Pittsburgh is a seller in a seller's market
By Joseph Sabino Mistick
Published: Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
In a sure sign of Pittsburgh's resurgence, Democrat mayoral nominee Bill Peduto has signaled a pivot in the city's development strategy. And while it has the usual crowd of public and private developers a little antsy, Pittsburgh is once again a seller in a seller's market. And that's a good thing.
Out of the gate, Peduto has dampened the Penguins' expectations for unflagging city financial support for the old Civic Arena site, telling them that if they had received a certain federal grant they should expect no more from the city. They lost the grant and all must regroup. But the message was clear that there will now be wider competition for city resources.
To that end, Peduto saved a $12 million capital fund commitment to leverage a federal grant for a Larimer residential project and pushed for tax-increment financing for a transit center in East Liberty. And when a Downtown developer balked at including less-profitable housing at the Saks site, Peduto got him to add it back in, to bolster that growing residential neighborhood.
There was a time when developers romanced cities, more than happy to sweeten the development pot for the good of the community. In Pittsburgh, during the Renaissance II years of the 1980s, pent-up development pressure brought a surge of development.
Cities called the shots then and renowned architects proposed public art, fountains, outdoor cafes and other user-oriented improvements to distinguish their plans, competing for public approval and support. The legendary American architect Philip Johnson even personally pleaded with the city Planning Commission to design his PPG plaza in the European manner and at variance from the city code.
Neighborhoods had distinct voices then, organizing development groups and tapping funds targeted just for them. Neighborhoods were assigned specific urban planners who often advocated for projects that had community support, even if at odds with the city administration.
As the national economy soured, government dollars dried up and Pittsburgh found itself competing with every other city for scarce private money. Developers wanted to know what a city was willing to do for them to entice them to build there and tax dollars were spent getting sites shovel-ready, practically giving them away. It was a habit hard to break.
But by the time the pendulum had swung back in the direction of cities, the leverage they once wielded had been forgotten. For a long time now, Pittsburgh, the place to be, has not had to accept whatever development was offered or dedicate all its resources to just a few. But not enough has been done to control its own fate.
If the incoming city administration starts calling the shots again and big developers like the Penguins have to do with a little less public money and come up with a little more of their own — and include the needs of the neighborhood in their plans — they will all survive.
And if small projects can compete for public funds or get tax breaks like the big guys always seem to do, the playing field will be leveled.
Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).
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