Since January, Pittsburgh City Councilors and community members have debated the merits of a "land bank" bill introduced by city Councilor Deb Gross. The bill would create a quasi-governmental agency responsible for acquiring blighted, vacant or tax-delinquent land around the city; the land bank would then work with developers, community-development groups and others to revitalize the properties.
Almost everyone agrees the city isn't effectively dealing with dilapidated property now, but Gross' legislation has generated criticism from some community groups and city councilors Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess, who represent neighborhoods with a disproportionate share of blighted and vacant properties. Among the sticking points are whether city council should have direct oversight of how properties are disposed, and whether there are sufficient protections to prevent developers from swooping in with agendas that neighborhoods don't like.
Earlier this month, Burgess and Lavelle proposed a set of amendments that, among other things, would give city council direct authority over what the land bank does with individual pieces of land. Councilors Gross and Corey O'Connor, meanwhile, have proposed amendments they say would strengthen the community-input process by adding members of blighted communities to the land-bank board and creating a mechanism that allows neighbors to force public hearings on the disposition of nearby land. But they would maintain the land bank's independence from council politics.
City Paper invited Gross, O'Connor, Lavelle and Burgess to sit down on March 21 to discuss the issues presented by their amendments. (Lavelle attended via conference call.) This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
City Paper: Councilwoman Gross, you've introduced legislation that would dramatically change the way land is acquired and disposed of around the city — and since you introduced the bill in January, there's been a ton of feedback [including two packed council hearings]. I'm curious what you think you've learned in the last two months —and whether any of what you've heard has changed your perspective.
Gross: I've said it before, I've said it in the public hearings, but it bears repeating that it is tremendous and impressive how well Pittsburghers take care of themselves and how much they care about their neighborhoods. But it also speaks to, I think, the pent-up need around this issue for solutions — that there have been pent-up frustrations that have built up over decades of bureaucratic tangle. This is legislation that could really improve the way we've been doing things, so it's important to get it right and to empower the neighborhoods. They've been disempowered for far too long. As Councilman Burgess points out, the city is the biggest slumlord in the city of Pittsburgh. It's time that we change that.
CP: And Councilman Burgess, a couple years ago you introduced land-banking legislation yourself, so I'm curious what you think is problematic about the current way that blighted and vacant land is dealt with in the city.
Burgess: Well, it's a lack of investment. ... It would cost about $20 million to maintain all the vacant land in the city of Pittsburgh. This city has intentionally neglected certain communities. And so the hope of any land-bank legislation would be the potential to maintain the land. But, since I've not seen any money or heard any money to maintain the land, then there's really very little benefit for low- and moderate-income communities for land-banking without significant investment in maintenance. The land bank, without significant money for maintenance, will simply cherry-pick the best land and exclude low- and moderate-income communities from their historical homes.
CP: [Councilors] Gross or O'Connor, I'm interested in your response to the funding piece of this. I know that many have brought up about how the land bank would be funded initially, and how the city would control costs on the thousands of blighted and vacant properties that it controls.
Gross: Maintenance is a very important issue, and that's where I think Burgess is rightly shining the light. We have these thousands of parcels [and] they are a tremendous problem for the communities, especially the ones he represents, and he's the best spokesperson to that issue. The way this has to work by state law, and by our charter, in the city — there's no wholesale transfer. The land bank would not be born tomorrow with ownership of thousands and thousands of parcels in Councilman Burgess' district or anywhere else. So the properties that are a problem that the city is not maintaining would have to go through Councilman Burgess and city council in order for the land bank to take title to them.
O'Connor: And I think to the funding part [...] I don't see the land bank getting parcel one for about a year-and-a-half. And I don't want to speak on foundations, but Councilwoman Gross, who wrote the bill, can maybe talk a little bit about [that]. They're very interested in funding something like this.
CP: One of the biggest differences between the amendments that O'Connor and Gross have suggested and the amendments that Burgess and [Lavelle] have suggested is who controls the disposition of land. I wanted to give Gross or O'Connor a chance to address that. You've both talked about the importance of the independence of the land bank, and I'm interested in your argument for keeping council out of it.
Gross: What we do now is that every parcel comes before city council and we vote on it. And we see what the result is: It's a decades-long backlog in processing. What the neighborhood groups, what the community that came down to city council wants, is to be able to more easily see their neighborhoods become what they want them to be. To have more control in the neighborhoods and not in city council. There's no point of introducing this legislation if we're just going to maintain the status quo.
Lavelle: The fact of the matter is it only takes council two weeks to dispose of land. The problem is we have never funded our real-estate department. We have never given them the amount of lawyers necessary to deal with title. We don't necessarily need a land bank. Council is ... the final and last layer of public protection because we are elected by a public body who represents [community] interests.
Gross: It's absolutely true [that] we can do a lot better internally. But we don't require our real-estate department to have anywhere near the level of transparency, public input, accountability or governance that the land bank would have.
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?