arena. The City Planning Commission on May 4, 2021, approved a tower and open space on the area marked G.

A map of the 28-acre site of the former Civic Arena. The City Planning Commission on May 4, 2021, approved a tower and open space on the area marked G.

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.

Photo of the Hill District prior to the construction of the Civic Arena, presented by the Buccini/Pollin Group to the City Planning Commission on May 4, 2021.

Photo of the Hill District prior to the construction of the Civic Arena, presented by the Buccini/Pollin Group to the City Planning Commission on May 4, 2021.

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.

An artist's rendering of the First National Bank tower proposed for the former Civic Arena site, in the Hill District, presented on May 4, 2021 to the City Planning Commission, which approved the proposal.

An artist's rendering of the First National Bank tower proposed for the former Civic Arena site, in the Hill District, presented on May 4, 2021 to the City Planning Commission, which approved the proposal.

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.

Map showing Buccini/Pollin Group plans for the end of the Civic Arena site closest to Downtown. Only the plans for the areas marked G1 and G4 were approved by the City Planning Commission on May 4, 2021.

Map showing Buccini/Pollin Group plans for the end of the Civic Arena site closest to Downtown. Only the plans for the areas marked G1 and G4 were approved by the City Planning Commission on May 4, 2021.

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.

A map of Duquesne University's campus, Uptown, with recent and planned development in red, submitted by the university to the City Planning Commission on May 4, 2021.

A map of Duquesne University's campus, Uptown, with recent and planned development in red, submitted by the university to the City Planning Commission on May 4, 2021.

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.

April recap:

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

‘Today is a difficult day.’ U.S. Steel announces closure of several of Clairton’s ‘dirtiest’ coke oven batteries

Peduto announces long-awaited nonprofit contributions to Pittsburgh’s needs

An East Liberty enclave faces change, but this time residents can set down roots

Pittsburgh’s oldest Black church was demolished as ‘blight’ in the 1950s Lower Hill. Today, members seek justice.

Develop PGH archives

Could long-term eviction reductions emerge from pandemic programs? A Pittsburgh-based foundation thinks so.

How the Penguins and many allies – but not the Hill District’s lead advocates – moved a key border, in 6 not-so-easy steps

No easy escape: Between the rent, roof and renovations, Avalon woman with a disability weathers a housing crisis

Tenant Cities: Portraits of households facing displacement in the pandemic

Crossing a line? A boundary change adds to tension between the Penguins and a key Hill District group

March 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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