For the last three years, Bruce Kraus has called on Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to help address long-standing quality-of-life issues plaguing bar-saturated entertainment districts like the South Side.
Today, the mayor granted the city councilor's wish.
During a press conference this morning, Ravenstahl joined Kraus to announce a city partnership with Responsible Hospitality Institute, a nonprofit consultant group known for helping cities manage safe and vibrant hospitality districts.
RHI, working under a $100,000 contract with the city, will be tasked with conducting a nine-month study to examine the impact of Pittsburgh's nightlife in three neighborhoods: South Side, Downtown and Lawrenceville. Once the study is finished, the consultant group will craft the Pittsburgh Sociable City Plan, a blueprint detailing how the city can improve its nighttime economy.
"This assessment is a proactive effort to ensure that Pittsburgh's nighttime economy is operating effectively and efficiently," Ravenstahl announced. "We continue to be named America's most-livable city year after year, and if we want to continue to do that, it's going to take proactive approaches like the one we're taking today."
The concept of creating a comprehensive plan to help manage Pittsburgh's nightlife -- especially the South Side's legendary rowdiness -- was first introduced by Kraus back in 2008 after he attended a Responsible Hospitality conference. In 2009, Kraus hired an intern, Georgetown student Bryan Woll, to examine the South Side's challenges. Woll's 85-page report offered a variety of suggestions, including creating a team of community stakeholders, launching a dedicated police unit on weekend evenings, and developing a coordinated transportation plan to help ease parking headaches and cut down on drunk driving.
For three years, Kraus pushed for a similar plan here. But Kraus belongs to a council faction that has often been at odds with Ravenstahl, and the two have traded barbs over the issue. In 2010, after a weekend shooting on the South Side, Kraus accused the mayor of ignoring the problems caused by East Carson Street's booze-filled nightlife; mayoral spokesperson Joanna Doven retorted that "The personal attacks are counterproductive."
Skeptics may suspect that Ravenstahl's shift in favor of the program is prompted by his looming reelection bid next year. But whatever the political calculus Kraus sounded excited about what the partnership could mean for the city. "We've worked very hard to get here," he said. "We stand here united today with a common goal and a common purpose."
"This is really about being proactive," Kraus added. "It really is about ... managing on the front end and not draining public-safety resources on the back end."
The city kicked off demolition season yesterday, targeting an area of Homewood known as "the killing fields" and signaling what city officials called a "long-anticipated step forward" for the neighborhood.
"We made a promise to the community that these houses would come down and today we're here to make good on that promise," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said at a press conference while standing in front of an area of dilapidated row houses with boarded up windows. "The killing fields are coming down."
Ravenstahl said the houses were condemned in 2008 and that the city "aggressively" tracked down the property owners to fix the properties. But many owners were either out of state or out of the country; they were, Ravenstahl said, "difficult to deal with and didn't want to address the issue. We had to go after them in court." In late 2011, the city said it received court authorization to demolish the properties.
Crews began demolishing the vacant houses on 610-618 Collier Street, followed by 613-619 Collier and a nearby section of Formosa Way later this spring, as asbestos is abated in the structures. Inside one of the houses, the floor boards were torn up, wooden wall panels were exposed and trash and debris were strewn about. A wooden board over the doorway was stamped with "No Trespassing By Order of Pgh Police."
The city will use "green-up strategies" for the vacant parcels, Ravenstahl said, such as community gardens and playgrounds with the ultimate goal of redevelopment. The mayor did not immediately have the cost of the demolition project but said that the city has spent $20 million to demolish more than 3,700 properties since he took office. The demolition budget for 2012 is around $3.5 million.
Both the mayor and councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents Homewood, touted their working relationship as the reason the neighborhood was selected to start demolition season.
"The mayor has made a genuine commitment to the East End, including Homewood," Burgess said. Tearing down the structures -- many of which whose bricks were crumbling and surrounded by debris -- will "start the process of rebuilding our community" as well as restoring confidence in the neighborhood, Burgess said.
The councilman said the neighborhood has been working in a consensus group for development projects and that "this is our opportunity to take advantage of a mayor, of an administration, whose concerned about us."
For 90-year-old Homewood resident Sarah Campbell, the demolition was a long-time coming. Since 1991, neighborhood groups have been trying to get blighted neighborhood properties taken down since Mayor Tom Murphy's administration.
""These are notorious buildings," said Campbell, a member of the Homewood Brushton Community Coalition. "Our police department had almost had a presence here every day."
The stage was set for a showdown between longtime political rivals -- friends turned foes.
Inside the gymnasium at Homewood's Faison Elementary School on March 29, roughly 50 residents of the state's 24th legislative district filled rows of seats in anticipation of a "Meet the Candidates" forum hosted by Homewood community group Operation Better Block.
If they expected a heated debate between incumbent state Rep. Joseph Preston and Ed Gainey, a former Preston aide, they were disappointed. What they got was an awkward political faceoff between Gainey and a guy who didn't even make the ballot.
Preston was a no-show, leaving Gainey to answer questions at the forum alongside William Anderson, another former Preston aide who was tossed from the ballot on March 20.
Preston may have dodged a bullet: The crowd was filled with avid Gainey supporters. On the other hand, all signs point to this election being as tight as it was in 2006 -- when Preston barely bested Gainey in a three-candidate race. And Gainey seized on the chance to deliver an uncontested stump speech less than a month before the April 24 primary.
"We need a state rep who is accessible to the community," Gainey charged during his opening remarks.
By the end of the nearly two-hour long forum, Anderson had left for another engagement and Gainey sat alone onstage, delivering an impassioned speech to a revved-up audience about the need for new leadership.
"If you haven't done [the job] in 30," Gainey, a former aide to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and chair of the Pittsburgh City Democratic Committee, told the cheering crowd, "you won't do it in the next two!"
With that, the audience erupted into applause and many in the crowd rose to their feet. Behind me, one Gainey fan yelled out, "I'm with you all the way, brother!"
How many other voters will feel the same way? Despite the passion on display March 29, and an endorsement from the city's leading daily, experts say Gainey has a tough slog ahead.