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History Repeating? 

Hill District community groups say arena construction without CBA will be 1950s all over again.

For nearly two hours, Eugene Taylor patiently waited his turn to speak at the Dec. 11 City Planning Commission public hearing, inching his way from the back of the cramped room to the podium at the front.

By the time he made it to the microphone, Taylor had watched Penguins officials boast of their new arena design’s picturesque views and state-of-the-art facilities, and listened to fellow Hill District residents and supporters plead with committee members to postpone voting on the arena’s master plan until after a community benefits agreement (CBA) is reached.

When it was finally the 60-year-old Hill District hotel manager’s turn, he moved the discussion from the present to the past.

“Some of you might think of me as a villain,” Taylor calmly began. “But I come as a messenger. The people in the Hill are angry.

“You might talk to the more learned,” he continued, addressing committee members. “I talk to the ones who go home to their children, and their children are constantly hearing negative things” about events that happened 50 years ago.

Taylor, who manages Hotel Terrace Hall on Centre Avenue, was refreshing memories, trying to convince committee members to correct past mistakes.

“That Lower Hill, all the businesses and homes were uprooted,” he said after the hearing. “There was no such thing as a CBA back then. People weren’t politically astute enough to pursue it.”

Now, however, they are. But some say their request for a CBA is being pushed aside as Penguins officials and public officials focus on breaking ground on the new arena.

More than 50 people attended the hearing, many of whom hoisted signs reading, “No CBA, No Master Plan.” But those gathered at the hearing represented just a fraction of a massive neighborhood movement led by One Hill, a grassroots conglomerate of nearly 100 community groups, which is demanding a legally binding agreement between the Penguins, the neighborhood, the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County to help revitalize the Hill District.

Since the new $290 million arena is supposed to be built primarily with public subsidies, the coalition is asking for a community grocery store, a multi-purpose center and a community-improvement fund, among some other requests outlined in its “Blue Print for a Livable Hill.”

“We’re not asking for a handout,” Taylor said, wearing a One Hill sticker on his chest. “Just a fair share.”

 

Unfortunately for One Hill supporters, getting their fair share is taking longer than expected.

According to One Hill Chairman Carl Redwood, “Mayor Ravenstahl and/or County Executive [Dan] Onorato is stalling the [CBA] process.

“Somebody is holding it up,” he added. “It’s on the public officials to make sure [a CBA] happens.”

Ravenstahl disagrees.

“I support the master plan, and I support the CBA,” Ravenstahl said during a visit to the Hill District’s Hill House for a Neighborhood Forum on Dec. 12, just one night after the planning-commission hearing. “I think we can very realistically finish this up before the [planning-commission] vote.”

But when the mayor announced to more than 50 residents that “I do not support cash payments to any Hill organizations,” some audience members snapped back.

“We’re not drug dealers,” retorted Marimba Milliones, board chairwoman of the Hill Community Development Corporation. “We’re not asking for cash to pay for illegalities. We’re asking for financial support to pay for the goods and services that our community needs.”

“You got it,” Ravenstahl responded. “Let’s do it.”

The mayor and Penguins officials have publicly announced their support for a neighborhood grocery store, a community center and a few other requests, but Redwood said they have argued against allocating funds to community groups in the Hill from the get-go.

“The only thing that they said a definite ‘no’ to is the community fund,” Redwood said.

Milliones said there are many organizations in the neighborhood that should receive arena funding, including the Hill District Consensus Group and the Hill House Association.

“The Hill should not be shortchanged,” Milliones said. A grocery store and a community center “is not enough. We cannot be bought off for that, while the Pens are getting a new arena.”

“The CBA is not about creating development funds for particular organizations,” said Ravenstahl’s press secretary Alicia Sirk. “The CBA is funded based on development.”

As for allocating money to neighborhood organizations, Sirk said, “The whole city routinely funds community organizations.” The Urban Redevelopment Authority, she added, “has invested a lot of dollars in the Hill.”

“[Funds to the community] should be facilitated through the government,” Ravenstahl said.

Efforts to focus the neighborhood meeting on topics unrelated to the CBA failed, forcing Ravenstahl to field a litany of questions from residents asking for specifics about the CBA and its chances of becoming official before the planning-commission vote.

“We’re going to be ready to sign it on our side,” the mayor said. But, he added, “I’m not saying it’s a requirement for [planning-commission] approval.”

The mayor did, however, say that there are “many disagreements” between sides. He did not specify what they were. He also said he “can’t guarantee” that a CBA will be reached at all.

By meeting’s end, it was clear that the mayor’s comments did more to confuse than appease.

“He is virtually saying he’s not supporting a CBA,” Milliones said. “You can’t not support funding to the community and still support the CBA. It’s a contradiction.

“A CBA is a request for financial support.”

 

As echoed by more than a dozen speakers throughout the planning-commission hearing, Hill residents aren’t just looking for a CBA. They’re looking for it now – before the planning commission approves the arena master plan.

Much to their dismay, the city planning committee has yet to guarantee delaying the vote, and Penguins officials have yet to sign off on a CBA. Because of time constraints at the Dec. 11 hearing, the board will hear the rest of the public comments Jan. 14, a date which could also serve as the final vote on the master plan.

But Redwood says a vote on Jan. 14 would show disrespect to the community.

“We’re going to argue that they’re not taking our comments into consideration,” he said. “The other side is pressuring them to vote because they can’t start construction” without master-plan approval.

According to Sirk, “It’s up to the discretion of the planning commission” to vote immediately after the hearing wraps up Jan. 14. “They could vote, but they could choose not to,” she said.

“The planning commission has the ability to act independently” of a CBA, Ravenstahl added.

Of the six criteria with which the planning commission can base its approval or rejection of the master plan, none specifically mentions a CBA. Instead, committee members will consider the arena’s design and function, its social and economic impact on the city and surrounding neighborhoods, and traffic issues, according to the Dec. 11 Planning Commission Report.

“The CBA does not fall under the criteria of what planning-commission members can use to make their approval,” Sirk said.

According to Penguins representative Don Carter, of Urban Design Associates, the CBA negotiation process, which began in June, has been the “most extensive public participation process that I’m aware of for a master plan.

“We had a lot of input,” he said, and the discussions were “passionate.”

But Hill District representatives argued at the hearing that discussions between the Penguins, public officials and the community were insufficient.

“We needed some more dialogue between the community and the folks designing it, and there wasn’t,” said One Hill representative George Moses, who has been involved in negotiations. “We must ask to delay the [planning-commission] vote until our questions are answered to the community’s satisfaction.”

Redwood, who claims the new arena’s design “turns its back to the Hill,” said that “without a [CBA], there is no guarantee that the Hill District community will be better off.”

Like many Hill District residents, Redwood is worried that arena construction could commence as talks of a CBA continue to drag on.

“It’s past time for talks,” Redwood said. “It’s time for action.”

click to enlarge Eugene Taylor says a community benefits agreement (CBA) would revitalize the Hill District, and right some wrongs of the past. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Eugene Taylor says a community benefits agreement (CBA) would revitalize the Hill District, and right some wrongs of the past.

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