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Mutually Beneficial

On July 24, activists fighting for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) on the North Side learned a painful lesson: The mayor wasn't on their side. 

That day, 100 union members protesting Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's stance on subsidized development were locked out of the mayor's office in the City-County Building. 

Since then, CBA efforts have been quiet -- but far from dead. And as often happens in city government, when the mayor won't listen, members of Pittsburgh City Council will.

"At least we have more of a shot with council," says Northside United member Barney Oursler. "They've given us a sympathetic ear."

For roughly two years, activists from Northside United have sought a CBA for the North Side, similar to one instituted for the new hockey arena in the Hill District. CBAs require developers to pledge well-paying jobs and other benefits to communities if they want government aid. But Continental Real Estate, which is preparing to build a hotel and amphitheater on the North Shore with taxpayer money, refuses to negotiate a CBA. 

Currently, members of Northside United are in the process of working with city councilors to craft city-wide legislation that would reform the way economic development occurs not just on the North Side, but across Pittsburgh. 

"We spend a lot of tax dollars on [development] that doesn't directly benefit neighborhoods," says Michael Glass, co-chair of Northside United. "There's got to be a better way."

At this stage, Northside United has already started discussing proposals with council members, including council president Doug Shields. Details are being worked out as they continue to negotiate with each council member, but activists are identifying three main areas of reform: open and inclusive government, job standards, and environmental issues.

Before providing taxpayer money to support development, activists want developers to provide information about the social, economic and environmental impacts of proposed projects. They also want to expand city council's powers, giving it responsibility for approving all large-scale, taxpayer-supported development projects.

Northside United is also seeking "prevailing wage" standards, that would set minimum wages and benefits based on averages for certain types of jobs. Under environmental standards, activists want development projects to include provisions for diesel-emission reductions, storm-water control, and requirements for parks and green space. 

According to Oursler, Northside United is hoping to meet with each council member by early October to hash out the details. So far, though, Oursler says, "We've gotten a really positive response."

Which comes as little surprise. "The current council has witnessed outrageous behavior by these developers and [city] boards and authorities," says Oursler.

During a Sept. 22 Northside United meeting, roughly a dozen activists discussed their development-reform proposals and reminded one another to keep whispering into the ears of city councilors, as well as their constituents. 

"We have to approach these politicians with a velvet hammer," said Glass. "We have to hit these politicians again, again and again."

While passage would take five votes, activists are looking for six. "We have to override the mayor's veto," Oursler said.

Shields, for one, says he's in favor of reforming the city's policies on subsidized development. He says he is particularly concerned with the way developers routinely undercut wages. When the city subsidizes development, "We have the right to say, 'Look, you have to maintain a certain level of wages,'" he says. "It doesn't pay to keep poor people poor."

Generally speaking, lame-duck City Councilor Tonya Payne -- who represents portions of the North Side -- says she would be supportive of the legislation, "but I don't have anything to go by."

She has yet to hear from Northside United, but she doesn't expect to. 

"Northside United didn't support me, so I really don't see them coming to me," says Payne. "But I could be wrong."

Perhaps she is.

According to Glass, two of the most crucial votes on any proposed legislation will be cast by Payne and Darlene Harris, who also represents the North Side. That's because the North Side is a section of the city most impacted by economic development these days.  

If those two support the legislation, Glass contends, other members could follow suit, knowing that the councilors whose districts are most affected by economic development favor the measure. But if they vote against it, that could hurt the bill's chances.

"The focus of the fight right now is on the North Side," Glass said at the meeting. "It's really important to win at least one" of the North Side council members' votes.

According to Shields, it'll be a while before anyone can forecast how council will vote.

"It's too early for a head count," he says, adding that he hopes to formally introduce legislation to council by the end of this year. "There's still a lot of work to be done."

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