On January 29, the Bloomfield Development Corporation held a community meeting for the proposed redevelopment of the Shursave grocery store site. My written response to it, which I posted to Facebook, prompted some lively conversation. I received a few requests to post it on this site, so here it is. Meeting notes, Milhaus’ presentation, and other information can be found here. Above photo: Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, and Charlie Sheen on the look-out for luxury apartments in Red Dawn.

Last night the Bloomfield Development Corporation​’s community meeting for the proposed redevelopment of the Shursave grocery store site turned out a riled-up crowd of more than 300 people. Cold and rainy outside and stifling hot inside, the standing room only audience spilled into the hallway. BDC staff did a remarkable job managing the presentation and Q&A, and executive director Christina Howell demonstrated that she can run a development meeting better than many others who have 10 times as much experience.

But we have to ask, for what? The community is absolutely doing its part—showing up to say they give a damn. Will the government agencies charged with issuing approvals, permits and licenses do the same?

If you’re interested in the topic of why present day “community process” in Pittsburgh is all too often set up to fail, you can read my piece, “Cutthroat Island.”

The Shursave developer, Milhaus, is responsible for the gargantuan Arsenal201 development in Lawrenceville. They presented a more-or-less complete design concept that features 243 small, amenity-rich apartments ($1,000-$2,500) atop an (unconfirmed) replacement grocery store, and some streetscape improvements. Included was a private pool (across the street from a pool), a private gym (across the street from a gym), and private outdoor barbecue grills (across the street from Jabo’s Smoque House).

“Bloomfield’s primary business district will soon be anchored at both ends by high-income enclaves.”

Milhaus’ proposal reflects a profound disinterest in the city’s affordable housing crisis. Although, to be fair, in response to Mel Packer torching them on this subject, they stated their commitment to providing $100K into affordable housing efforts elsewhere. For perspective, East Liberty Place(s) North and South cost a combined $25 million to build and yielded about 100 affordable units. $100K amounts to a half a newly constructed unit. Good try.

Of the two dozen or so people who made comments, not one indicated support for the project. Comments from the opposition were fiery, emotional, curious, or technical. Yet the sad reality remains that the City of Pittsburgh is utterly ill-equipped to influence private development to the benefit of an existing community. This was understandable when developments like these first emerged 10 years ago, but since then, little has been done to prevent yet another urban gated community. (Or as I hear, an urban gated collection-of-non-communing-tenants.)

Let’s talk about what this meeting was really about, because the absurdist in me was actually delighted by the spectacle. A design/development team presented a major, high-profile residential development to a couple hundred people who won’t reside there. Obvious, no doubt, but think about that! Some will use the grocery store (if there is one), but it’s a minor player in this deal. Otherwise, this project is not, by intent, for them. Never was.

Which begs the question: Who the hell is it for? And where were the 300 future tenants at 7 pm on Monday night? Somewhere else in Pittsburgh? The North Hills? Park Slope? San Jose? Will they ever watch the video of the meeting? Will they ever know how ridiculous they will look to locals while they’re splashing around in their private pool and grilling burgers in their fenced-in patio with those gas-powered contraptions that throw flames 12 feet into the air? (Note: flame throwers were not part of the design. I made up them up for literary ambience).

“It’s kind of like Red Dawn, when the Russians parachute into middle America.”

The development team seemed like nice enough people, and they probably are. This isn’t a malevolent, evil developer tirade. Milhaus finds ways to make money in 2nd-tier cities, knowing that ones like Pittsburgh can do nothing to stop them, and they show up with their own money. The audience members can (and should) mob zoning or planning commission hearings to make their opinions known, but there is nothing in place that says a major development has to have anything to do with the neighborhood it’s in. (Unless you consider the “P4 Pittsburgh” guidelines written a couple years back, which are intended to do exactly that; but they’re only relevant to projects using public subsidy, and have not been put into effect yet anyway. Dang!)

Community planning has moved from consensus-based to consent-based. A consenting community is one that has merely run out of “legal objections” to a project it doesn’t want.

Major kudos to BDC for providing the community the opportunity to face-off with Milhaus. They did it right—the meeting was civil and was never at risk of imploding. The audience—a mix of young and old, neighborhood newcomers and lifers—was evidence that the event was properly advertised (i.e., not limited to a church bulletin).

As exemplary as it was, how screwy is this dynamic that city government has put communities in? Architecture students face juries, just as criminal defendants do in court. The jury evaluates what’s put before it and makes a judgement that has consequences for the student or defendant. Community meetings have the same dynamic, except that the verdict carries little weight, if any at all. Developers merely have to show up and take their licks, move on to city hall, follow the zoning code, and pass with a C-.

Critics of everything I’ve written will say that state and federal property laws tie local municipalities’ hands, at which point they’re simply thrown up in the air. There’s a lot of truth to that, but there are tools at the city’s disposal to influence development and empower communities that go unused.

BDC will be left with essentially two options: to formally endorse the project with some negotiated conditions; or oppose it and forfeit any leverage whatsoever. Presumably, they’ll choose the former to get something instead of nothing. But in doing so they will be on record as supporting this project when the conditions are forgotten. When the building is finally leased up, if it’s viewed with widespread disgust, the developer and city officials can say it had the blessing of the neighborhood group. Is this really the position we should be putting our community groups in?

The Shursave redevelopment will have physical, social and economic repercussions far beyond its boundaries. Regardless of what concessions are won, it will still be a luxury apartment building, which is simply bad for Bloomfield (and I’m not talking about its candy-ass design). Bloomfield’s primary business district will soon be anchored at both ends by high-income enclaves (the other is Morrow Park on the eastern edge (the one with the totally random, rusty Cortens-steel-bubbles facade). While physically situated in a working class neighborhood, residents will remain outside of it in most every other way. Worse, Milhaus’ project marks the midway point between Central Lawrenceville and Bloomfield—can you hear that loud sucking sound?

Gentrification has been nibbling at Bloomfield’s edges for a while, but this project will start to digest it from the inside out. It’s kind of like Red Dawn, when the Russians parachute into middle America.

And just as Morrow looms oddly over Ritter’s Diner, the Milhaus project will loom over another relic (no, not the “Pittsburgh’s Little Italy” sign) — the BBT.

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