Arden Ann Harrell lives on Kirkpatrick Street in the Hill District in the same house where she grew up; she was one of nine children. Two blocks up from Centre Avenue, hers is a narrow house with a bright red exterior. Built in 1920, the home is the last in a row of four abutting a grassy vacant lot. One of the homes in the short row has been condemned.
Harrell, a Schenley High School alumna, is 80 with a full head of gray hair. She was a nurse for most of her life until retiring from the VA last January. Framed in her dining room is a rap verse that one of her brothers wrote for her 70th birthday about her toughness and sense of adventure.
The Hill has changed dramatically in Harrell’s lifetime.
Growing up in the Hill District — her father a steelworker at Jones and Laughlin Steel Company— Harrell recalls she and her neighbors being able to find everything they needed right within the community — clothing, shoes, food and fun. That’s not possible anymore. And more recently, she says, 20 homes on her block alone are no longer there. “There are blocks and blocks of streets where everything has been torn down,” she explained.
The city has taken steps to build up the housing stock in parts of the neighborhood, though. “Just think, I went to Florida in January, came back in March. And all these houses, they just put up. They put them houses up overnight,” said Harrell, referring to new housing in the Middle Hill.
From Skyline Terrace to Crawford Square to the soon-to-be rebuilt Bedford Dwellings, these developments are part of a national trend for affordable housing that was adopted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the 1990s: mixed-income townhomes with green space that is funded through a public-private partnership.
While Castor Binion, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP), touted the developments as some of the nicest in the country, some Hill District residents see them as a touchup to a much deeper problem. Their neighborhood hasn’t reaped the benefits of the economic growth experienced by the city at large, leaving some with a fear for the future and the feeling that their voices will continue to be dampened or dismissed entirely on matters of how their community will be developed.
Decisions being made in the neighborhood today have required them to speak up. The community has been able to effect change through a strong base of activists and ordinary residents who have been working to protect the area from private developers and sometimes from the city itself.
In April, this allied group blocked the city Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] from buying 220 properties throughout the Middle Hill, stating that it went against the community’s wishes and disempowered homeowners. This type of activism isn’t uncommon in communities, but some residents see a disconnect in the reality of the neighborhood and the way this predominantly black community is perceived by outsiders.
“Sometimes the media will cover you if you’re an activist. But it’s only the violence and the activism that gets covered, so it gives the perception of the neighborhood as both derelict and entitled,” explained Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation. The reality, she explains, is that people are working every day to protect and rebuild the neighborhood.
“The only reason the Hill District hasn’t been redeveloped multiple times over many generations now into an extension of Downtown or purely an extension of Oakland is because the spirit and activism has been passed on intergenerationally,” Milliones, who often represents the community, said.
On Nov. 15, she spoke at a URA board meeting about plans for the Lower Hill District. She explained that when developers are looking to build in other parts of the neighborhood, one of their first questions is, ‘What’s going on in the Lower Hill?’ The lack of activity there, she believes, may be hindering growth for the entire Hill District.
The Civic Arena was constructed in the Lower Hill in 1961. It was renamed Mellon Arena in 1999 and was the Penguins’ home venue until 2010, before the team moved to the CONSOL Energy Center (now PPG Paints Arena). Big concerts, political rallies and sporting events were held at the arena, but it never became the cultural district the city envisioned.
For many in the Hill District, it has always been an open wound. The URA used eminent domain to tear down the homes of 8,000 people in the Lower Hill when they built the arena. Not only did it dismantle the Lower Hill, it cut the Upper and Middle Hill off from Downtown, fundamentally changing the neighborhood.
In 2007, the Penguins stirred the pot again by threatening to leave Pittsburgh if a new arena wasn’t built. The URA approved a plan to build Consol Energy Center and gave the Penguins exclusive development rights to the 28 acres surrounding the old arena. Hill District residents saw the empty space as an opportunity for the Penguins to right a wrong.
In 2012, the Penguins turned the 28 acres into 2,200 parking spaces. A Community Benefits Agreement was established between the Hill District and a number of other stakeholders, including the Sports and Exhibition Authority and the URA. This agreement enabled the Hill District to establish a master plan, which led to a Shop ‘n Save, the Thelma Lovette YMCA on Centre Avenue, a neighborhood partnership program and an employment center.
At the Nov. 15 meeting, the URA voted 3-2 in favor of a deal in which the Penguins agreed to give up $15 million in tax credits to extend their development deadline to 2025.
Less than a month later, on Dec. 6, developer McCormack Baron Salazar, on behalf of the Penguins, announced plans for five phases of development in the Lower Hill. This developer has partnered with the city before, having already developed 681 units of mixed-income housing in the Hill District.
The amended deal requires the Penguins to develop 6.45 acres of the land by 2020 or lose 20 percent of its parking revenue. The plans released early this month don’t specify how many acres will be developed by then, but they do make it clear that 20 percent of the housing will be affordable. Carl Redwood, board chair of the Hill District Consensus Group and longtime activist, is optimistic that as long as the developers get the subsidies they’re looking for, development will begin soon. However, he’s concerned the development won’t meet the standards set in the Hill District Master Plan: “Our position remains the same; 30 percent of the total housing needs to be affordable for people at 50 percent below median income.”
According to 2016 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, the median household income in the city of Pittsburgh is $42,450, the median income for the Hill District is at $21,795.
‘In what universe does this make sense?’
As Hill District residents ponder over the future of their neighborhood, they don’t forget the history it holds. In the early 20th century, the Hill District was brimming with businesses. African Americans, Jews, Italians and Syrians lived and worked together. “We had Fireman’s department store on the corner of Roberts and Centre. We had three shoe stores. Gordon’s Shoe Store was on the corner of Centre and Kirkpatrick. And then people had the little dry good stores, where you could buy shirts and stockings and pants. A lot of people just used what was here and never went to town,” Harrell said. There were restaurants, bars, grocery stores and laundromats, she recalled.
All of that is a story of the past, and the Hill District has since been divided into five different neighborhoods. Its population dwindled. In 1960, there were roughly 31,000 people living in the Hill District, even after the Lower Hill homes were demolished. Today, there are roughly 12,000. This loss in people has contributed not only to vacant lots but to a degradation of the social fabric that once held the Hill together.
Redwood believes this decrease in population is not accidental. City officials “really don’t want low-income black people concentrated in the Hill District,” he said. “The federal policy is called deconcentration...That doesn’t mean bring high-income people to live among the black community. It always means dispersing the low-income people so that they never come back.”
The city lost 15,000 black people from 2000 to 2015, while in 12 Allegheny County suburbs, the black population increased by 10 percent or more. In East Pittsburgh, Mount Oliver and Wilmerding, the black population has increased by 20 percent or more.
What Redwood is saying about deconcentration and the resulting exodus of black residents is why so many Hill community members are upset about decisions being made about the redevelopment of Addison Terrace. Addison Terrace was a housing project built in the Hill District in 1940. The 734 units were knocked down in 2013, with plans to replace them in four phases.
Phase I, II and III are complete, each built in the Hill District. The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP), in partnership with KBK Development, is planning to build the final replacement units, Phase IV, in Homewood.
This is a plan that has been met with opposition from both Homewood and Hill District residents. “People keep explaining it like, ‘Yeah this makes sense,’ and you sit there and you go, ‘In what universe does this make sense?’ It sometimes feels like people say crazy things and you’re just supposed to go ‘OK,’” said Terri Baltimore, director of community engagement at the Hill House Association.
Baltimore and Milliones see this as an example of the basic lack of understanding the city has about those living in poverty. Asking someone who may have lived in one neighborhood for their entire life to move to another neighborhood after they’ve already been displaced for the past four years can be traumatic, they said.
HUD established a policy in 1990 requiring federally funded local housing authorities to build replacement units if demolishing or converting low- to middle-income housing.
This is referred to as one-for-one replacement, and it is meant to mitigate the kind of displacement of low-income populations that is occurring in Pittsburgh.
HUD requires that replacement units be built in the same neighborhood as the original units, to the extent feasible.
Michelle Sandidge, chief community affairs officer at the HACP, explained: “There has to be the availability of land in a contiguous site for Pittsburgh Housing Finance Agency activity...We did not have what was required by PHFA to build something of that magnitude on the Hill.”
Additionally, the HACP already owned the land in Homewood, making the decision “ideal,” she added.
Redwood doesn’t agree with her assessment. “There’s plenty of space. That’s ridiculous...You might build taller units, but if they’re affordable for the people who used to live there, that’s the important thing,” he said.
The national model for public housing has moved away from low-income units crowded together, though, so in order to get federal money, the city has to abide by certain standards.
Redwood doesn’t understand why they didn’t build more affordable units on Bentley Drive when they constructed Skyline Terrace in 2015, or why they don’t build on Herron Avenue, most of which is vacant. When asked about these properties, Sandidge responded by email: "It’s safe to say that every idea or concept is worth hearing for consideration as we move forward to develop the most creative, productive and innovative housing/community environment for everyone.”
A report published by the Hill District Consensus Group in 2013 stated that 32 acres of vacant property in the Hill District are recommended for new development. However, to Sandidge’s point about needing a contiguous site, most of the vacant parcels are scattered throughout the five neighborhoods.
Addison Terrace is not the only ongoing Hill housing battle. Redwood and others are pushing for the city to utilize a method referred to as “build first, move once” when it redevelops Bedford Dwellings, the oldest public housing community in Pittsburgh. “In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt came and dedicated it. It was supposed to have been a stepping stone for low-income families,” Harrell said. She said that although both white and black families of the same socioeconomic status moved in, black families couldn’t get a loan to finance a house and the white families could.
Located on Bedford Avenue and marked with a small wooden sign that says, “Welcome to Bedford Dwellings,” the rows of run-down, three-story brick buildings are reminiscent of a different time, a stark contrast to some of the newest developments in the neighborhood.
The city was awarded a Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant in June 2016 to assist in replacing Bedford Dwellings with new housing.
Building first would mean rebuilding Bedford Dwellings at a different location in the Hill before tearing down the current housing. It would allow current residents to move only one time throughout the process.
“We’ve already made the promise to residents now,” Sandidge said. “We will build first and you’ll have one move.” David Weber, chief operations officer for the HACP, held back on a guarantee. “Our first phase and maybe our first two phases should be able to be off site,” he said. The draft plan is slated to be released later this month.
The Choice Neighborhoods grant requires replacement units to be built within 25 miles of the original development and has stricter regulations if there are plans to build in a new neighborhood — it must be an area that does not have a “concentration of minority populations” or poverty rates above 40 percent.
Whose land is it?
“People Downtown have a plan. This is all a plan...Pittsburgh’s one of the most biased cities there is,” Harrell said from within her rowhouse.
It can be exhausting to continually fight with those in power, especially when it feels like so little progress is made. “We’re losing,” Redwood said. “We’re losing the war. Every once in awhile, we win a little battle.” Still it hasn’t stopped him from continuing to organize residents, to help renters learn their rights and protect themselves.
Sometimes, these are the most valuable fights, that have small but tangible outcomes. When the city tried to raise Harrell’s property taxes, she didn’t sit back. “The last time when [taxes] really went up, there were three houses next to me that were boarded, windows broken. And I took pictures, front and back, and I went down and I said, ‘There’s no way.’” The city didn’t raise her taxes.
Elevated and slightly removed from two of the most bustling business districts in the city, “this is the sexiest neighborhood in Pittsburgh,” Baltimore said as she described the green space and the views that sneak up on you as you’re driving through the Hill District.
It’s no wonder residents want to stay where they are. “My favorite thing about the Hill is the location,” Harrell said. “I can walk to town in 15 minutes. I’m in close proximity to everything.” With a rich history and steadfast residents, located on prime real estate, it’s land worth fighting for.
Correction (12/29/2017): A previous version of this story provided incorrect years for when the Civic Arena was renamed Mellon Arena and when the Penguins stopped calling it their home venue.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Petras.
Emily Klein, a PublicSource intern, is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in urban studies and anthropology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.