Tag Archives: Hill District Master Plan

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.

Belmar Gardens-A Story That Deserves More Telling

Last week I was talking with one of my original mentors in the world of non-profits, Sabira Bushra, and she started telling me about how she is moving to another place within her housing cooperative, Belmar Gardens. I wasn’t at all familiar with the idea of a housing cooperative and so Sabira started explaining it to me. This history deserves more attention in Pittsburgh as a story of African American self determination and in the Hill District as an example of how we might fullfill two goals of the Greater Hill District Master Plan. The first goal would be “Build Upon The African American Legacy” and the second goal would be “Family Friendly Housing Without Displacement”. Please click here for a link to “Strategies to Prevent Displacement of Residents and Businesses in the Hil District-working paper” written by attorney Bob Damewood and my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing.

In talking to Sabira, I learned Belmar Gardens was started in the 1950’s as one of the only ways that working class African Americans could own their own home. As I understand the history, a group of African Americans  formed a for-profit corporation to purchase a 118 homes in Belmar. This was the first African American Housing Cooperative in Pittsburgh and, according to Wikimapia.org, this was the first housing cooperative anywhere to receive a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage. We should pause here to note that even into the 1950’s, FHA underwriting manuals expressly forbade the granting of mortages unless they were to white people purchasing homes in racially homogenous neighborhoods because the FHA believed that Black homeowners brought down White owners’ home values and in doing so endangered the loan. What has come to be known as “redlining” obviously meant loans were not going to African Americans, so I would think the story behind the initial securing of this mortgage is quite powerful. Fast forward to today and 50 years later the cooperative continues. The structure works in such a way that people own a share in the company and the share represents their ownership of a home. Once a person has purchased a share they pay a monthly fee that is lower then a typical mortgage payment and this fee is then used to pay current expenses like the water bill as well as major capital expenses. For example, this year Belmar Gardens will be installing new kitchens in the homes that are in need of them.

Not sure what would prevent this approach from being implemented in the Hill District, but it sounds compelling and a strategy worthy of being on the table. Maybe this approach could be tried in Addison Terrace? Belmar Gardens is particularly intriguing as an approach to the Master Plan goals noted above when I reflect on the questions I have raised earlier on the Residencies at New Granada Square, particularly the way the family average median income standard will be applied to residences that are largely for single dwellers. Thanks very much to Sabira Bushra for taking the time to answer my questions and explain this history and an extra big shout out to all who have maintained the institution of Belmar Gardens over more than half a century.