The Lower Hill PLDP: “Sustainability” Narrowly, Insufficiently Defined

This post will probably only appeal to the folks with a real patience/interest in Hill District/community planning issues because these issues are framed in such arcane ways by our city government and planning leaders, but here goes anyway. The Preliminary Land Development Plan for the Lower Hill District has yet to be submitted to the Planning Commission but, according to information shared at an April meeting convened by the Hill District Community Development Corporation and Councilman Daniel Lavelle, this plan will be submitted  by the Sports and Exhibition Authority and Penguins to the Planning Commission towards the end of June. According to the URA’s website, a PLDP is “a master plan for specially planned districts (SP) and includes details for infrastructure, development patterns, landscape design,  architectural details and is accompanied by updated zoning text that is specific to the SP District.” Herein lies a good bit of the problem. The definition of the PLDP focuses almost entirely on the physical repercussions of a new development and ignores its social, economic and cultural dimensions. Essentially, the idea of a PLDP has much more to do with the interests of developers and parties who are comfortable with and/or resigned to the current social/economic/cultural arrangements such that they are ok with a focus solely on such physical questions as streetscapes, building heights, water management etc. Thus, not surprisingly, the PLDP is largely focused on thinking through environmental issues such as the management of storm water issues, but does not address the issues most of concern to Hill District residents i.e. how will this development, built on land unjustly taken by the URA decades ago and then unjustly given to the Penguins just years ago, benefit the community socially, economically and culturally. Actually, this does not seem to be completely ok even by the PLDP’s own definition since it is a plan for a “Specially Planned DIstrict” (SPD) and these are to consider the development not only of the immediate site, but the border neighborhoods as well.

The URA and this PLDP place a great deal of emphasis on the “sustainability” of the SPD, but the plan defines this term narrowly and does not think about the notion in the context of border neighborhoods. In the introduction of the plan,  sustainability is defined as 10 elements that are cited as coming from a book titled “Ten Shades of Green: Architecture and the Natural World”. However this definition of sustainability applies essentially to ideas on sustaining the planet, such as  the first principle: “Low Energy Performance-Achieved by making use of natural ventilation” and does  not specifically consider the sustainability of the Hill District as an adjoining neighborhood.  Relatedly, the definition only thinks about the environmental aspects of sustainability while remaining silent on the economic and social justice/fairness aspects of it. I explain more about what I mean by this in the attached memo below. In contrast, one can infer from the Greater Hill District Master Plan’s  5 principles that the community saw sustainability as having five components:

  1. Build Upon The African American Cultural Legacy
  2. Family Friendly Housing Without Displacement
  3. Economic Empowerment and Commercial Development
  4. Make the Hill District a Green and Well Designed Community
  5. Mobility, Transportation and Parking

My layman’s read of the plan is that even if it does not think about these issues in sustainability terms, and misses the chance to actually use the 5 principle framework that was approved in the Hill District Master Planning process, it includes extensive ideas on almost all the principles except as they relate to building upon the AA cultural legacy and economic empowerment. However, these are the critical issues as they relate to the sustainability of the Greater Hill District, and thus is a major shortcoming and a departure from the Master Plan to which the Hill District Community Benefits Agreement says must be adhere.

I have shared these ideas at greater length with the Hill District Community Development Corp.’s subcommittee on the PLDP, as a result of a request for written feedback from committee participants and you can see them here in a memo titled Laing Memo on PLDP revised. It references an article which talks of the many dimensions of “sustainability” and was sent to Councilman Daniel Lavelle and Hill CDC Executive Director, Marimba Milliones. To date, I have not received a specific response to this document, but from a document shared at the most recent Hill District Consensus Group meeting (of which my wife is co-director and I am a member),  it is clear that the Hill CDC is talking with the Penguins on such things as jobs and housing, but the document lacks the specific benchmarks included in the Master Plan such as 30% affordable housing in the Lower Hill that will be needed to make it enforceable.

The Hill CDC will be holding a meeting for community members on June 24th to discuss a formal response to the PLDP and the stance it will take as the PLDP goes to City Planning for approval. So, more to see on this front. The larger issue, however, is the need for public policy that has thought about sustainability in its totality and gives benchmarks for tangible benefits to come back to neighboring communities when the development needs the support and protection of our citizen funded government as is the case in SPD’s. This is particularly important when the developer is benefiting from the kind of government malfeasance that allowed the Lower Hill and its residents and businesses to be displaced in the 50’s and 60’s.

8 thoughts on “The Lower Hill PLDP: “Sustainability” Narrowly, Insufficiently Defined

  1. Bram R

    I’m not surprised that 30% affordable housing in the Lower Hill is a high-tension point with the Penguins, and for anyone satisfied in showing the Pens much deference in the Lower Hill as part of a larger bargain. I for one think Pittsburgh and the Hill and Downtown stand a much better chance of being vibrant with some affordable housing in the Lower Hill, across from the new arena. Why wouldn’t it lead to success?

    I’ll have to examine the PLDP before commenting on your broader argument.

      1. Bram R

        I’m not privy to any specifics, but I assume the makings for any “deal” would be: the Pens / political / foundation community will fund X, Y and Z in other parts of the Hill IF the community relinquishes most of its aspirations in the Lower Hill. I’d assume development higher up on Center Ave. including the New Granada Theater would be a part of that. Or maybe it’s not a matter of “X, Y and Z” specifically so much as making a role for the right intermediaries in the community no matter what does get built.

    1. Justin Post author

      Interesting point, Bram, on Pens/Politicians/Foundations (and I don’t write Hillombo as a representative of The Heinz Endowments), as well as the idea that the Hill CDC won’t place a focus on measurable housing benchmarks as a part of a general trade off of sorts. At the public meetings I have attended the Penguins have always said “maybe we can’t do 30% because the market won’t allow it” (hogwash) and Ms. Milliones shared at the last public meeting that the Hill CDC and the Councilman meet with the Penguins regularly, so surely the CDC is aware of the Penguins’ desires on this issue. A lot of issues here and this is not an exhaustive list: disproportionate access money gives corporations and individuals to the political process and politicians, the role of CDC’s in African American/low income neighborhoods and the stance/theory of change they take in the face of “the market”, gatekeeping (see earlier post on Gatekeeping and Racism), historical wrongs and how our city/society corrects them or covers them and leaves them to be faced by others down the road. Thanks for your comments.


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