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Mayoral candidate Peduto wants to spread growth around Pittsburgh

Jeremy Boren
| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 12:24 a.m.
An image of Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Bill Peduto walking with men who appear to be city police officers in his latest TV ad is “deceitful,” the Pittsburgh police union said on Friday, April 26, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
An image of Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Bill Peduto walking with men who appear to be city police officers in his latest TV ad is “deceitful,” the Pittsburgh police union said on Friday, April 26, 2013.

Bill Peduto leaned in to share a point of pride about a spray park dedicated on Friday at a Shadyside playground in his City Council district.

“The great thing is we had to lose only one tree to build it,” Peduto told a group of city workers and neighbors, who nodded approvingly.

Peduto, 48, of Point Breeze said he's prepared to widen his gaze to take on the forest of development projects expected to confront Pittsburgh's next mayor in 2014 if he defeats long-shot GOP candidate Josh Wander, 42, of Squirrel Hill.

Pittsburgh's strong-mayor form of government gives the city's executive considerable influence over the fortunes of developers seeking public subsidies and zoning approvals from agencies run largely by mayoral appointees.

“If the mayor hasn't chosen a project as a priority, it's going to be much more difficult for the developer to make it happen,” said George Jacoby, a Squirrel Hill attorney who was executive secretary to former Mayors Richard Caliguiri and Sophie Masloff.

Looking ahead

Peduto won the four-way Democratic primary on Tuesday. He wasted little time delving into development issues.

He said he met on Thursday with Gov. Tom Corbett's chief of staff to foster communication, and he plans to travel to Harrisburg next month to meet with Corbett, a Shaler Republican, and state legislators.

Peduto plans to discuss $60.85 million in state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program requests the city submitted last month for 16 projects.

They serve as a sampling of major developments the new mayor will face next year, including:

• The 28-acre Hill District site the Penguins hope to develop with offices, housing and retail;

• The 178-acre Almono site in Hazelwood that could become 2 million square feet of office and research space between Oakland and Downtown;

• The former Saks Fifth Avenue site where McKnight Realty and Millcraft Industries plan retail space and a 550-space garage.

Millcraft is set to start work on a separate $95 million office and hotel tower, the Gardens at Market Square.

Peduto said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration too often uses scarce grant dollars to subsidize Downtown developers instead of putting money into struggling business districts and declining residential areas in neighborhoods such as Beechview, Hazelwood, Allentown, Sheraden, Manchester and Homewood.

“If we just look at the big projects like the arena district, Bakery Square and Almono and say those are the city's only priorities, we will never see the redevelopment of the city's neighborhood business districts or the residential housing of our neighborhoods,” Peduto said.

He said the city must use micro-loans and grants to entice developers and entrepreneurs to move into neighborhoods and build unique housing, noting that would help build the city's tax base.

Laissez-faire approach

Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh Executive Director Robert Rubinstein countered that dwindling federal and state development subsidies, withered by budget cuts, sapped some of the authority's ability to invest in business and residential districts outside Downtown.

“I wouldn't say, though, that we've ignored the neighborhoods,” Rubinstein said.

Rubinstein said the URA invests roughly $15 million a year, spread over 200 loans in neighborhoods to homeowners and builders. The authority invested more than $10 million last year in 65 neighborhood business district projects, including facade improvements and street beautification.

“Where we have been decimated are the state and federal programs that allow us to do the smaller, what I call bread-and-butter stuff, that the URA does,” he said.

Wander said he favors a laissez-faire approach to private development. He said the free market, not government subsidies, should dictate winners and losers. He believes the city should focus resources on basic services such as public safety, road maintenance, firefighting and others.

“All the messy bureaucracy that's involved right now, we need to get rid of,” Wander said.

During his primary campaign, Peduto's critics said he too often emphasized residents' gripes about big development projects.

One TV commercial, paid for by a committee chaired by Ravenstahl, lambasted him for voting against a senior housing apartment complex in Homewood. Peduto said he did so because residents told him the project received approvals with little public input.

Weighing decisions

Gregg Perelman, a partner in Shadyside-based Walnut Capital, said a mayor should weigh a project's scope, including jobs and tax revenue, against any neighborhood resistance and make decisions based on the overall impact.

Communication between the mayor's office and developers is vital. Perelman said he hopes the next administration retains the URA staff.

“We want to continue the momentum, so we need to be business-friendly. We need to be development-friendly,” Perelman said.

Peduto said he would make changes at the URA and would place greater emphasis on community input, not less. He favors “triple bottom-line economics,” which means evaluating development projects based on profitability, how a project benefits people and whether it minimally impacts the environment.

“My job is not to be the business agent for the developer,” Peduto said.

He intends to evaluate URA administrators during the final six months of Ravenstahl's lame-duck term.

“Show me how you are serving the people of Pittsburgh, not the developer with the strongest political connections,” Peduto said.

Rick Swartz, executive director of Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., whose organization plans a second phase of improvements along Penn Avenue, said the city delayed infrastructure needs for years because of financial problems.

He hopes the mayor will step up advocacy for grant support from Washington and Harrisburg and Pittsburgh corporations and foundations.

It's important to collaborate with such groups as the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, he said.

“It's not on the mayor solely to help drive this train,” Swartz said. “It's also how well the mayor can harness the efforts of these other entities.”

Jeremy Boren is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7935 or Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed to this report.

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