Tag Archives: Pittsburgh Penguins

Hill CDC Meeting Announces Lower Hill Deal

Take two after losing the post I wrote last night. Last night, The Hill District Community Development Corporation (The Hill CDC) had a community meeting focused on two subjects: The recent deal outlining what would come back to the Hill from the gift given to the Penguins by our local government in order for them not to leave i.e. the rights to develop the 28 acres in the Lower Hill District.  The second element of the meeting was an envisioning of what might happen on Centre Ave. As there were a lot of details and potential implications to both issues, I will not try to handle this all in one post. First- what I heard from Councilman Daniel Lavelle re: the deal on the Lower Hill.

I came in on the tail end of the presentation and so the part that I was able to hear pertained to a fund that will be created to spur development in the entire Hill. According to the Councilman, the fund will get its dollars from  a TIF or Tax Increment Financing deal that will send 65% of the increase in taxes raised by the redevelopment of the Lower Hill to the Hill District Growth Fund and 35% back to the City of Pittsburgh. TIFs are something I am still trying to get my head around, so I hope to come back to that in a later post, but the headlines that I heard are the following:

  •  the deal could lead to anywhere from $22 million to $70 million in dollars to fund development across the Hill District;
  • the signatories were the Mayor, the Councilman, the Penguins and the Hill District CDC;
  • the committee currently managing the Hill District Growth Fund will appoint new members to the body and other political entities, such as the city or county will not be able to weigh in on who sits on the committee;
  • the agreement will be posted on the Councilman’s page.

Questions from the audience ranged from how would the fund be governed and ensured to benefit the Hill District residents to could the fund help with the eventual tax increases that property owners in the Hill will face as a result of the new development, which is a fascinating idea in and of itself. Wouldn’t that mean from a taxing strategy perspective that the city was developing property in the Lower Hill to raise taxes for its own operations, sending a chunk back to the Hill to help it redevelop “itself” (the Hill is still a part of the City) and then some of these same dollars were then coming back to the City treasure chest in the form of abatements given to residents to offset the the taxes caused by the redevelopment?  Owning two properties in the Hill, I can’t say I’m mad about that idea, and what I like about it is that it essentially means that Hill District residents would not have to incur the same price for the redevelopment of their neighborhood, but could reap the benefit in increased home values.  Interesting.

Anyway, the Councilman’s response on making sure the dollars allocated to the Hill were actually going to benefit the Hill had much to do with governance. Here he talked about the way the current members of the committee managing the Hill District Growth Fund would manage these dollars and that this committee would be the only one with the power to appoint new members, so that there could be no interference from other entities such as the City or County. This was posited as community control and while it surely will be controlled by residents and stakeholders of the Hill District (there was a resident clause to the membership on the committee that I missed), I have raised questions going back a couple of years as to how “community” is operationalized. This will be key if the fund is going to provide anything approaching equal access to all ideas and not be severely weighted towards those close to the Councilman and the Hill District CDC, which can happen even without intentions of graft, corruption and the like. Funding organizations (and I work for one) are notorious for providing access based on proximity to the board and staff of the organization, so this fund, garnered in the name of the Hill District community, has both the opportunity and burden of actually developing a process that leads to attracting and fairly funding all kinds of community ideas and to date. One idea I suggested two years ago that I don’t believe has happened and was not mentioned last night was to rotate members of the committee governing the fund.

The opportunity is to set a standard for how communities could decide funding processes and priorities for themselves and that all kinds of funding orgs, like philanthropy, government and intermediaries could learn from or be encouraged to take up. From what I can see this hasn’t happened to date  I was encouraged that the Councilman spoke of a need to think about the processes governing the fund, but said it was best to speak to the POISE Foundation as to how this would actually happen. In a later twitter exchange that included my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing, who has written about anti-displacment policies and how cronyism helps to foster and preserve slums, Councilman Lavelle weighed in that he agreed that the governance of the fund and its transparency was all important.

Lavelle Laing twitter exchange

As Mayor Peduto has said this is the largest TIF deal in the city’s history, there will be much to think about as to how this will benefit the neighborhood and I am very glad we have this to think,  talk and act about.


What I Want For Christmas? Fair Coverage from the PG

A few weeks ago, Mark Belko wrote a problematic piece in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s PGBusiness 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”.

Pens Meeting Goes Nowhere Fast…by Renee Aldrich

On November 21, I attended what I thought would be yet another run of the mill meeting where the Penguins come to the Hill House and make a whole lot of noise about their plans for the lower hill, and we leave wondering what we just heard and what it means for us the “community”. That is not quite what happened.

A large turnout of over 100 community folks, business people, hill leaders, and others turned out at the Hill House Auditorium in anticipation of  hearing the plans about the Lower Hill (Irreverently referred to by the Pens as “the 28 acres”)

Initially it did seem like it was about to be a repeat of the same old same old –  a kind of leading the lambs to slaughter by way of fried chicken, mac and cheese, string beans, rolls, juice and chocolate chip cookies.

The screen loomed overhead, promising of the pending Powerpoint presentations of our neighborhood.   I knew they’d be a variation on the same slides we’ve seen any number of times—giving us a “history of the Hill”  a history of the processes that have been engaged over the past two-three years as relates to the Pens and the Community.  And along with this there was the COO of the Pens, Travis Williams,  waiting in the wings with  their 3 sets of urban experts , poised to meet us and attempt to assure this community that they have our total interest in mind.

Between the food, the motivational speeches, banal sentimentality, and a power point presentation of the track record of McCormick Baron Salazar, the next thing we knew,  45 minutes had passed and this meeting was nowhere near providing information to the community as to what they (the Pens) planned to take before the Planning Commission on December 9.

When Carl Redwood, Executive Director of the Consensus Group, brought this out, and said  “You guys are slow walking us through this presentation until we run out of time here and we don’t get to debate what these plans are going to be”, is when things begin to go south.  His challenge to them opened the flood gates and it seemed  that the community decided that would not wait until the Q&A portion to express their disdain at what they have already heard.

I raised the point as follows:  “With respect I am suggesting to you that it I snow 7:30 we’ve been here since 6pm, and motivational speeches are NOT what we came here for tonight.  We don’t need to be motivated, we need some substantive conversation about the Pen’s plans to make sure this community benefits from whatever is done in the lower hill.  Ms. Frankie Williams stated that she for one did not trust for one minute that they were being honest with us, and that she believes they intend to go forward with their plans and we will end up with NOTHING!!

Many others came to the mike to protest this empty process.  In the meantime, the Pens and their consultants were trying to take back the meeting.  But this was proving to be very challenging.  Questions never really got answered, except that in spite of the valiant efforts of the working group on the “Lower Hill” to convey to the Pens that the community was seeking 30 percent affordable housing, they (the Pens) had not agreed to that but were stopping at 20 percent.  This created great furor in the room and again voices were raised, while the Pens continued to try to convince this audience that they were making every effort to work with this community to ensure that  things could come out fair and equitable for the Hill.

In the meantime there were those who were wondering where the political leaders where whom the Pens kept saying they had been working with to come up with a plan that would satisfy the community’s demands—the Greater Hill District Master Plan, notwithstanding.

Marc Little, Executive Director of MWELA (Minority & Women Educational Labor Agency) expressed it best when he asked Travis Williams why had he kept mentioning Councilman Lavelle but Councilman Lavelle was not standing beside him enforcing the events of this evening.   He stated too that he was completely frustrated with the wheel spinning process that has not gotten anyone anywhere, a process wherein the Pens spend more time talking about why the can’t do what the community asks, then taking the steps necessary to change the history and landscape of a community that for far too long has been subject to ‘leftovers’ while corporations continue to get the cream.

Councilman Lavelle did come to the mic and expressed his appreciation to the community for coming out and making their voices heard, and for informing the Pens of where they  (Community) stand and what they saw as unacceptable.  He also said that he had not called this meeting because he wanted to bring “better” information to the community  and as soon as  he, the lower hill working group, and the Pens where able to return to the table and to agree on a plan that would create a more positive impact on this community in  his district, he would call a meeting to let them know, but from his perspective, this was not it.

This meeting showed that this community is finished  sitting in silence while the Pens pull the wool over our eyes. At the very least they (the Pens) will be challenged as to the level of their sincerity, and more voices will be heard in protest if they continue to conduct things, business as usual.  It was good to watch and take part in.

Good Night at Hill CDC Meeting. Opportunities for Public Campaign?

This past Tuesday the Hill CDC had a meeting to give “critical updates” to the community re: the issues of the Lower Hill. I was only able to make the second half of the meeting, but from what I saw it looked good on several fronts. Good turnout. Good energy in the room of more than 100 folks that tended to be a little older than me-maybe 50’s 60’s and people stayed in the room through the end and then hung around afterwards. Ms. Marimba Milliones, Executive Director of the Hill CDC, presented on the key issues being negotiated by the Lower Hill Working Group and gave the members of that group as Councilman Daniel Lavelle, Marimba Milliones, Glenn Grayson (elected at July 1 CDC meeting as community representative), David Hopkins, Bomani Howze, William Generett, Marc Little, Jason Matthews, Micah Taylor (elected at July 1 CDC meeting as community representative),  Brenda Tate, Rev. Margaret Tyson, Dewitt Walton, Rev. Tom Smith, & Sala Udin. From the power point handout I note that the following issues were presented as the key areas of concern: (1) The need for the Pens to agree to a legally enforceable document; (2) 30% affordable housing; (3) Lower Hill Working Group will have “fair share decision making with the Penguins over the long haul” and (4) An ongoing revenue stream that comes back to the Hill District over many years.

The next section of the presentation focused on the Penguins’ Preliminary Land Development Plan (PLDP) and the work of the PLDP & Street Grid Committee whose members were listed as Audrey Anderson, John Anderson, William Bercik, Esq, Robert Damewood, Esq., Phyliss Ghafoor, Bomani Howze, Bonnie Laing*, Justin Laing,* Emma Pipkin, Glenn Seals, Susan Rademacher*, George Moses*. The asterisk signifies contributors. My wife, Bonnie, and I stopped participating on the committee because of the requirement that participants treat documents to and from the Penguins as confidential, but made contributions early on. The feedback of this group produced a 30 page memo that the handout says is available at the request of the CDC.

One of my questions was how the negotiation strategy could be expanded to include a public campaign. In 2007, the Penguins got their base mobilized with the threat to take their puck and go to Kansas City. When negotiations stalled Mr. Lemieux would skate out and say “It’s looking good out there, we could leave any second, I mean it!”. You may remember that one of the sticking points in those negotiations was the Penguins receiving the development rights for the Lower Hill. Ms. Milliones asked how many would sign a petition in support of the effort, and it appeared about a quarter of the room would get behind the idea (hardly a scientific poll, as there really wasn’t a lot of time to discuss why the pros and cons of this idea). Councilman Lavelle said he would sponsor a petition and bring it to the next meeting and I suggested that more information be provided on the issues being negotiated and why they matter, even info that could be found on the web. The Councilman said he was amenable to this idea, so we’ll see (for example, the power point alludes to a draft negotiation document that is in the works).

One sticking point between the Lower Hill District Working Group and the Penguins is whether the development will include 20% affordable housing which is what the Penguins want and is the number they used in their study of the economic impact of this development and the 30% number used in the Hill District Master Plan. Also critical is that the definition the two groups are using of “affordable housing” are different. The Hill District Master Plan defines affordable as no more than 50% of the City’s Average Median Income (AMI) and the Penguins want to use 80% of the AMI as the bar.  Although I didn’t hear this (again, I got there an hour into the meeting) I would bet another one of the sticking points in the negotiation is any hint that the Penguins will put their own $ in the deal for “an ongoing revenue stream that comes back to the Hill District over many years.” The Penguins resistance on at least the first issue is why it seems to me a robust public advocacy campaign is necessary and also why I as a PLDP committee member I suggested that the memo to the Penguins make direct references to the Community Benefits Agreement negotiated by One Hill Community Benefits Coalition as legal support for the parts of the Penguins plan that do not honor the Master Plan (and there are many), but the CDC did not make this choice. (The steward of the CBA is the Hill District Consensus Group, of which my wife is the co-director and I was very active in the leadership of One Hill, particularly before it elected its own leadership)

Some of the questions raised by community members were as follows: Will anything happen to the senior citizen housing that boarders the site? Councilman Lavelle’s response was that nothing would happen to the K. Leroy Irvis Towers as long as he was in office. Could the Penguins agree to 30% affordable housing now and if the community’s income goes up over the next ten years the number could be moved to 20%? Lavelle noted this as an interesting idea. Could a benefit from the negotiations include transportation for seniors from downtown to the Hill? This was noted as an interesting idea as well. Another question was raised by Glenn Seals (aka Freedom Fighter) who is usually the community member to speak most forthrightly about issues of race and class (and often gets the most head nods) as to what had to be done to prevent this development from pushing current residents out? Ms. Milliones responded that the issue would be addressed later in the meeting and later she shared news of a coming campaign to get a 100 people to sign up to want to buy new homes in the Hill District. This campaign will involve getting support to interested folks including credit repair and information on securing a loan. While the lower priority for public mobilizing, and what appears to be a choice not to reference the CBA, leaves me some concern as to how we will respond if the Penguins do not negotiate honorably and in accordance with the Master Plan, the turnout and energy in the room suggests folks’ interests and history have us ready. Nice work on the part of the CDC in getting the word out (one resident was very appreciative of the robo call she received).

A last thought on the notion of a campaign to get the Penguins to make the kind of commitment that will set a new norm for how this city interfaces with private entities that get public benefits. In addition to petitions, those of you who use Facebook and Twitter,  post or tweet about why public subsidies require public benefits with the hash tag #PlayFairPens. Even more on line chatter from Hill District residents and non-Hill District residents as to the importance of this negotiation to the Hill District and the region as a whole would be a good thing as the Penguins prepare to kick off the 2013-2014 season next Thursday at the Consol Center. Play fair, Pens.

No Agreement from Pens to Provide Specific Benefits. How About Specific Costs? Well, that’s the Plan.

The Sports and Exhibition Authority’s recent unsuccessful application to the Federal Department of Transportation for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant (TIGER grant) continues to provide the best window into the Pittsburgh Penguins and City Government’s plans for the 28 acres of the Hill District known in the current development discussions as “the Lower Hill”.  Folks will remember that the city ceded the development rights to this land to the Penguins in order to prevent them from saying “anyplace but home”… and moving to Kansas City.  I spent about 20 minutes to no avail looking on-line for the June 2007 URA minutes, to see if there was any other justification then was offered by Don Kortlandt, the URA General Counsel at the time who said that the Penguins considered the development rights to be “an  important part of the economics of their deal” and wanted agreements in place  before the (arena) lease signing. “That was part of the quid pro quo for them staying in Pittsburgh,” he  said. This seems to be the longhand version of “The Penguins made me do it”, but not a justification a government agency like the URA should be using for this kind of major land use decision.

The 2010 Penguins commissioned study on the likely economic impacts of the proposed development on the 28 acres conducted by Economic Research Associates, an AECOM company, frames the benefits generally to the region and specifically to various levels of government in the form of taxes, but does not pose specific benefits to Hill District residents. To see the various proposed benefits  please see a table I pulled together from looking at that study.

Item Cost/Revenue Tax Benefit
Purchase of local construction materials $209 million $15 million
Construction  related   employment $160.8 million $4.9 million/$1.1 million


Annual property taxes 1191 housing units, 208,750 sq. ft. of retail space, 605,550 sq. ft.   of office space,150 rm hotel and multi-screen cinema. $4.6 million/$5.9 million/$2 million


Entertainment retail space $450 million annually in sales $2.5 million/$423,956/$258,480


Annual Parking Revenue Amount not given $1.4 million
Earned Income taxes Total amount earned by new city residents not given $943,884/$1.9 million

City and School District

Annual onsite employment $145 million $955,884/$4.5 million


Total Construction Period   employment and tax benefit 4231 estimated full time jobs $21.1 million tax benefit
Annual employment and tax   benefits 2948 estimated full time jobs $25.1 million tax benefit

While I found these benefits to give me a little better understanding of the scale of this project, I found two things in the study particularly interesting. One, and as you can see above, the money that would be made from parking was not given, but rather just the taxes that would be paid on that revenue. The second piece of notable information was the following quote:

“No attempt has been made in this study to estimate the real increases in off site property taxes from permanent impacts from the mixed-use of development. It is difficult to determine where such impacts would occur as well as the appropriate values to apply. However, it can be assumed that the off-site property tax impact would be positive.”

So while agreeing to benefits like a dollar-a-car and/or a formalized agreement specifying specific benefits to the Hill District is not something the Penguins have been willing to do, their own research points out that this development is almost a guarantee to bring specific costs to Hill District residents. I get that increased property values for home owners can be of value, but that is essentially if you are looking to sell. If you are not planning to sell, one is just stuck with higher taxes, and in the case of renters, this will almost assuredly raise rents. The obvious guess is that this will hit the Crawford Square section of the Hill first, but, as the research notes, increased property taxes could show up in other locations as well. At the end of the day most of us are on fixed incomes of one form or another (i.e. wages/salaries vs stock market), but seniors or lower income home owners could be particularly vulnerable to rising property taxes. Yet, the Penguins don’t think that a fund supported by the site’s parking revenues and focused on supporting the implementation of the Master Plan in the rest of the Hill District is a fair or tenable arrangement for all of the benefits they have received and possibly negative impacts their development could cause? Priceless.

Feels Like Public Process in Lower Hill is Waddling

PenguinsAttended the Hill CDC meeting Monday evening and when I came in at 7 pm (meeting began at 6 p.m.)  roundtables were being held looking for participants to weigh in on  what appeared to be the 5 principles of the Master Plan (see prior post). I went to the housing roundtable and one of the questions asked was “what strategies might support housing affordability and home ownership, which provoked a response from one of the folks at the table of “shouldn’t you be telling us the answer to that question?” Councilman Lavelle was at our table and I shared this comment with him. He responded that while he was not a housing expert (I had said we could benefit from housing experts to help us get more sophisticated) inclusionary zoning could be one route. The comment I put on the piece of paper I was given was that we could include language in the zoning of this special planning district (again, see prior post) that 30% of the housing in the Lower Hill must be affordable. This was one of the comments that was shared when our table’s comments were reported out to the rest of the room, but this information is well-known to both the CDC and Councilman as it is benchmark in the Master Plan, a rallying cry of the Hill District Consensus Group (of which my wife is co-director and I am an active member) and something I have raised as a member of the Hill CDC’s sub-committee on the Lower Hill’s PLDP. I have asked our CDC and Councilman why the PLDP cannot “simply” include the specific benchmarks that are already in the Greater Hill District Master Plan in the form of anti-displacement strategies and its benchmarks of 30% affordable housing and 20% businesses led by Hill District residents, but so far have not gotten an answer and may try and follow up. There is a Lower Hill District Working Group that is meeting with the Penguins 1-2 times a week where discussions are being held but the content, nature or goal  of those meetings has not been given much explanation  in any of the meetings I have attended. My wife, Bonnie, was a part of this group but as an individual and not as a member of the Consensus Group and when Councilman Lavelle communicated that the Lower Hill meetings were not public at that stage, she declined to participate further. Monday’s meeting closed with nominations of community members to serve on the working group, so maybe there will be greater public communications at that point as to what is happening in these discussions as they relate to the PLDP process and the benchmarks around such issues as housing that are in the Greater Hill District Master Plan. Interestingly, although no Penguins representative made any closing comments re: next steps, my sense is that they and their intentions for the Lower Hill had a very strong presence in the meeting. Maybe this is why the process feels to me like it is waddling.

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.