Construction and criticism: The history, mission and inner workings of Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority

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A meeting for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh. Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Leadership from the Urban Redevelopment Authority at a January 2019 meeting of the URA Board of Directors. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

From modern efforts to make Pittsburgh a Rust Belt success story to missteps in urban renewal, the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] has played a critical role in rehabilitation efforts in the city. In the seven decades since its establishment, the agency has contributed to the construction and revitalization of homes, businesses and contaminated brownfields.

The URA has been both praised and criticized — and as funding sources shrink, the authority is finding itself spread thin. Because of its significant role in the quality of life in Pittsburgh, we’re breaking down key facts about the URA, how it works and what you need to know to get involved.

What is the URA?

The URA was incorporated in 1946 as one of the first redevelopment authorities in Pennsylvania.

The authority falls under the jurisdiction of the City of Pittsburgh, and the sitting mayor approves its  board of directors. The city contributes annual funding, currently at a level of $7.1 million in 2019; the city's contribution includes federal funds, according to the city’s 2019 Capital Budget.

In its early years, the URA helped spur the Pittsburgh Renaissance under the leadership of Mayor David Lawrence, the authority’s first chairman.

Standing in contrast to the pollution-ridden city dirtied from a century of industrial manufacturing, the URA’s first large-scale project was the creation of the Gateway Center office complex around Point State Park. The Gateway Center complex was considered the country's first privately financed downtown redevelopment project organized by a public agency.

Transitioning into the 1950s and 1960s, the URA focused on rehabilitating old structures and building new ones, according to a 2016 interview with Bob Pease by the Carnegie Museum of Art. Pease served as the URA’s executive director from 1958 to 1968. Some redevelopment efforts drew harsh criticism, including neighborhood demolition in 1956 to build the Civic Arena, which displaced thousands of residents from the Lower Hill District. The majority black neighborhood also included Italian, Jewish and Eastern European residents. A 1953 survey from the URA referenced by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said the 1,885 families inhabiting the neighborhood were not given financial relocation assistance, and many were pushed to nearby neighborhoods according to their race, increasing segregation.

Since the retreat of the steel industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the URA has played a major role in reshaping Pittsburgh into a hub for innovation.

Robert Rubinstein, the current executive director of the URA, said the authority’s focus today is making Pittsburgh a more equitable city, especially for disadvantaged communities. Rubinstein said the URA’s work includes lowering economic barriers to entry for businesses, increasing access to capital, reducing barriers to homeownership and creating affordable rental housing.

“Though we still have lots of work ahead of us … [Pittsburgh would] be nowhere in the position we are today without the talent and passion of the URA staff,” Rubinstein said. “We continue to be proud of what we’ve accomplished, and the activities that we’re doing.”

Rubinstein said the authority’s largest projects have focused on new uses for brownfield sites, including the former Civic Arena site, Southside Works, the Pittsburgh Technology Center and the Strip District — where the URA is closely involved in plans to redevelop the former produce terminal.

Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Rob Rubinstein (right) and URA board member Rep. Ed Gainey a recent public meeting. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Rob Rubinstein (right) and URA board member Rep. Ed Gainey (left). (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

But redevelopment is a common point of tension. The authority faced nearly a decade of criticism from Bill Peduto, both as mayor and councilman, for focusing too much on Downtown and large-scale projects. Peduto has pushed for an overhaul of the agency to focus more on neighborhood work and investing in small businesses, minority-owned businesses and women-owned business. The URA works closely with a number of neighborhood development groups on local projects, but Rubinstein said spreading its shrinking resources across neighborhoods is difficult.

The authority’s neighborhood development funds have dropped from about $19 million in 2006 to about a quarter of that figure, according to the URA’s most recent budget presentation to the City of Pittsburgh. That means the URA has fewer city, state and federal resources to apply across Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods.

Matthew Galluzzo, executive director of Lawrenceville Corporation, a community planning and development organization, said the resource strain is noticeable despite active URA involvement in the neighborhood.

“If they’re focusing on another neighborhood and not Lawrenceville, then our projects tend to atrophy. It’s just sort of the nature of having limited capacity,” Galluzzo said.

The authority has been important to the neighborhood's redevelopment, he said. To help residents achieve affordable homeownership, the authority helped Lawrenceville Corporation create the Lawrenceville Community Land Trust (CLT) to provide permanently affordable housing.

“The URA has been sort of this enduring and integral part of the change that you see in Lawrenceville," Galluzzo said. "They were an investor that stretched considerably and helped figure out how we were going to do funding for that important initiative.”

Lawrenceville, one of the flashpoints for redevelopment in the city, has experienced a massive rise in private real estate in recent years. The neighborhood’s cost of living rose, creating an increased need for affordable housing. Zillow estimates the median list price per square foot in Central Lawrenceville is currently $202, about 52 percent higher than the city’s average.

The authority has drawn ire from neighborhood activists concerned that redevelopment in neighborhoods like East Liberty has pushed out long-term residents. Alethea Sims, president of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty Inc., critiqued the URA's inability to help create affordable housing fast enough compared to more expensive housing built by developers in East Liberty. She said she recognizes limited funds make meeting the demand difficult.

“I hear things like, ‘Well, we are building more affordable housing,’ but it’s kind of like, so slow. When people need housing now, it’s not fast enough … we both want to see affordable housing, I just want to see more of it, like right now,” Sims said. “I wish there was a real quick answer, but there’s not.”

Notably, in December, activists rallied on behalf of the URA to have proposed cuts to affordable housing money restored by the city.

To help reduce the shortage of 20,000 affordable and available housing units in the city, the URA is managing an annual $10 million Housing Opportunity Fund. The project will grant funds to low-income residents and developers focused on affordable housing. The fund was established in 2016 and is funded through a tax on home sales.

Alethea Sims is president of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty Inc. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Alethea Sims is president of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty Inc. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Looking toward the future, Marimba Milliones, president of the Hill Community Development Corporation, said the URA has the potential to directly impact the city’s future. According to Milliones, the authority’s redevelopment work will influence whether Pittsburgh becomes an equitable city or a place where communities and economic opportunities are displaced.

In an email, Milliones wrote that she believes the city and the URA should be the communities' "trailblazing partner” and “first line of defense" to ensure that the region's private business sector and main institutions are as conscientious and committed to equitable development as possible.

How does the URA operate?

The URA’s mission is split across six departments, with a total of about 90 employees overall.

Rubinstein was named executive director in February 2017, though he had been serving in the position in an interim capacity since 2012. He has been with the authority for 27 years, serving in several positions, including economic development director.

Governance decisions are made by a five-member board of directors, which holds monthly public meetings. With one vacancy slated to be filled soon, board members include:

  • Vice Chair — State Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington
  • Treasurer — Cheryl Hall-Russell, president of Black Women, Wise Women, LLC.
  • Pittsburgh City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle (District 6).
  • Sam Williamson, elected district leader for SEIU Local 32BJ, the largest union of property service workers in the United States.

Peduto recently announced that a vacancy left by former Chair Kevin Acklin will be filled by Jodi Hirsh, co-founder of a Highland Park consulting firm that focuses on progressive issues. Hall-Russell’s term ended in December but, according to meeting minutes, she continues to serve.

How is it funded?

The URA is primarily funded through state and federal sources. In 2017, those sources comprised about 53 percent of the authority’s $146.1 million budget, according to the most recent numbers available in the URA’s 2017 annual report. Gigi Saladna, the URA’s chief communications officer, said a majority of state and federal support is comprised of competitive grant and loan programs, such as the Choice Neighborhoods grant. According to Saladna, this makes it difficult to accurately project the exact amount of support the URA will receive in state and federal funds.

For 2019, the City of Pittsburgh will contribute $7.1 million to the URA budget, which includes federal funds that pass through the city to the URA.

Among the state and federal funding sources in 2017 were the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, Industrial Facilities Improvement Program, HUD Upfront Grants and competitive awards from the Economic Development Administration. Loan payments, including principal and interest fees, account for about 15 percent of revenue, the second largest chunk, according to the 2017 report.

In 2017, the URA’s expenses totaled nearly $152 million — exceeding its revenue by $5.7 million. The biggest expense, accounting for 37 percent of the URA’s expenses, went toward major projects the URA is involved in throughout Pittsburgh, though the report doesn’t specifically define them. Thirty-five percent of expenses went toward loan expenditures involved in various loan and grant programs the URA offers to support housing and business growth in Pittsburgh.

“A majority of our staff and our time is spent really on working with small businesses, mainstreet businesses … technology companies, as well as homeowners,” Rubinstein said. “Everything from first-time home buyers to existing homeowners who need emergency home repairs or weatherization, home rehab programs, and building affordable housing.”

Notably, Peduto’s 2019 city budget proposal eliminated $5.3 million in funding for affordable housing money from the URA’s budget. Rubinstein at the time said the proposed funding was “woefully short” to accomplish joint goals with the city. City council amended the budget, however, to restore about half of the funds.

But that cut is just one example of the scarcity of funding, which impacts how much the authority can invest.

“From access to capital to owning a home or being able to affordably rent an apartment, those are all activities and initiatives that require investment, require capital,” Rubinstein told PublicSource. “The funding cuts make it more and more difficult to figure out how we still deploy staff to those important activities.”

Who works with the URA?

Much of the URA’s work is done in partnership with development groups such as the Lawrenceville Corporation or the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. Money is also available to individual developers and residents.

How these partnerships work has changed over time.

Richard Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, said the URA of the past didn’t seem to put much focus on organizations like his.

“Initially, I would say that their mission did not align very well with ours … [they] did not believe that community development corporations were the vehicles by which you would accomplish significant physical or economic change in the city,” Swartz said.

Richard Swartz is the executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Richard Swartz is the executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

But over the 37-year partnership, Swartz said the authority has offered valuable support.

“I would say there probably hasn’t been a project that we’ve brought to them, whether it’s housing, whether it’s commercial development, whether it’s business development, that they couldn't find a way to help us get the project done,” he said.

In East Liberty, the URA helped finance the conversion of the East Liberty YMCA into the Ace Hotel, offering $11.5 million in tax credits. Another developer purchased the former Morningside School from the URA to adapt it into Morningside Crossing, a 46-unit mixed-income development for seniors. The URA also provided funding for Krause Commons, a new development consisting of 33 affordable rental units, half of which were designed to accommodate people with disabilities.

While the URA has put less focus recently on Downtown, Jeremy Waldrup, president of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, wrote in an email that the authority has made a “significant impact” there.

“From supporting small businesses and mom-and-pop real estate improvements to large-scale development projects, their efforts have made a significant impact throughout the central business district,” he wrote.

Has the URA made mistakes?

Rubinstein acknowledged tensions with community organizations. Despite what he describes as the best intentions of the authority, mistakes have been made by the URA, business leadership and governments in the past, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. Rubinstein said the URA still works to break down mistrust of the URA.

“We’ve learned from those mistakes. We are still bearing some of the burden from those mistakes and working in communities that still have a distrust for government in general and the URA in specific,” he said. “Our focus under my tenure has been to become a more equitable organization.”

Sims said the URA needs to prioritize the lower-income individuals and learn what happens to them with different kinds of development. For example, she said the presence of mixed-income housing sometimes results in lower-income residents getting pushed out as the cost of living rises.

“Listen to people. Especially the people that are going to be impacted,” Sims said. “Protect the class that needs the protection the most.”

Ronell Guy, managing director at the Landless People’s Alliance, has similar concerns about  the URA’s involvement with low-income communities. She said the URA’s recent administration has failed to sufficiently include residents in redevelopment projects.

Guy said the URA needs to develop a strategic plan for changing the culture around community development. According to Guy, the URA and community development corporations need to take more resident input and be sure projects benefit individuals at all income levels — not just middle and high-income individuals.

“I believe that healthy neighborhoods are neighborhoods that have houses for everyone. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t develop high-end units, middle-income units,” she said. “But not at the expense of poor people.”

Rubinstein said the URA under his leadership tries to actively engage with residents about how they want their communities to develop.

The URA meets on the 13th floor of the John P. Robin Civic Building on Ross Street. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

The URA's board of directors meets on the 13th floor of 200 Ross St. on the second Thursday of each month. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

In the Hill District, Milliones said the URA’s history of urban renewal in the Hill District was a “devastating” experience that hindered the neighborhood’s ability to rebuild for years. But she said, the authority has since made a better effort to partner with communities earlier on in development processes.

Milliones points out that publicly owned land is often located in communities where residents lack resources, and she believes that public agencies like the URA have a responsibility to connect with residents.

“Hopefully, the City and URA will continue to work together with neighborhoods to establish community input measures that are fair and accessible to traditionally marginalized communities and residents,” Milliones wrote in an email.

How can I get involved?

The URA is a public agency. Board meetings are held at 2 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month. Meetings are located in the Wherrett Room on the 13th floor of 200 Ross St., Pittsburgh, PA 15219. Agendas and meeting minutes are available here.

The authority’s annual reports and financial audits are available here. Budget information is published in the City of Pittsburgh’s capital budget.

Because the URA is a public agency, residents can request documents through the Pennsylvania open records law. More information on filing a request is available here.

Information on accessing programs offered by the URA is available here.

The URA posts an online calendar of other public events throughout the month.

This story was updated to include additional context on the URA's work in Lawrenceville.

Hannah Schneider is an editorial intern for PublicSource. She can be reached at hannah@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Erin West.

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