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Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh aims to beautify empty lots

Bob Bauder
| Monday, Aug. 15, 2016, 12:06 a.m.
Trina Anderson, 50, gives the overgrown lot next to her home in Homewood a thumbs down on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. The property is owned by the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Trina Anderson, 50, gives the overgrown lot next to her home in Homewood a thumbs down on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. The property is owned by the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Buildings rise behind several overgrown lots owned by the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority along Susquehanna Street in Homewood on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Buildings rise behind several overgrown lots owned by the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority along Susquehanna Street in Homewood on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016.
Trina Anderson, 50, stands in front of some of the overgrown lots across from her home in Homewood on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. The lots are owned by the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, and Anderson said she has reported them to no avail.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Trina Anderson, 50, stands in front of some of the overgrown lots across from her home in Homewood on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. The lots are owned by the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, and Anderson said she has reported them to no avail.
Trina Anderson, 50, points to one of the overgrown Urban Redevelopment Authority-owned lots across from her home in Homewood on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. Behind her, next to her home, weeds spill from another vacant lot.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Trina Anderson, 50, points to one of the overgrown Urban Redevelopment Authority-owned lots across from her home in Homewood on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. Behind her, next to her home, weeds spill from another vacant lot.

Trina Anderson is greeted each morning by a virtual jungle of knotweed and brush covering vacant lots owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh that lie across from her house in Homewood.

Anderson, 50, said she can't remember the last time anyone showed up to mow, adding that it's happened only a couple times since she bought the place in 2010.

“You can kill somebody and put a body over there, and nobody would ever find it because they never cut it,” she said, waving at the towering weeds on Susquehanna Street. “The city wants to cite you if you don't keep your yard the way they want you to keep it, and look how they take care of their property.”

Bill Harlak, executive director of City Source Associates, the URA's property maintenance contractor, said the authority acquired the land from the city in 2015, and that his crew mowed it late last year.

The URA hopes to upgrade lot maintenance by farming out some of its estimated 1,500 vacant properties to small companies and nonprofits based in neighborhoods hosting the lots.

Seven organizations in July won URA bids totaling $250,000 to maintain 50 to 70 lots apiece for one year in the Hill District, Hazelwood, Homewood and Larimer. The work will begin in September. Work includes mowing at least every six weeks and sidewalk snow and ice removal in the winter.

If the pilot program is successful, officials plan to expand it in phases and include about 5,400 lots owned by the city.

Kevin Acklin, who chairs the URA board and serves as Mayor Bill Peduto's chief of staff, said the idea is to provide regular maintenance while pumping cash into depressed neighborhoods.

The work would provide jobs to unemployed residents, permit small companies to grow and provide them with training in how to better operate a business, Acklin said.

“You're investing that dollar in the neighborhood, and that dollar can spin out as leverage and have more of an impact on a neighborhood,” he said. “Folks who live in a neighborhood not only would take more pride and ownership in those lots, but also have more visibility as to where the common problems are.”

Lee Walls, executive director of Hill District-based Amani Christian Community Development Corp., which won a bid, said he intends to employ up to nine residents.

“We hope it will improve their economic position, so they can move onto something more career-oriented,” he said. “It's also for the Hill District community. We certainly want to enhance the image.”

The program includes an online tracking system that requires contractors to chart their work in real time, including before-and-after photographs, and upload the information to a URA website being developed for public access.

“Before, we used to use paper, and that would get routed to our team here. Then we had to go out and verify the work was done,” said Bethany Davidson, the URA's manager of land recycling. “We can do that now essentially from our desk.”

Officials estimate there are more than 20,000 vacant parcels citywide, spurring regular complaints over the years. About one-third are owned by the city and the URA. The rest were abandoned by owners and are in limbo, according to Pittsburgh Finance Director Paul Leger.

“They're what we call zombie properties,” he said. “Nobody wants them.”

Leger said the city will not take a property unless someone requests a purchase. It then goes to a public treasurer's sale and is offered to the highest bidder.

Sometimes sales fall through, and the city is stuck with the property, he noted.

The URA buys properties that have potential for future development, according to Acklin.

The Planning Department estimated in 2014 that Pittsburgh spends about $5.5 million annually on vacant land, including maintenance and legal and code enforcement. Planning Director Ray Gastil said the amount likely has gone up slightly since then. The department is working on an update, he said.

Both URA and city properties are available for sale to the public, but the URA has the legal ability to dictate what type of development occurs on a property and impose work deadlines. Acklin said buyers must have a development plan approved by the city and funding before a purchase can occur.

“We can't sell land for speculation,” he said. “The goal of the (URA) is to deliver development.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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