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10/22/20: Plan to frack ET gets another bad break
If Merrion Oil & Gas wants to frack on a part of the Edgar Thomson Works that extends into East Pittsburgh, it will apparently need to go to court. That's the upshot from a decision by the East Pittsburgh Zoning Hearing Board.
The background: East Pittsburgh's council had, in 2017, voted in favor of Merrion's plan to drill for natural gas on U.S. Steel property on that borough's border with North Versailles. But in January, a new council decided that the approval had expired.
Merrion appealed to East Pittsburgh's Zoning Hearing Board, which held hearings in June. Four months later, in a meeting that was just minutes long, the board decided, in a 3-2 vote, to deny Merrion's appeal.
East Pittsburgh Manager Seth Abrams wrote in an email to PublicSource that a written decision will likely be available in a few days.
Zoning decisions can be appealed to the Court of Common Pleas.
10/21/20: Little love for planned Hazelwood-to-Oakland shuttle
A virtual public meeting meant to address questions about the proposed Mon-Oakland Mobility Project drew 200 participants and appeared to do little to soften neighborhood opposition to a proposed trail-and-shuttle system from Hazelwood to the heart of Pittsburgh’s university district.
“I recognize that this project has been in the works for several years” and has been met with “a whole lot of questions, concerns and confusion,” said David Caliguiri, a consultant to Almono Partners, which owns the 178-acre Hazelwood Green development site.
He called the proposed electric shuttle a “direct, safe, environmentally sensitive” way to get people between Hazelwood Green and Oakland, for free. “It will be a critical first step in creating a stronger link between the neighborhoods,” and will open up job opportunities to Hazelwood residents, he said.
Pittsburgh City Council member Corey O’Connor, who represents Hazelwood, characterized as unnecessary the $20 million project, which would carry an estimated 180 people per day along a six-mile route that would take as long as 28 minutes.
“I will give you a ride and get you there in 10 minutes, and you won’t have to tip me,” O’Connor said, early in the two-hour meeting. “It’s frustrating that everybody on this call knows that you don’t need a shuttle from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” he said, implying that the service would only be useful during rush hour, rather than the planned 16-hour schedule.
The Mon-Oakland Mobility Project would include seven stops, from South Neville Street in Oakland to Tecumseh Street in Hazelwood. Along with the electric shuttle minibuses, the connection would accommodate walkers and cyclists, but not cars. It would involve reconstruction or reopening of several streets, plus and a mile-long passage through a part of Schenley Park that is also slated to be disturbed by Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority stormwater mitigation work.
The city would pay for construction, and a nonprofit created by Almono would operate the shuttle. (Almono includes the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, Richard King Mellon Foundation, and The Heinz Endowments.) Their plan is to begin operations in late 2022.
The concept has been the subject of numerous public meetings since 2017, and has notably failed to win fans in the the Four Mile Run section of Greenfield, through which the trail would pass. Foes of the plan, including Pittsburghers for Public Transit [PPT], have argued that expanded bus service would serve the neighborhood better and cost much less.
Eric Williams, a member of the public who spoke at the meeting, said he supported a trail for pedestrians and cyclists, but not the shuttle.
“It seems to me that the primary beneficiaries of the shuttle are the Hazelwood Green developers and the Oakland universities,” he said. “The shuttle portion of this project has the markings of a boondoggle.”
Karina Ricks, director of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, said the shuttle is just part of the project’s potential impact.
“The trail will accommodate people on bicycles, people using micromobility devices, people walking,” she said. “The small vehicle is only one of many modes that will be accommodated on it.”
The shuttle, though, is an important component of catalyzing development on Hazelwood Green, a former steel mill site, she said.
Some residents fear it would cause gentrification.
“I get calls every day from gentrifiers who want to buy my property,” said Hazelwood resident Homer Craig, “so that they can move in people who never even thought of Hazelwood.”
A timeline presented at the meeting called for release of the final bid package for the first phase of the construction around the end of this year. It depends, though, on the passage by council of the city's 2021 capital budget, which Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration is expected to present to council next month.
The meeting was conducted via Zoom, and the service could initially accommodate only 100 participants. Eventually, the organizers expanded it to 200, and at one point attendance reached that capacity. Ricks pledged to have another public meeting to accommodate people who could not get into this one.
Opponents vowed to do whatever it takes, with one, activist Mel Packer, pledging to lay in front of construction vehicles if necessary.
“We’re not in the way of your development project," said Ziggy Edwards, a Four Mile Run resident. "We are home."
10/14/20: Seven “Avenues of Hope” will be Pittsburgh’s development priorities
Main streets in seven mostly-Black neighborhoods will be prioritized for investment in infrastructure and housing under an initiative unveiled with a show of political and community support, but without a specific commitment of funds.
The target streets are Larimer Avenue, Homewood Avenue, Centre Avenue in the Hill District, Irvine Street in Hazelwood, Warrington Avenue in the Hilltop, Chartiers Avenue in the western neighborhoods and Perrysville Avenue in the North Side. As officials took to the podium to praise the plan Thursday, easels holding maps of the “Avenues of Hope” repeatedly blew down in the breezes that crossed the dusty space that will soon become the Village Green in Larimer.
“The wind that you see blowing around is the wind of change,” said city Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess, whose district includes Larimer and Homewood. “God is blowing his spirit into this place to show us the change that is going to come.”
Avenues of Hope involves starting with the development and community planning already occurring in some of those business districts, advancing it with neighborhood input, and mustering public funds like state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grants and low-income housing tax credits, plus private money, to improve infrastructure and develop affordable housing.
Its public unveiling included several nods to the difficult financial circumstances the city faces in the pandemic economy. The city is looking at a budget shortfall of around $80 million, said Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District. Nonetheless, he pledged: “We’re going to put our money where our mouth is.”
It will take “big budgets to do this stuff, without a doubt,” said Diamonte Walker, deputy executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the amounts are “hard to quantify” right now. The business districts won’t all see dramatic change in the next two years, she said, but it will come.
Six of nine City Council members, several state legislators and Allegheny County Councilman DeWitt Walton attended the announcement, as did representatives of dozens of community organizations from throughout the city.
Burgess — who said he has been working toward this moment for 12 years — said the vision will guide the city’s investments as it gathers state, local, federal, philanthropic and business resources to the seven streets. “Now we’re saying: This is our priority,” he said.
Mayor Bill Peduto said the initiative is meant to address the redevelopment gaps from the last 15 years, during which many — but not all — business districts recovered and filled with activity. “The ones that aren’t are called our Black neighborhoods,” he said. “And now is the time to invest where investment is needed.”
10/13/20: VA hospital buildings could be declared historic
Pittsburgh’s City Planning Commission heard the case for the historic designation of two buildings on the former Veterans Administration [VA] hospital campus, in Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, as part of a planned city takeover of the 162-acre complex.
Officially called the Highland Drive Medical Center, the 1950s-era complex has not been used by the VA in years, according to city Historic Planner Sarah Quinn. The city plans to buy it from the federal government, for $1, and transfer a number of policing, emergency services, vehicle maintenance and other functions from other neighborhoods to the site, she said. Among other things, it’s a good site for police horses, she said, because it includes a 20-acre pasture.
When the federal government participates in a project, including by selling land, Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 demands a review of the potential effects on significant structures. Quinn said that review suggested that the campus chapel and a lab were historically significant. The chapel was a site for pioneering work in addressing post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, and the lab worked on novel psychiatric drugs and therapies.
Several other buildings will likely be razed, she added.
The city is making the nomination for historic designation, which the Historic Review Commission has already approved. If the commission approves the designation, it will go to Pittsburgh City Council for final consideration.
10/8/20: URA sets aside $3.5 million for the Hunt Armory roof
Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority could spend as much as $3.5 million to fix the roof of the Hunt Armory but expects to get most of the money back from the state.
In December, the URA board voted to buy the Shadyside building from the state for $1 million, as it worked with developer Mosites, Light and Metz on a plan to turn it into a hockey rink, offices and a parking garage. The project seemed to have momentum — until the pandemic hit. “COVID has impacted that, as it has a lot of projects,” said URA board Chair Sam Williamson.
The ice rink concept is still alive. But holding on to a 94,000-square-foot vacant, historic armory is proving costly. “The roof is really messed up,” Williamson said.
A rubber membrane has peeled back, allowing water to get at the concrete below, said architect Robert Pfaffmann. That means the winter freeze-thaw cycles could break it.
“Clearly, we’ve got to get the roof under control. We don’t want to go through the winter with a significant asset that we bought just last year falling apart,” said Williamson.
The board voted to:
- Commit $500,000 of its capital funds to the roof work
- Front another $3 million for repairs while it awaits state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project funds in that amount
- Pay Pfaffmann as much as $105,000 to plan the rehabilitation of the roof and building shell.
“It’s important to emphasize that it’s up to $3 million,” said URA Executive Director Greg Flisram. “It could be far less than that amount, too.”
10/8/20: County rental relief still flowing slowly, but state fix is possible
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said no more than $1.5 million has been spent out of $17 million the county allocated to provide relief to struggling renters.
“There have been some issues with some of the regulations that have been pushed forward” by the state, Fitzgerald said, during a Zoom press conference in which Democratic elected officials pushed for more federal aid to address the pandemic-driven economic crisis. He did not specify the nature of the issues. County Development Director Lance Chimka has told PublicSource in emails that “changing & rigid requirements” regarding documentation of the applicants’ economic circumstances have slowed the processing of applications for rental aid.
As of late September, the county and its contractor ACTION-Housing had addressed just a tiny fraction of the 5,570 rental relief applications from tenants, and 2,885 from landlords, but Chimka said the county had “demonstratively improved our processes and production, and expect to continue to see increased production.”
State Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, of Forest Hills, said the General Assembly “didn’t provide appropriate language for the [rental relief] program to be implemented” statewide by the Pennsylvania Housing and Finance Agency, and is “trying to get this legislative fix done.”
Even without a legislative fix, Costa said, he believes PHFA “has the authority to do what needs to be done, but that’s just one caucus’ interpretation.”
September saw 849 eviction cases filed in Allegheny County — lower than the historic average of more than 1,100 a month, but much higher than the smattering seen after moratoriums were imposed in March. Around 2/3 of those were postponed, according to data shared with PublicSource by Carnegie Mellon University's Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment [CREATE] Lab. That's likely in deference to a Centers for Disease Control order putting a halt to many evictions because they could facilitate the spread of COVID-19.
Some eviction cases, though, have been decided in favor of the landlord, Anne Wright, a CREATE Lab researcher, told PublicSource. She said there have been clusters of evictions in Pittsburgh's western and southern neighborhoods, in McKeesport and in the neighborhoods close to Forest Hills.
The CREATE Lab-managed Eviction Rapid Response project, which includes local nonprofits, has been reaching out to defendants in eviction cases, informing them of the CDC order and available aid, and sending volunteers to hearings in the cases.
“We don’t want people losing their homes,” Fitzgerald said in the virtual press event. “We don’t want people who can’t pay their rent. Then you force that on the small business landlord, who can’t pay their mortgage.”
10/7/20: Suburban blight-fighters eager to tap new demo funds
Tucked hundreds of pages into Allegheny County’s proposed 2021 budget, and left unmentioned during Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s presentation of the spending plan, is a new $3 million fund for demolishing blighted properties.
A day after the budget’s presentation, suburban municipal leaders were eager to tap it.
“Our members are particularly interested in this fund and we are reaching out to Allegheny County to try to learn how it will work and who can apply,” wrote An Lewis, executive director of the Steel Rivers Council of Governments, in an email response to PublicSource’s questions.
The funds come from a $15 fee on deeds and mortgages approved by county council in April. Council President Patrick Catena wrote in response to questions that the county Department of Real Estate has been levying the fee, and that as the funds start accumulating it will become “another tool to our toolbox in assisting communities deal with blight and crime, and allow our communities to become more desirable.” The funds could also allow for bulk purchasing of demolition services, which could lower the price per building, he wrote.
The county has, in recent years, been able to pay for only a fraction of the demolition needs of struggling municipalities. Some, like Wilkinsburg and North Braddock, have hundreds of vacant and decaying homes, and insufficient budgets to demolish them.
Sometimes, according to Amanda Settelmaier, executive director of the Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments, “there’s one bad apple on a street; or a concentration of problem properties. Not only do these ‘bad apples’ lower surrounding property values, in many cases, demolition removes a structure that is a danger to the health, safety and welfare of the people living near them.”
PublicSource has asked the county for information on the application process, and will post that here when it’s received.
10/6/20: Proposed Allegheny County budget contains morsel for Children Initiatives
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald proposed a new Department of Children Initiatives, with start-up funding of $443,476, as part of the 2021 budget plan he introduced to council.
The proposed allocation follows, by roughly a year, a report by the Allegheny County Children’s Fund Working Group, recommending a department with an annual budget of $20 million, but also including $10 million and $5 million options.
“I think there’s a lot of interest in trying to help and provide services to have our kids, all kids, in Allegheny County, ready for school when they hit kindergarten and first grade,” Fitzgerald told council, in a 10-minute address broadly outlining some $2.5 billion in operating, capital and grant-funded spending.
The budget says the new child-focused department will work to ensure “high quality early learning and out-of-school-time programs for all children in Allegheny County,” in part by forging partnerships with unspecified entities. It will aim, per the budget, to promote “equity by reducing access barriers, including ability, race, income and geography.”
In its first year, the department will hire essential staff and build partnerships, plus form a community advisory committee, according to the budget.
The proposed $942.5 million operating budget is 2% less than the county’s 2020 spending plan, and includes no property tax increase, Fitzgerald said
It spends more than the current budget on health and human services and administrative services — notably including elections. It spends less on some county departments that have seen declines in populations, including the Kane Hospitals for the indigent elderly, the jail and the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, he said.
The $127 million capital budget, he said, includes funds for solar and wind energy facilities in several county parks.
Council members asked just two questions about the budget — both by at-large member Bethany Hallam — but will hold hearings before voting on the spending package.
10/1/20: Amid rising evictions, letter urges Gov. Wolf to issue moratorium
Gov. Tom Wolf should issue a statewide moratorium on most evictions, a coalition of lawmakers, community leaders and advocacy organizations urged in a letter issued as landlords continue to file hundreds of cases.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order restricting evictions nationally, issued in early September, didn’t stop landlords from filing hundreds of evictions that month. Allegheny County courts saw 849 evictions filed in September, compared to a total of just 230 from April through August, according to data provided to PublicSource by Carnegie Mellon University's Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment [CREATE] Lab. (That is still lower than normal levels prior to the coronavirus pandemic.)
The letter to Gov. Wolf doesn’t reference the Allegheny County numbers, but suggests that evictions are a problem statewide.
According to the letter: “Some Pennsylvania Courts have begun cooperating with the enforcement of the CDC order by adopting procedures to halt some — but not all — of the eviction cases that are halted by the order.”
Some courts are stopping only eviction cases that allege failure to pay rent, while the CDC order can be construed to also halt evictions based on the expirations of leases, according to the letter. The results “fail to cover large numbers of tenants who are entitled to protection under the CDC order.”
Attorney Kevin Quisenberry, of the Community Justice Project, blamed the Allegheny County evictions in part on instructions issued by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which suggested to judges that the CDC’s order prevents evictions only for nonpayment of rent. Those instructions, Quisenberry wrote in response to PublicSource’s questions, “resulted in many landlords simply not renewing leases and then filing for eviction based on expiration of lease term,” which he views as counter to the CDC order.
If the governor issues an order consistent with the CDC’s rules, it could avert a “mass eviction catastrophe” that could otherwise jeopardize shelter for “hundreds of thousands” of Pennsylvanians, according to the letter.
The letter’s signers include 34 community groups or neighborhood leaders, seven tenant advocacy organizations, 14 state lawmakers and five county or municipal officials.
A series of state moratoriums on evictions expired after Aug. 31. The CDC justified its order, published on Sept. 4, based on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, writing that evictions could increase the spread of the virus.
PublicSource receives funding from The Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.
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