A few weeks ago, Mark Belko wrote a problematic piece in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Business section titled “Penguins plans for Civic site hit snag”. As you can see, I haven’t been making time for posting of late, however, luckily for this blogger, it was problematic in such a way as to still be relevant a few weeks later. As a “bonus”, it was problematic enough to be problematic on three counts, since pithy points are best made in threes.
The first problem was the PG/Belko brought neither critical eye nor ear to the article and instead choose to be megaphone for the Pens’ talking points, this is not just a problem for the article, though, it’s a problem because it’s an example of the larger challenge the Hill District faces in getting balanced coverage in the local media. Particularly coverage that helps the public avoid the cliché of angry, dissatisfied Black communities and instead consider the fact that the Penguins are a fairly massive corporation, with international reach, getting private benefit from public goods. Of course there is also the fact that the PG covers the Penguins almost year round… Second problem, Travis Williams once again showing the Penguins to be our disingenuous corporate neighbor to the west, brazenly “misspeaking” about what the Pens know of the Hill District’s desires and interests in the Lower Hill District. Finally, and third, Councilman Daniel Lavelle’s comment that making sure that 30% of Lower Hill housing is affordable is a non-negotiable “at this time”. As Slick Rick said, heeeeere we go.
Belko as shill
Essentially, it appears a few weeks ago someone from the Pens’ communications office called over to the PG to give them the following “story”: the Penguins won’t be calling another community meeting or submitting their Preliminary Land Development Plan as they planned. To hear them tell it, at the meeting they called a month ago at the Hill House (and covered on this site in Ms. Renee Aldrich’s “Pens Meeting Goes Nowhere Fast” ) they “heard the community” and now know the Hill wants the Lower Hill development to have 30% of its housing dedicated as affordable for households earning 50% of the average median income. Secondly, the Pens and their developer, McCormack Baron Salazar, would like the PG readership to know that they are offering to “designate 20% of the units as affordable to households earning 80% of the average median income.” However, according to the Penguins Chief Operating officer, Travis Williams, now that the Penguins are clear that this is issue of affordable housing is “an important issue to them [the Hill]”, they are prepared to delay their own forward progress, hold off on the submission of the plan and have a “broader conversation”. What a crock…
That Belko just allows the Penguins to make these kinds of statements unchallenged is sad, to say the least. A few facts:
- The Hill District’s stand on the % of housing that should be affordable and what would make it affordable is stated clearly in the Community Master Plan completed in, wait for it ….2011.
- The Penguins point of view of what should be offered and their definition of affordable housing was first shared in the assumptions they used to draft an economic impact study in, wait for it …2010. How much have they moved on this issue of affordable housing after more than six months of talking to the Hill District in the personage of the Lower Hill Working Group, wait for it…it appears not one iota.
Now, maybe Belko knows none of this (mind you, a quick search will show Belko has covered the Hill District’s battle with the Penguins and the City going back to 2008), but the following question to Travis Williams “If you did not know what ‘the community’ wanted, what have you been talking to Councilman Lavelle and the Lower Hill Working Group for more than six months about?” would have showed the Penguins to be playing games. However, there is another section of the story that suggests the PG is not simply naively repeating the Penguins’ talking points and that is the following section: “City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, whose district includes the Hill and the adjacent (emphasis mine) arena site…” Note also the title of the article which calls the Lower Hill District the “Civic site”. So, now the we refer to the area clearly marked in the Greater Hill District Master Plan as the “Lower Hill District” as an area “adjacent to the Hill” or as the “Civic site”? As though the Lower Hill is not a part of the Hill District? What then is the meaning of the name Lower Hill Working Group i.e. the group negotiating around the Lower Hill. The renaming of the Hill District has been going on for quite sometime (see Oak Hill) but this is one of the more brazen attempts that I have seen in a moment, particularly since it’s the PG serving as “objective” certifier.
The Mis-speaker: Travis Williams
Obviously, if the Greater Hill District Master Plan has been out for more than 1 1/2 years and the housing goals are a part of that plan, it’s absolutely ridiculous for Mr. Williams to pretend that they are just learning about this issue…now. So, what was the real reason for calling that community meeting? Not knowing Williams and not being involved in these discussions with the Penguins, I really don’t know, but I would venture it was to test the political strength of the Lower Hill Working Group and see to what extent they had a constituency ready to kick up a fuss. So, the Penguins call the meeting, the Councilman and community drum up interest and then we see where the chips fall. Well, Hill District, according to the PG, mission accomplished on that front since apparently we showed enough color to prove to Williams and the Penguins that they shouldn’t submit the PLDP to city planning, yet. However, what’s so problematic is that one of our city leaders, Travis Williams, would get up and so grossly misrepresent the truth to the PG readers. Does anything hold this city back more than the lack of honest communication from of our leadership? Pittsburgh’s tolerance for leadership that obfuscates and lies, particularly to its African American communities, is a problem.
Councilman Lavelle and Affordable Housing
“When asked whether the community would accept less than 30% [affordable housing], Mr. Lavelle replied ‘At this time, I would say no'”. Okaaaay? So, at a later time, the Councilman could presumably say “yes, I accept less than 30%”? I guess we should infer the answer is “yes, but only under the “proper conditions.”? But what conditions? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I would imagine it would be conditions where the Councilman was offered something on the behalf of the community that he felt was worth accepting less than 30% affordable housing. That’s concerning. Because of our city’s extreme racial disparities, in order for Pittsburgh to maintain and even grow its African American population in the City and the Hill District, this 30% affordable housing is important. The 30% is also critically important to this city’s burgeoning movement to develop structural responses to the gentrification of predominantly African American communities. I would also say that I have talked to African American professional class folks in the Hill who have stayed and moved to this neighborhood because they want to live in a predominantly African American community (count me among them), and would be very disappointed to see this criteria negotiated away for something else, for example a development fund, probably the sexiest of the remaining issues still at play. To see what those issues are, see my prior post on my conversation with Councilman Lavelle. So, I hope this is an issue that the Councilman and community representatives stand and win on. I realize that the newspaper coverage is not what it once was, but it would be great if Belko could give have given us some inkling as to the potential implications of Lavelle’s comment by asking a follow up question. Even if only on the paper’s online version.
C’mon PG, Step Your Game Up
So, a great Christmas present or New Year’s Resolution from the PG and Mr. Belko would be more thoughtful, balanced and incisive coverage of the Hill District and Penguins negotiation and a commitment to help this city understand the important questions of race and class that are being discussed on the streets, in meetings and boardrooms everyday. As Elwin Green of the Homewood Nation would say, “Let’s Elevate the Conversation”.