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Blight Plan: Is a proposed land bank the best way to deal with city's dilapidated properties? 

City Paper roundtable: City councilors discuss land-bank proposal

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Burgess: The four members of council who represent 70 percent of the land-bank-eligible land have all agreed that they want to retain council's oversight. Those who have almost no land-bankable land have pushed to have council removed because they, of course, represent the interest of those who want to steal the land from low- and moderate-income communities. In this case, they're becoming fronts for those interests. All of the things that I've said, they have not yet once given answers to. One: Who wrote the bill? They won't tell you. Two: Where's the funding [from?] They won't tell you. Three: Why remove council's oversight?

CP: As the [Burgess/Lavelle amendments are] written now, they would require unanimous approval by council [over individual parcels disposed by the land bank] — and given my understanding of how council operates now — [land-use decisions are not required to be unanimous but] often deferred to the council member whose district it is.

Burgess: What we simply did was codify council's tradition. In 99.9 percent of all land votes, they're all unanimous. If you don't do it that way, the council can decide, over the objections of that councilperson, how the land is disposed of. And notice this land bank will not have the power of eminent domain, so it's never going to touch Shadyside, really. It's never going to affect Squirrel Hill or Highland Park. It's going to affect Homewood, North Side, the Hill, Beltzhoover, Sheraden, those communities. And so it is unfortunate [...] we see this systematic disrespect, unconcern, for the rights of these communities. And then we have council willing to, for special-interest groups, shepherd a process that eliminates the rights of those people in order for the land to be seized.

O'Connor: To that point, we have met with a slew of community members, community residents, all across the city of Pittsburgh. We've shown them our summary points. Not one has objected to most of what we've been hearing.

Lavelle: I can tell you why that is, and the devil is in the details. Prior to the introduction of the actual legislation, if you had gone through those same communities and the same community groups and said, "Hey, we have an idea of how to maintain land and clear title quicker and get it back to functional use," everyone would say, "Great."

CP: [One concern, Councilor Gross,] is that you'd have [on the land-bank staff and board] unelected people with total authority over what happens to land.

Gross: Councilman Burgess will be able to lobby all of us to vote in support of every piece of parcel in his council district if he chooses. ... I want to be clear on that. We're talking about a very slow ramp-up in inventory.

Burgess: Let us suggest that there are two communities. ... There's the community that is primarily represented by Mr. O'Connor and Ms. Gross — and when they say community, that's their experience. And so they talk about things from their perspective. But unfortunately, [moderate- and low-income communities] are different. They react different. They don't have the capacity. They don't have the sophistication. They don't have the resources. And so I oftentimes am not only the last, sometimes I am the only protection that these communities have. And so because they have a sophisticated community, they are now going to create this sophisticated process that's working really well in their communities.

Gross: We have an opportunity to return control to the neighborhoods. Having the city squat on vast acreage in your neighborhood is not having neighborhood control of the land in your neighborhood. Being able to return these properties to productive use and by taking the politics out of it by taking the city out of it and trusting — it is partly trust, I will not quibble about that —

Burgess: We don't trust you, though.

Gross: Fair enough; you don't have to trust me. You can participate in the board governance, in the accountability, in the transparency and the public input. The land bank will be accountable not only to the public, but to the elected city council.

Lavelle: If something goes horribly wrong, we have an overly aggressive board that wants to take the most viable land in the Hill District, Manchester or wherever, rush the process through, give it to the highest bidder, give it to a speculator, provide no affordable housing in that community — there needs to be some final layer to be able to catch that. ... If you build this right on the front end, if it comes to me, I'll essentially be a rubber-stamp because it would have gone through the process to ensure that this did in fact line up with the master plan, did in fact line up with community support. ... So when it [comes] before me, I'm already abreast of it, I understand it [and] I'm a quick sign-off.

CP: One piece of this has to do with the disposition of land insofar as it accords with community plans. And I'm interested in especially [Councilor Burgess'] take on this as a measure of insuring that this isn't, as you put it, a "land-grab" or a top-down attempt to do with land whatever the land-bank board wants.

Burgess: Right now the community plans don't exist. It would make more sense for us to spend our time not doing this land bank at all, but let's then do these comprehensive community plans like we did in Larimer. Our energy should be really spent creating these community plans on the front end, and then later figure out how we can compose land distribution that matches with the community plans.

Gross: I do think the onus is on the city and city council to find a way to enable communities to plan better. Councilman Burgess is correct at shining the light on that as well — that it should be funded, we should help these communities. There's not always an organized capacity in every one of the 88 neighborhoods in the city of Pittsburgh in order to go through that kind of visioning process and be able to articulate and document for others to know what they want to see in their neighborhoods. It's a huge opportunity. [But] does it belong in the enabling legislation for the land bank? I think not.

CP: So what would happen then? Presumably there could be an interim period where ... there is a provision of the bill that is contingent on community plans, but there isn't actually a well-established community plan.

O'Connor: If there is [no plan], then the land-bank board and the neighborhood has to go off of priorities. That's about gathering the neighbors together — you're not going to have a plan in a week, obviously — but consulting with planning from the city, the URA and the council member and the community groups.

Gross: There are many different needs. Part of the challenge is: This is one Pittsburgh land bank — and how do you not hobble its capacity to operate in 88 neighborhoods?

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