City and conservancy clash over parks plans | Pittsburgh City Paper

City and conservancy clash over parks plans

click to enlarge City and conservancy clash over parks plans
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham

Wearing a wool cap and zipped-up coat, Jerome Jackson nurses a cup of coffee to ward off the cold as he shows off Baxter Park in Homewood. The trees are bare, the windows of a nearby building are broken out and boarded up, and a faded mural on a concrete wall displays scenes of Africa.

The playground, renovated two years ago by the city with slides, swings and a climbing wall, is devoid of children on a glum fall day with a thick cover of pasty white clouds blotting out the sun. But Jackson, executive director of Operation Better Block, sees what the city could have done.

“We’re not saying the equipment they put up isn’t nice,” he said. “There’s not enough here.”

Baxter is ground zero for a dispute between the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and Mayor Ed Gainey. In its nearly $2.9 million request, the conservancy ranked Baxter as its number one priority for this round of money from the Pittsburgh Parks Tax. In denying this request, critics argue, the mayor rewards less needy neighborhoods like Oakland’s Schenley Park and leaves needy neighborhoods like Homewood out in the cold.

The decision on how to spend the funds generated by this new and contentious revenue stream has been no walk in the park.

The mayor excluded Baxter and every other project recommended by the Conservancy from his proposed 2023 budget and instead listed projects in other parks, many of which rank low on the equity scoresheet, a system approved by both parties for fairly divvying up parks money.

“As a valued partner to the City for nearly 26 years, we were disappointed to learn that the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy did not receive an allocation from the dedicated Parks Tax as part of the Mayor’s 2023 budget allocation, particularly because we were invited to submit a proposal for such an allocation,” wrote Catherine Qureshi, president and CEO of the Conservancy, in an email.

She added, “The Parks Conservancy believes in the equitable investment of funds into parks that have not seen investment in decades, which is precisely what we presented in our proposal to the City.”

But Maria Montano, press secretary for the mayor, says the city first needs to invest in the department’s equipment and resources.

“We need to have the tools and personnel to do the work of caring for and maintaining our parks. This helps set us up for the long-term care of these prized city assets.”

Pittsburgh’s parks date back to the late 19th century when Public Works director Edward Bigelow convinced wealthy widow Mary Schenley to donate the land that became Schenley Park. Now, the city’s Departments of Public Works and Parks and Recreation, known together as CitiParks, oversee 3,800 acres in 163 parks.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy was created in 1996 to help restore deteriorating city parks. In 2019, a joint city and conservancy study disclosed a $400 million backlog in fixing the infrastructure of parks and an annual shortfall of $13 million in maintaining them.

Later that year, city residents narrowly approved a referendum dedicating a 0.5 mill parks tax, or $50 on every $100,000 of assessed valuation, to fix and maintain the parks, invest in sites, and provide programming. Among the other purposes of the referendum is to “equitably fund parks in underserved neighborhoods” and “secure matching funds and services from a charitable city parks conservancy.”

click to enlarge City and conservancy clash over parks plans
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham

On Jan. 7, 2022, the city and the conservancy signed a 10-year partnership outlining the responsibilities of each party. One of the Conservancy’s duties is to submit a list of projects to be funded by the parks tax by May 15 of every year.

Both sides agreed to use a system that equitably divides the money. The scoresheet considers such factors as poverty, the proportion of youths and senior citizens, the health of residents in the neighborhood, and the condition of the park. The tax is expected to raise an extra $10 million a year for the parks.

This year, the conservancy’s $2.875 million request calls for:

  • $2 million for shovel-ready projects in Allegheny Commons on the North Side and McKinley Park in Beltzhoover
  • $350,000 for planning and design of five projects in Baxter, Spring Hill, McKinley, Kennard and Heth Run parks
  • $225,000 for programming in Frankie Place Park in the Lower Hill District
  • $150,000 for staffing in climate resiliency, horticulture and forestry; and
  • $150,000 for developing green jobs for youths.
The mayor released his proposed 2023 budgets of $658.4 million for operations and $164.1 million for capital improvements on Nov. 14. The operating budget covers daily expenses such as salaries and the capital budget, long-term expenses such as buildings, vehicles, and equipment. City Council must approve the budgets by the end of the year.

The operating budget for the parks tax proposed spending $2.6 million and the capital budget, $13.4 million. The latter rebuilt parks, replaced equipment, and bought 28 vehicles. Montano said the mayor supplemented the parks tax budgets with unused money from other years.

The mayor did earmark $1 million for two projects in McKinley Park, the second highest ranking park on the equity scoresheet, and $664,000 for Kennard Park in the Hill District, the fourth highest.

However, two big-ticket items were $2.5 million for two projects in Brookline’s Moore Park, which the metric ranked 83rd among 142 sites, and $1.3 million for equipment at the Schenley Park ice rink (Schenley ranks 95th).

The city proposal left the conservancy and community leaders scratching their heads.
In letters dated Oct. 19 to the mayor, Martha W. Isler, president of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition’s board, supported the conservancy’s request for funds and criticized Gainey’s proposal for using the parks tax money.

When looking at the millions of dollars in 2023 earmarked for Public Works trucks and equipment, she wrote, “it appears that the fear of opponents of the tax is being realized: that the City would simply substitute tax monies meant for parks and pave roads or buy equipment.”

The coalition further lambasted the city’s poor maintenance of Wightman Park. The lack of cleanup at its bathrooms this year forced the Coalition to hire a contractor to do the job.

“That’s been glitchy for everyone,” said Maria Cohen, executive director of the coalition.

The Northside Leadership Conference also supported an allocation to the conservancy and questioned the city’s proposed budget.

“It’s most likely not what the voters had in mind when they approved that referendum for the parks tax money,” said Dana Fruzynski, interim executive director of the conference.

She speculated that the Gainey administration was shocked by the state of Public Works vehicles when it took office and saw the parks tax as a fix.

“I appreciate what they’re trying to do to build the infrastructure of Public Works, but at the same time, there’s so many needed projects in the parks themselves,” she said. She suggested a balanced approach between vehicles and infrastructure and projects in the parks.

Montano said the administration put Schenley in the budget to take advantage of a $2 million grant from the Allegheny Regional Asset District. “It’s really critical for us to do that project to keep the city’s ice rink open,” she said.

Defending the various low-ranked projects, Montano called the equity scoresheet the Conservancy’s metric. “It’s not the sole metric we’re using to decide the capital projects,” she said. Conservancy officials countered that the scoresheet was devised by them and the administration of former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
The lack of money for Baxter grated Homewood leaders.

“This is not just on this mayor but every mayor who’s been in office and has said that they have this love for Homewood, and Homewood is a priority,” Jackson said. He also wondered what the absence of money for the Conservancy says about its relationship with the city.
click to enlarge City and conservancy clash over parks plans
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham

“If I was a partner with someone and there was no role or a limited role, then I would question, ‘Why are we still doing this?’” Jackson said.

Particularly jarring to the Conservancy was the proposed budget’s lack of money that could have been leveraged to obtain matching funds from foundations, corporations, and other sources. That’s essentially free money for taxpayers.

Qureshi noted that the conservancy has raised $130 million from outside sources to renovate the parks during its history. But Montano argued that securing matching funds was not a requirement of the parks tax.

Among its biggest supporters, the Richard King Mellon Foundation has given the conservancy about $3 million over five years; The Heinz Endowments $2.3 million over four years; and The Pittsburgh Foundation nearly $2.1 million over the past 10 years.

“The Foundation is a longtime supporter of the Parks Conservancy and its mission, but we do not opine on the allocation of city tax dollars,” said Mellon director Sam Reiman in an email. “We defer to the city’s elected leaders on those matters.”

Jackson complained that Homewood residents had no input into the last renovation of Baxter. As a result, they couldn’t ask for more benches and baby swings or different equipment. “Community engagement is truly at the forefront of our work,” said Alana Wenk, the Conservancy’s director of philanthropy and public engagement.

From his spot behind the counter of Dorsey’s Records Shop, Marcus Dorsey, 44, of Penn Hills glances through the storefront window for a commanding view of Baxter. As the store’s general manager, he has worked here for 30 years. He used to play at Baxter while his father minded the store.

Dorsey said the park used to attract a lot of children after it was first renovated, but that has dwindled. “Now one family and a couple stray kids even in the nicest weather,” he said.

Jackson said an expanded park could benefit businesses on Frankstown Avenue like Dorsey Records. Until then, he says Homewood residents see a pattern in city government.

“It doesn’t matter which mayor is in there,” he said, “people feel the affluent neighborhoods get what they need before others do.”