The City of Pittsburgh’s economic development arm is dealing with a wave of staff turnover, a flood in federal aid, and a new Hill District development unearthing old wounds. All of this on top of a leadership change. 

The Urban Redevelopment Authority board [URA] appointed Susheela Nemani-Stanger as executive director earlier this year.  Nemani-Stanger first began working with the URA in 2007 and in her new role she said she plans to focus on the basics of stabilizing and strengthening the organization.

“I’m coming in as a working director,” Nemani-Stanger said. “With any change comes uncertainty but this framework of stabilizing and strengthening is a back-to-basics approach for economic development.”

She will be in charge of allocating $70 million coming to the URA through the American Rescue Plan. “We’ve never had this opportunity,” she said, noting that the funding could help the agency to advance its Avenues of Hope initiative to redevelop business districts in mostly Black neighborhoods and could leverage other state and federal dollars. 

Nemani is among dozens of new leaders of top Pittsburgh-area civic institutions, including numerous development-focused organizations.

In an interview with PublicSource, Nemani-Stanger outlined her philosophy on several of the city’s biggest development challenges — and on her largely retooled staff.

‘Laser focused’ on Hill needs

Development projects across the city pose challenges, but few sites spur more sustained debate than a Pittsburgh Penguins-led plan to build a music venue and much more in the Lower Hill District. 

The area sits on land that the URA cleared of homes, businesses and churches for the building of the Civic Arena in the 1950s. Because of that, the Penguins’ Lower Hill redevelopment team has been harried by demands for Hill-wide benefits.

Nemani-Stanger said that the URA’s priority in this development will be ensuring that community demands are met. 

“We are squarely focused on understanding the multidimensional nature of that project and making sure we understand how we can capture value from any private investment for the Greater Hill,” she said. “Truly, that’s where we’re laser focused on this project.”

Under a five-year-old agreement between the developers, neighborhood advocates and the involved governments, any entity working in the designated 28-acre former arena site must contribute money that would normally be paid in taxes to the Greater Hill District Neighborhood Reinvestment Fund. The URA would ultimately decide how the funds get spent but an advisory board is being formed to prioritize beneficiaries.

“Anyone who develops on the 28 acres must take 50% of their payment in lieu of taxes into [the fund],” Nemani-Stanger said. The fund “can be accessed by homeowners, small business development.”

The ‘critical component’ in affordable housing preservation

The city faces increasing homelessness and an enduring lack of affordable and available rental units for households at or below 50% of median household income. In the city, there is a deficit of 27,000 affordable rental units, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Nemani-Stanger said her background will help her navigate these challenges. 

“What we’re seeing now is an approach to affordable housing which is focused on preservation. … We’re preserving our own affordable deals,” she said. 

The federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits [LIHTC] program provides credits to housing developers in exchange for keeping their rents affordable for 15 to 30 years. 

Susheela Nemani-Stanger, on Feb. 7, 2023, in the offices of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, where she became the executive director earlier this year. (Photo by Eric Jankiewicz/PublicSource)

 “They’re beginning to sunset and we know this because we have data that tells us this,” Nemani-Stanger said. “So we can come in with our housing partners and think strategically about who will preserve” a given affordable housing site, she said.

She declined to comment on specific sites the URA is looking at because she worried that publishing that information would compromise the effort. 

A recent example of this occurred outside of the URA’s territory, in Penn Hills, where an apartment complex had an expiring affordable housing designation. ACTION-Housing attempted to buy the complex and preserve it as affordable housing but a private company outbid the nonprofit. 

Nemani-Stanger said public and nonprofit agencies can’t compete with private investors once properties go on the market, so the “critical component” in renewing affordability designations is to reach a deal before properties appear on multiple listing services. 

No ‘quick handbook’ for green staff

She said her previous work at the URA helps her understand the organization more deeply.

She first joined the authority in 2007, before leaving in 2020 to lead an effort to educate the public on COVID-19 vaccination, involving WQED, the Black Equity Coalition and POISE Foundation. In 2021, she became deputy director of Allegheny County Economic Development, before rejoining the URA as deputy executive director in August. She replaced Diamonte Walker, who left to become CEO of Pittsburgh Scholar House, and then succeeded Greg Flisram when he resigned from the URA’s top job to return to the private sector.

“So I understand what the weeds look like and I also understand what the overall strategy of a project looks like,” Nemani-Stanger said. “In this role as executive director, it’s about guiding staff. They have a lot of passion for this work. But guidance from the executive team is critical.”

Of the URA’s 105 employees, 36 have been hired since January 2022. Less than 40% of the staff was hired before the pandemic. With these new employees comes Nemani-Stanger’s emphasis on stabilization. 

“We have a lot of new staff,” she said. “It’s really important for the directors to teach staff the tactics and the ways to solve problems. Like every organization in 2023, we have staffing that is quite new to the field or to the URA. And I wish that there was a quick handbook that could help but I know for a fact there is not. It’s an experiential environment where staff need to learn by doing, and they are all quick learners.”

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

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Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for PublicSource. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even...