If you’re just joining us, here’s where we left off in Part One: A July 2015 community meeting for Mellon’s Orchard South in East Liberty is unravelling; Downstream is interviewing Downstream about the Penn Plaza consent agreement; and, a pirate has set off in search of treasure…

I need you back

Ninety minutes into the second Mellon’s Orchard community meeting, ELDI’s executive director Maelene Myers took the floor in the social hall of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. To those who conveyed such grave despair about the state of their neighborhood, she said, “I need you back!” Heaping blame upon herself for the poor communication and losing their trust, she repeatedly returned to that refrain.

“If you don’t trust me, find someone you do!” she pleaded, pacing up and down the aisle. “But I need you back!” Ms. Myers asked for forgiveness, saying she wanted to make things right. I had seen community leaders fall on their swords before, but this struck me as extraordinary. It was as riveting as the scene in Cutthroat Island when Morgan (Gina Davis) and Shaw (Matthew Modine) race a horse-drawn carriage through barrels of exploding gunpowder, and Shaw exclaims, “I find myself being fired upon by an entire ship!”

I, for one, was transfixed.

But apparently the only one. Ms. Meyers’ mea culpa wasn’t connecting. Most of the audience had fallen into private conversations or quietly drifted towards the exits.

Image of Vivian Campbell holding a family photo in her Penn Plaza kitchen in East Liberty

Top of page photo: Mabel Duffy and her granddaughter on their last day at Penn Plaza. Photo: Maranie Rae Staab Above: Vivian Campbell, a fifth generation resident of East Liberty, holds a photography of her family in the kitchen of her Penn Plaza apartment. After being displaced from there, the only option for her to remain in the neighborhood was a temporary apartment in a building that is also slated for demoition.  Photo: Maranie Rae Staab

As a former designer and planner, I knew what it was like to be on the wrong end of a community meeting that went sideways. As someone not directly affected by the outcome, my interest in the third and final meeting loomed disproportionately large. I’d seen disastrous efforts get turned around in the past, and I wanted to see how the project team would respond—perhaps with a redo of the second meeting; or restarting the entire process anew.

September came and went without any such announcement. The third meeting—the one Ms. Myers begged the audience to return for—was never scheduled. The URA issued a Request for Proposals and the search for a developer was underway.

“Why are we making our seniors have to fight like this?…They should be sitting back enjoying grandkids.” — Randall Taylor

The closest I could get to an official explanation was that the community made its case for affordable housing, and so there was no reason to have the third meeting. Committing to affordable housing was what the community wanted, but there were still reasons to complete the community process. First, it was what the URA had promised. Second, what kind of affordable housing should it be? Rental, for-sale or a mix? One-bedroom or four-bedroom units? What income range should be targeted? Should it be 100% affordable or mixed-income?

Ending the process ended the conversation. Many of those who didn’t know who was running the process in the first place were left to assume that it was ELDI who, not wanting to face the community again, was responsible for the unfinished business of Mellon’s Orchard South—a misperception that lingers to this day, which has continued to erode whatever trust remains between the community and ELDI.

I began this story with three intersecting events in July 2015, but thus far have only addressed two. It was ultimately the middle one—the emergency meeting in response to the Penn Plaza evictions—that upended the Mellon’s Orchard Process.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City and LG Realty that ended the initial eviction dispute, and laid the groundwork for affordable replacement housing, was signed in September 2015. LG Realty agreed to delay the evictions and provide limited relocation assistance to displaced tenants; in exchange, the City agreed to sell the adjacent Enright Park to LG Realty to expand its development site. It was here that Mellon’s Orchard South was officially positioned as a site for Penn Plaza replacement housing; and, if LG were awarded development rights to it, they pledged to include 30% affordable units. It was widely speculated (and reported in the Pittsburgh City Paper) that LG Realty had the inside track in what would be a competitive RFP process.

The only thing LG Realty had the inside track on, it turned out, was a forthcoming triple whammy. A community backlash resulted in the City reversing course: Enright Park was no longer for sale. (Including a public park as part of a real estate transaction faced legal challenges anyway.) The Mellon’s Orchard selection committee passed on LG’s proposal and awarded development rights to Trek Development. And, when LG brought its redevelopment plan for the Penn Plaza site to the planning commission, it was unanimously voted down (and its anchor tenant, Whole Foods, backed out of the project soon after.) According to planning commission meeting minutes, ELDI joined with nearly seventy others in opposition to the Penn Plaza redevelopment (with only two in favor). Government was working for the people, it seemed.

“Come in and have a burger.”

Relations remained icy between the community, the City, and ELDI. Bold statements made throughout the ordeal were seen by some as an expression of a city and a developer trying to right a wrong. The mayor’s then-chief of staff Kevin Acklin said: “Just as we took care of the residents at Penn Plaza, we’ll take care of the park.” And the attorney for LG Realty, Jonathan Kamin: “…the Gumbergs [LG Realty] have stepped forward in a very big way.” And Mayor Peduto: “We’ve got to make sure this is the stand that is taken so other developers in the city know this is not how we do business in the city”. Beyond prepared statements, however, interactions between the community and city officials painted a different picture.

Randall Taylor, a former Penn Plaza resident put it this way: “Why are we making our seniors have to fight like this?…They should be sitting back enjoying grandkids, instead they’re down here in these furious battles to save this city.”

Downstream Image of Randall Taylor and protestors marching down Penn Avenue on April 1, 2017, in East Liberty

Randall Taylor, center, leads protestors down Penn Avenue on April 1, 2017, the day after the last residents left Penn Plaza. Photo: Downstream

In one encounter, captured on video by filmmaker Chris Ivey (2:10 mark in this YouTube clip, and embedded in a CityLab article, titled, “The Side Pittsburgh Doesn’t Want You to See”), Mayor Peduto publicly upbraided a seventy-six year old woman displaced from Penn Plaza. Myrtle Stern and others were protesting at an event in a public park, and when the mayor approached, Ms. Stern called, “Mr. Mayor…do you remember me?”

For the next twenty, hard-to-watch seconds, Mayor Peduto wags his finger towards Ms. Stern, silencing and overwhelming her with inaccurate information. He accuses her of refusing an East Liberty apartment offered to her, without giving her the chance to respond. What Ms. Stern is trying to tell him is that the apartment building is slated for demolition in eighteen months, at which time she’ll have to move again. But the mayor walks away, saying, “Come in and have a burger.”

For The Bulletin, editor Andrew McKeon described a “robust” community meeting that preceded the planning commission hearing as being akin to “band practice.” His retelling of it is nearly identical to my account of the Mellon’s Orchard meeting, and while it’s tempting to say that it brought about the right outcome, it was short-lived. As a harbinger to the forthcoming robust process for the former Penn Plaza site, simply having meetings is not enough—we don’t seem to be learning as we go, and the repetition would be a comical déjà vu all over again if the consequences were not so serious.

What began as an open community process to design the public Mellon’s Orchard South site ended up as a real estate deal negotiated behind closed doors. The agreement states that representatives of the developer “shall attend” these meetings, and all parties “shall respond to the issues raised at the first meeting at the second meeting.” But when the process is loosely defined and predetermined as finite, what does “respond” mean?

Show and Tell

I recognize the potential for misunderstanding here—that the answer to exclusion is more planning, when it was planning that was seen as a vehicle for exclusion in the first place, at least as seen at Mellon’s Orchard South. Community planning is not to blame, but how we’ve come to practice it may be. Planning is not a constant—it changes over time—and in Pittsburgh, community involvement increased from none at all in the 1960s, to a satisfactory level in the early 2000s, but is now retreating.

The site-specific nature of the public engagement proposed in the consent agreement is perceived by many to be a symbolic formality, a hoop to be jumped through, and has become commonplace throughout the city. For young people and those new to community development, this may be the only kind of process they know. Whoever owns the process will control meeting times, dates and locations; promotion and advertisement; writing agendas and recording minutes.

“All current Penn Plaza tenants ‘shall be provided with a preference on the occupancy of housing units developed within the Mellon Orchard site.'” — Penn Plaza MOU

This sets up the variety of community engagement similar to “show and tell,” where participants choose between Scheme A, B, or C, and then provide input on superficial aspects of a project, such as parking lot layouts and where dumpsters are stowed. Time allotted for difficult discussions will be limited to whatever is given on the agenda, if any at all.

The project will then move on to reviews by “appropriate bodies,” and then public hearings, where communication will again be controlled. Speakers need to register, take time off of work, go downtown, wait their turn, provide details of their residency, and give their testimony in a “beat the buzzer” fashion to a group of appointed commissioners or elected council people who may or may not respond.

Consent (Dis)agreement (continued from Part One)

After Downstream fled the interview, he was found standing at the tip of Herr’s Island, staring out over the Allegheny River towards the 40th Street Bridge looming through the mist. Downstream had grown a heavy beard, and for some reason, was wearing a hooded cloak. We resumed our interview about the Penn Plaza consent agreement there.

Downstream: Why will the new affordable housing will be limited to East Liberty, Garfield and Larimer?

Downstream: The press release stated that it will be built within a one mile radius of Penn Plaza, but limited by the TRID boundaries, which make it more of an arc than a radius. Neighborhoods like Shadyside and Highland Park are within one mile, and it’s critically important for affordable opportunities to be located in mixed-income places that have amenities—grocery stores, pharmacies, parks—along with quality schools and reliable public transit. Unfortunately, the TRID boundaries were drawn years ago and exclude those higher income neighborhoods. I don’t fully understand it, but it has to do with census tracts. But, as one of the Intervenors pointed out to me, affordable housing construction costs are generally the same wherever its built. Total development costs are most affected by land acquisition, and land is more expensive in Shadyside than Larimer. Higher development costs usually mean fewer units, so balancing all of these things is challenging.

Downstream: Former Penn Plaza residents expressed a desire to see affordable housing on this site, and have demanded first right-of-return to any new units that are built. What will happen?

Downstream: The press release says that no housing is “currently planned” for the site. Based on that, we can expect office and retail space. I see plenty of moral arguments for why Penn Plaza residents should return, but I don’t know of any legal path to make that happen. State law does not guarantee a right-of-return for people displaced from privately owned buildings. However, in the original MOU signed in 2015, on Page 5, Section 3 (“Mellon Orchard Site”), subsection (c), it reads that all current Penn Plaza tenants “shall be provided with a preference on the occupancy of housing units developed within the Mellon Orchard site.” Also, one of the Intervenors I spoke with said that the coalition will do everything possible to help residents know when future apartments will be available, and provide them with applications.

Downstream: How will they do that?

Downstream: Neighborhood Allies oversaw the relocation effort and has an up-to-date list of every resident’s new address. How well that list can be kept current as time passes remains to be seen. Also, many displaced tenants need more supportive services than what is typically available in the private housing market. Some of the new affordable housing will need to provide that.

“Conversations around affordable housing need to be untethered from individual neighborhood boundaries.”

Downstream: The press release states that the funds can be used for housing that’s affordable to people at 60-80% AMI, but former residents say that they won’t be able to afford these units. What’s up with that?

Downstream: First of all, we don’t yet have real projects on the table, so we can only speculate about affordability. Exhibit D of the consent agreement speaks to funding for housing at 60% and 80%, so that’s where those numbers are coming from. When we say 80% AMI, we’re talking about a 4-person household earning $50,080 per year; at 60% AMI that’s $45,060. Because many of the Penn Plaza units were single-person households on fixed incomes of less than $15,000, 60-80% of AMI is far out of reach. A common response is that tenants below 60% AMI can use housing vouchers to reduce their rent and utilities to 30% of their income, but there are two problems with this. First, there is a multi-year waiting list to obtain a voucher. Second, HUD limits the maximum rent against which a voucher can be used. For example, at 60% AMI, the maximum allowable fair market rent for a 1-bedroom unit is $817. For a 1-person household with an income of $15,000 (30% AMI), the maximum rent allowed by HUD for a 1-bedroom would be $409. So, no, they won’t be able to afford units in that price range.

Downstream: Why are we talking about 60-80% AMI at all then?

Downstream: One of the recommendations of the Affordable Housing Task Force was to focus on 60% AMI as the best way to reduce the affordable housing deficit citywide; a “more bang for your buck” approach. In practice, deeper subsidies usually mean fewer units. Those who produce affordable housing will repeatedly face a difficult choice: to provide deeper subsidies for fewer people, or shallow subsidies for more people. Targeting 80% AMI is also part of a home ownership strategy, to complement rental housing. While that’s relevant to broader discussions about the affordable housing citywide, it’s not especially relevant to former Penn Plaza residents who overwhelmingly need rental housing.

Downstream: What kind of community process should we expect to see?

Downstream: A weak one. The consent agreement makes it clear that only two meetings are required, and those are presumably going to focus on the Penn Plaza site itself and Enright Park. With all that’s involved, find me a professional planner who says that two meetings will be sufficient. As for community involvement in the housing projects, one of the Intervenors told me that they intend to provide an ongoing forum for conversations about specific developments as well as broader housing concerns. As per the agreement, the process for future affordable housing projects will be overseen by a “Housing Committee composed of one member each from each of ELDI. BGC. FCG [sic] and the City.” This committee only recognizes established non-profit community groups, and excludes former Penn Plaza residents as well as the other individuals who were granted Intervenor status.

Downstream: What did you mean when you wrote that little has changed since the Penn Plaza evictions occurred?

Downstream: The City formed an Affordable Housing Task Force, and City Council passed its recommendations into law more than a year ago, but the Housing Opportunity Fund wasn’t funded until last month. Last year, the city established a new development protocol called P4 Pittsburgh, but it has not gone into effect. While the HOF is a very big deal and will go a long way towards ameliorating the affordable housing crisis, there are many other things the City can do. An Inclusionary Zoning policy would be difficult to pass citywide, but can be included in an IPOD (Interim Planning Overlay District)—a planning mechanism that allows for new zoning regulations for a specific geographical area—like the one created for the Baum Boulevard/Centre Avenue corridor years ago. It could require a certain number of affordable units to be included with any residential development. Councilwoman Gross has posed this as a possiblity for her district. Those are “stick” approaches, but there are “carrots” as well. Many cities offer density bonuses to developers who add affordable units to market rate building, which lets them build more units than what’s typically allowed. Cities can grant exceptions for things like building heights and setbacks, and can provide expedited permitting and approval processes for projects that choose to be part of the solution.

Downstream: Since the evictions in 2015, which of these regulations or incentives have been put in place?

Downstream: None of them.

Downstream: It seems like this consent agreement sucks.

Downstream: Time will tell. Insofar as it reflects Pittsburgh’s real estate market, yes, it sucks. Pittsburgh is waking up to the reality that privately funded development leaves the public with little leverage to impact projects in meaningful ways. Some tax abatement programs, such as LERTA (Local Economic Revitalization Tax Act), provide some leverage and transparency, but that doesn’t apply here. The tax benefits from TRIDs are supposed to go back into the project, but they’re comparatively opaque—it’s difficult for the public to see how and where the monies are used.

Downstream: Is the East Liberty TRID even needed anymore?

Downstream: Some say no because it’s largely been used to incentivize luxury housing without much public benefit. Others say yes because, in this case, there would be no dedicated housing fund without it.

Downstream: Could LG Realty have put the full $10 million back into their development instead of the housing fund? Downstream: Technically, yes. This takes us back to the beginning. LG and the City filed law suits against each other. This was the compromise that was negotiated.

What is to be done?

ELDI was an Intervenor to the consent agreement and will be a member of the Housing Committee. I asked them about how public perception of the organization might impact how the process unfolds. Our conversation was wide-ranging, and ELDI restated some familiar arguments. With 30% of the neighborhood’s housing stock meeting the definition of affordable, East Liberty is aligned with national best practices for healthy communities. And, East Liberty’s commercial core, once the third largest in the state, has historically been more of a regional market than a local one, giving credence to the types of commercial development that have blossomed in recent years.

Counterarguments have been made that, because of its central location to transit and social services, East Liberty should provide more than 30% affordability. And, because another one of Pittsburgh’s main hubs for black-owned businesses (the Fifth Avenue/Wood Street intersection downtown) has been decimated, East Liberty needs to support businesses that serve long-term residents over newcomers. I agree.

But I also agree with ELDI’s argument that the conversations around affordable housing need to be untethered from individual neighborhood boundaries. To be precise, often-maligned projects such as Bakery Square and Eastside Bond aren’t even in East Liberty. Because ELDI’s influence extends beyond its borders, everything luxury, or otherwise seen as damaging to those under the threat of displacement, gets pinned on ELDI, right or wrong.

“Our only limitation was our imagination. The resulting scheme for another upscale live/work/play zone revealed how stunted our imagination had become.”

Does ELDI do enough to communicate with its constituents? ELDI told me that they hold planning meetings eleven months out of the year; they’re not public, but include representatives from both inside and outside the organization. They communicate through social media and an electronic newsletter, and an update to their 2010 community plan will begin in the near future. I asked directly if they’d be amenable to participating an ongoing, regularly scheduled forum for community dialogue about housing concerns. Their answer was yes, provided that the discussions were not limited to East Liberty, and included other neighborhoods throughout the East End of Pittsburgh.

There’s a precedent of what that might look like. The meetings that informed the Affordable Housing Task Force’s work were imperfect, but offer some guidance. They were regional, not neighborhood-based, and allowed for discussions focused more on the issue of affordable housing, and less on any one particular neighborhood’s history with it. In the East End session, for example, residents of East Liberty, Homewood, Point Breeze, Squirrel Hill, and other neighborhoods participated in the same meeting and were mixed together at the same tables. While many said that the process would have benefitted from more time for an open, free-for-all discussion, it was more comprehensive than what happens in most other instances.

Downstream Image of Crystal Jennings interviewing Myrtle Stern during "Living Room" protest in March 2017 in East Liberty

Crystal Jennings (right), daughter of Penn Plaza resident Jerome Jennings, interviews Myrtle Stern during “Living Room” protest in March 2017. Photo: Downstream.

There are other examples of public engagement in the recent and distant past that serve as reminders that it wasn’t always as exclusionary as it is today. During the 90s and 2000s, the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh (CDCP) played an important role in establishing a participatory process that was widely regarded as fair, even if not always successful. (Disclaimer: this author was employed by the CDCP during many of those years.) The CDCP provided grants to community organizations that paid for preliminary design and planning efforts. Grantees were required to establish a steering committee composed of both organizational staff and members of the community, and hold a minimum of three community meetings (which sometimes turned into twice as many). Furthermore, grantees were empowered to schedule the times and locations of their meetings, and hire and pay their own design consultants. A version of the program still exists, but not at the scale it once was.

Lawrenceville United and Lawrenceville Corporation partner on an ongoing initiative, known as Responsible Hospitality, as a way of proactively managing a business district that has witnessing a rapid increase in bars. Every establishment that is seeking or renewing a liquor license is invited to engage with the community that would be impacted by it the most. The two organizations attend public hearings held by the Pennsylvania Liquor and Control Board (PLCB), and testify to the level of community support for the business. In some cases, the organizations and businesses sign a Community License Agreement (CLA) that spells out the conditions placed on the business by the community, and the CLA is submitted as part of the PLCB application.

The program is a voluntary, carrot-based approach, but with a stick kept nearby. Business owners can go it alone and not participate, but because of the relationship established between the PLCB and the community groups, their testimony carries a lot of weight. In this example, if we swap bars for housing, we may have a model worth considering.

“We don’t know what success looks like.”

There are various “consensus groups” throughout the city—in Larimer, the Hill District, Beltzhoover—that advocate for specific neighborhoods. Coalition organizations—Hilltop Alliance, Northside Leadership Conference, Oakland Task Force, Northside Coalition for Fair Housing, and others—may not be panaceas, but may offer guidance to those who seek a broader venue for structured, ongoing housing conversations in East Liberty and beyond.

Pittsburgh has a housing crisis and is without an ongoing, citywide forum to talk about it. As seen with project-specific community engagement like Mellon’s Orchard South, people come to the table with much more than a single project on their minds. When the process is reactive, there’s too little time for too many accumulated grievances, which creates too much pressure and the whole effort is built to spill from the outset.

Proactive, ongoing dialogue is one way to alleviate that pressure, especially if facilitated by a respected, independent person. Jamil Bey, PhD, executive director of the UrbanKind Institute, and Ron Porter, President/CEO of RDP Consulting Services, were two names that were mentioned by several people I talked with.

Image of Myrtle Stern and her remaining belongings as she gets ready to move from Penn Plaza in East Liberty to the Borough of Verona.

Myrtel Stern packs her belongings ahead of her move to the Borough of Verona. Photo: Maranie Rae Staab

Art of the Deal
Months after the Mellon’s Orchard South process ended abruptly, Trek Development was selected by the URA board of directors as the developer for the site, and purchased the property. Trek’s mixed-income, mixed-use redevelopment will in all likelihood turn out to be a good project when it’s all said it done. But Trek’s good reputation carries most of the weight here. Not only does Trek have a solid track record in developing high-quality affordable housing, its president Bill Gatti served on the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force. That this positive outcome was borne from a sham public process should not be mistaken for anything other than good fortune.

To some, God is in the details; to others, it’s the devil. Trek’s project will yield forty-seven affordable  units (and more than fifty market-rate), with rents ranging from $600 to $1,800, and will accept Housing Choice Vouchers. Those in the development world understand the high-wire balancing act that’s performed to balance market rate and affordable units within a single development, but those outside it are (understandably) left with the impression that affordable housing only comes about if the market eats first.

Units renting for $600/month offer hope to former Penn Plaza residents, but there is no way to know how many units there will be at this rate. The process is opaque—I needed to file a Right-to-Know request to see the original Mellon’s Orchard proposals, but even this shed little light. Because Trek’s proposal for a”mixed income” building did not offer any estimates for how many units would be affordable, what the income limits might be, or any unit-level detail whatsoever, how the selection committee made their decision remains a mystery to me.

“Where have all the visionaries gone?”

While this piece has painted city hall in a villainous light, it was LG Realty, not city government, that caused the Penn Plaza crises. Moreover, the City did make many strong moves along the way. It intervened to buy some time and resources for the tenants being evicted from a privately owned building; asked developers of luxury apartment buildings to accept some displaced residents; filed suit against LG Realty for violating its commitment to safe and sanitary conditions for its residents; denied LG’s redevelopment proposal on the grounds of insufficient public engagement; fined LG for cutting down trees in the public right of way; and even made an undisclosed offer to buy Penn Plaza.

The failures are notable too, especially with hard-to-measure, nebulous matters, such as engaging, entrusting, and empowering communities to determine their own futures. The City attempted to protect some of its most vulnerable residents with a few bold actions, but at no point operated from a position of strength. It held the weaker hand throughout, and will continue to, so as long as it plays a developer’s game on a tilted field. Through incentives, regulations, education, and vision, Pittsburgh can boast of having the highest concentration of LEED-certified buildings per capita in the country. The same city has done comparatively little for housing security.

Image of Mabel Duffy and a mover getting ready to leave Penn Plaza in East Liberty

Mabel Duffy sorts through keys to return to the Penn Plaza management office. Billy, a mover with Mike Moves Pittsburgh, takes away her last remaining items. Photo: Maranie Rae Staab

There is, above all, one reason why the public engagement component of the Penn Plaza consent agreement will not succeed: we have no definition of success. The same is true of our broader housing crisis—we don’t know what success looks like. Without that shared understanding, there is no accountability; without a clear vision, the City will continue to, at best, lead from behind.

I asked several people if they thought that the City of Pittsburgh had any sort of official vision for itself. Most said no, but a few ventured guesses that generally fell into the “world-class tech hub” category. This got me thinking: Where have all the visionaries gone? Who’s the dreamer in the mayor’s office who’s stretching minds at weekly staff meetings? Which councilperson has a bag full of crazy ideas? (No, no…you know what I mean.)

To the younger set to whom so much of our current redevelopment and business districts cater, what are your big ideas? What is your response to your predecessor’s GroundZero Action Network and Progress Pittsburgh? Perhaps those things are out there and I’m ignorant. I see an abundance of fun events, but few seem to have goals beyond the events themselves, and offer little in the way of social, economic or physical transformation.

“Making deals requires cunning and acumen, but not leadership.”

Schenley Plaza is a simple and wildly popular greenspace in the heart of the institution-heavy neighborhood of Oakland. Many people are unaware of its prior existence as a prized 300-space parking lot, without which, it was said, Oakland would become insufferable. Its conversion—which began as an idea submitted through a Post-Gazette contest—endured fierce opposition, but was championed by a coalition of individuals and organizations. Like many GroundZero projects, prioritizing a park over parking was radical for Pittsburgh, yet emblematic of city’s visionary spirit and willingness to embrace bold ideas.

Though never implemented as intended, Riverlife’s lighting master plan for downtown offered a vision that would’ve set Pittsburgh apart from any other city in the nation. Images projected onto building facades and thousands of lighted globes floating down the rivers, were but two of many concepts that embodied our city’s collective imagination, which has dulled since then. Perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than with the redevelopment of the former Civic Arena site in the Lower Hill District. With twenty-eight acres surrounding a single, spaceship-looking building, anything seemed possible. Our only limitation was our imagination, and the resulting scheme for another upscale live/work/play zone revealed how stunted our imagination had become.

The passage of the Housing Opportunity Fund and the subsequent funding mechanisms was an enormous achievement for Pittsburgh, made possible by a lot of determined people and key leadership. But what now? The funds pave many possible roads towards more housing security, and the URA already has various programs in place that can put the money into use immediately. But are there big ideas to go along with this? Will there be a call to build a roving band of skilled and unskilled workers, paid and voluntary, who (perhaps under the direction of Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh or the Pittsburgh Project) can tackle blighted properties to add to our inventory of affordable housing? Or will we dole them out to private contractors, or continue to wait for a fully operation land bank?

To the one person who’s still reading this (Dad, you left your Atlantic in my car): Pittsburgh needs to hit the reset button. We’re preaching equality and praising efforts such as “All In Pittsburgh,” while practicing something more like “Mostly Out Pittsburgh.” We’re still begging for development like it’s 1995. We’re still dangling public goodies out there for capital-rich developers to develop three blocks aways from where other capital-rich developers already developed. And speaking of things dangling in 1995…

There’s a sensational moment in Cutthroat Island when Morgan and Shaw go over the edge of a cliff. Despite falling at thirty-two feet per second, Shaw manages to grab a conveniently placed rope, and Morgan manages to grab Shaw’s conveniently placed leg. Morgan reaches up and puts her life in Shaw’s hand, and Shaw says, “I think from now on we should be partners…fifty-fifty!”

Dangling above some sharp-looking rocks below, Morgan replies, “Sixty-forty.” Facing imminent death, Morgan brazenly angles for a better deal!

Believe it or not, this terrible scene in a terrible movie provides a valuable perspective on what’s happening to our city. Deal-making has replaced planning and open communication in many of our neighborhoods. The Art of the Deal has supplanted the writings of Peter Marcuse, Henry Sanoff, and Jane Jacobs. Making deals (or to bring it home, “Makin’ dills”) requires cunning and acumen, but not leadership. In fact, deal-making thrives in the absence of leadership, as we can see from the highest level of federal government to the corner of Penn and Negley, the de facto capital of Pittsburgh’s own Cutthroat Island.

Like this article? Help support Downstream. Learn more about how your donations help.
Personal Info

Donation Total: $25


Many of the photographs in this story were provided by Maranie Rae Staab. Maranie is a Pittsburgh-based, independent photographer and journalist working to document human rights and social justice issues, displacement and the periphery of conflict — how violence and war affects individuals and societies. http://www.maranierae.com/