Onorato's Crossing | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Onorato's Crossing

County Executive Dan Onorato has promised to stop plowing tax dollars into suburban malls. But first he's considering one more trip to the old sprawl game.

As a rainy Friday morning drizzles toward noon, many of the 20 passengers on a county-owned minibus are griping about the weather, the nausea-inducing winding roads, or the air conditioning that alternately blows too hot or too cold. They're mostly municipal officials from Bridgeville, Collier, Oakdale and South Fayette -- the communities the bus is touring -- and they've seen all of these development sites before. The guest of honor, though, is still asking questions and bounding in and out of the bus like a kid on a field trip. "Isn't this a big county?" gushes Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. "Last week we were down in the Mon Valley. It's all built out, and all brownfields" -- a term for abandoned industrial sites. "Here they're trying to control growth!"

Those two trends are, of course, related. Many of the people and businesses in these southwestern suburbs fled the county's older areas, including Pittsburgh, struggling suburbs like Wilkinsburg, and the Mon Valley. That migration continues, traveling along roads built by the state and federal governments and filling development sites prepared by the county and its agents. It's a government-subsidized diffusion of the slowly shrinking local population. Some call it suburban sprawl.

Onorato and his development director, Dennis Davin, both saw sprawl's effects on cities as officials of struggling Pittsburgh in the 1990s. They've said they'll stop at least one of the practices that have fed sprawl: the subsidization of shopping centers. But first they're considering a proposal for a tax-backed mall in Collier Township, and arguing that their own new development rules don't yet apply.

* * *

It's a quiet afternoon in the town of Presto, but the stillness won't last. The members of the "screamo/alternative" trio The Forgotten Tomorrow are hauling their instruments into drummer Bryan Schwiederowski's basement, preparing to practice. They've been gigging around since the beginning of the year, and if the band catches fire, says Schwiederowski, he may cancel his plan to move to California after he graduates from nearby Chartiers Valley High School in June.

Minutes later, The Forgotten Tomorrow is audible from the street, even over the distant roar of traffic from Interstate 79 and the baying of hounds. The band is not, however, the primary threat to the peace of this Collier hamlet. For that, look across nearby Thoms Run Road, to the sites of Trader Jack's flea market and a handful of industrial buildings. Developers want to turn those plots into a 136-acre complex called Collier Crossing, with 550,000 square feet of stores, plus 150,000 square feet of offices and two small hotels.

Opinions on the mall/office/hotel project vary widely in Presto -- and even within The Forgotten Tomorrow. "It would kinda suck, because of all the traffic on this two-lane road," says Schwiederowski, gesturing toward Thoms Run.

"I don't see it necessarily being a bad thing," counters Justin Francis, the guitarist, who hails from nearby Scott Township. "It would bring a lot of money into this area. A little traffic? Leave 10 minutes earlier."

A few houses down lives widow Suzanne Tavoletti. "I hope they do [build Collier Crossing]," she says. "It's closer for me to shop. I've got bad eyes and so I don't like to travel much."

But just down Thoms Run, Rich Williamson fears losing what he gained when he moved here from Pittsburgh's Sheraden section three years ago. "You can see deer coming down, turkey," says Williamson. "That's why I like it here -- the wildlife and that. If they keep doing what they're doing, you're killing off the wildlife."

Collier is a municipality of 13 square miles -- one quarter the area of Pittsburgh -- with a population of about 5,000. Between the wooded hills, it's a mix of coal-patch towns like Presto, countrified villages like Rennerdale, and posh paradises like the golf community of Nevillewood. While Pittsburgh struggles with the results of decades of population and business loss, Collier grapples with the reverse: Nearly every open patch of ground seems to be targeted for some development, be it a housing plan, a distribution center or a mall. That could be good for the tax base of a municipality that can't find $150,000 to fix avalanche-blocked Fort Pitt Road. But most of those developers, including Collier Crossing's backers, are seeking subsidies that could leave Collier far from flush, while dramatically changing the township's landscape and lifestyle.

The Collier Crossing site is flat, partially paved, and in an area expected to host more than 2,000 new homes in the next few years, says developer Jay Beste. He's the senior vice president of development for The Goldenberg Group, a Philadelphia-area developer that is teaming with Pittsburgh-based Praxis Resources to develop the mall. The site, Beste continues, is right by Interstate 79, which could carry untold numbers of shoppers from the southwestern suburbs. There's just one problem: To get there from I-79, you've got to take the Kirwan Heights exit, travel a short stretch of congested Route 50, and go about a mile up winding Thoms Run, through the middle of the Chartiers Valley Schools campus.

Beste's proposed solution is $25 million in road improvements, including new ramps from I-79 directly to the site. Goldenberg Group and Praxis "can't build $25 million worth of highways," says Beste. "No development can do that." That's where tax-increment financing comes in. Beste hopes to get a $25 million TIF subsidy approved by county council, Collier council, and the Chartiers Valley School Board by October, so the new ramps can be built at the same time the state rebuilds the rest of the Kirwan Heights interchange.

In tax-increment financing, or TIF, the county, municipality and school district band together to borrow money to help with a development. They then pay off the debt using most of the new taxes created by the development for the next 20 years. Municipalities sometimes agonize over TIFs, because they'll have to provide services like policing to the development while getting just a fraction of the tax money that would normally come into the general fund. Development advocates often argue that getting just a portion of the taxes due is better than getting no development at all.

Collier Crossing would boost the real-estate taxes coming from the properties to the county, township and school district 20-fold, to $2.5 million. But most of the new taxes would go to paying off the debt incurred to make the road improvements. Meanwhile the municipality, in particular, might face policing and maintenance costs as a result of the development. The big payoff would come after the debt was paid off -- in 20 years.

The owners of the involved properties would get their windfalls much sooner. The properties are currently worth $4.2 million, according to county assessors. The developers plan to pay five times that -- $22.5 million -- for them, according to their TIF application. The biggest winner would likely be "Trader" Jack Cargnoni, a contractor, flea-market operator, land speculator and former Collier council member who owns 55 of the 136 acres that would become Collier Crossing.

The county's most recently approved TIF was for Mount Nebo Pointe, a proposed shopping center on an until-recently forested hill in Ohio Township, near the Camp Horne Road exit of Interstate 279 North. With the backing of then-County Executive Jim Roddey, a Cleveland-based developer got a $6.8 million TIF subsidy to help with roads, sewers and "wetland and stream enhancements."

On his way to unseating Roddey in 2003, Onorato blasted the Mount Nebo Pointe deal as a misuse of TIF. Onorato pledged to shift development efforts away from woodsy, virgin "greenfields" and toward brownfields and the airport area. Since he took office in January, Onorato has taken some steps toward fulfilling that promise. He's signed the county on to tax breaks for new construction along a struggling retail corridor in Forest Hills and on all of industrial Neville Island. On Aug. 19, he joined Gov. Ed Rendell in announcing $72 million in state development aid, of which $41 million was slated for preparing development sites near the airport or on brownfields. "We are exploring the idea of using TIF for some of those projects, too, particularly around the airport corridor," says Davin.

"TIFs should be used where the market isn't working, like brownfield development," said Onorato, in a February interview with City Paper. "We should not be using TIFs for retail development like Camp Horne Road." That interview occurred three days after Praxis and The Goldenberg Group filed their TIF application for Collier Crossing.

As the bus passes Trader Jack's, Onorato seems to recognize the challenge of reconciling his campaign rhetoric with the Collier Crossing proposal. A Democrat who campaigned on a promise to jumpstart development, he no doubt knows that it will be just months before Republicans start asking why nothing's getting built. Obviously mindful that there's a reporter directly behind him, he notes that the proposed development isn't all retail, but is instead "mixed use," with stores, offices and a hotel. He's undecided on the TIF. "This one's kind of a gray area," he says. "This isn't exactly a greenfield, either. That's why I say this is kind of a gray area."

* * *

"Nia" is the Swahili word for "purpose," says Rev. Karen Battle of the Nia Community Lutheran Church in Wilkinsburg. Her church's purpose, she says, is "to transform lives and communities." That's a lot tougher, though, if the community she works in has been systematically undermined.

Wilkinsburg, Battle notes, was once a choice place to live. Its main drag was a vibrant shopping area. Then came suburban developments and malls. "Now all we have is nail shops and hair-supply places," she says. That and hundreds of abandoned homes, some of which now house rats and junkies. "The level of hopelessness and despair is very, very high in Wilkinsburg," she says.

Under state law, TIF can be used only in areas declared blighted. Blight is defined as anything unsafe, unsanitary or overcrowded; poorly planned, designed, arranged or laid out; overbuilt, unlit or under-ventilated; or plagued by "economically or socially undesirable land uses." Large parts of Wilkinsburg meet some of those criteria, but TIF has never been used there.

To see a supposedly TIF-worthy project, Battle traveled to Mount Nebo Pointe. What she saw enraged her. "Mount Nebo is the tearing up of a mountain," she says. "It's tragic....We continue to gobble up greenspace while ignoring distressed communities like Wilkinsburg." Battle is now co-chair of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network's Regional Equity Task Force, which is pushing for a development policy focused on struggling communities. "We need a fix-it-first policy," she says.

When the Mount Nebo Pointe TIF was under consideration, retailers from the nearby McKnight Road strip lobbied against it. They noted that there were already many vacancies in McKnight's malls, and worried that a subsidized competitor just a few miles away would undercut them further. Similarly, Collier Crossing would be within about two miles of the Raceway Plaza, Collier Town Square, Great Southern and Chartiers Valley strip malls. Between them, there are about 100 stores and restaurants, and 20 vacancies.

Great Southern Shopping Center isn't exactly bustling these days, says Amanda Fisher. She's run Holcomb's Knowplace, a source of educational materials for teachers and parents, out of the 1950s-era strip mall for nine years. PharMor and J.C. Penney anchored the mall, until the former went bankrupt and the latter moved to The Robinson Mall. "Since those two have closed, business has slipped a little, since we don't have the pass-by traffic," says Fisher. "If you'd look around the parking lot on a daily basis, you'd see that it's pretty much empty."

The Robinson Mall, which lured J.C. Penney away, was built with the help of a $30 million TIF approved in the lame-duck days of the last three county commissioners. Now, Great Southern's efforts to rebound from that loss may be jeopardized by another TIF. With Wal-Mart moving into nearby Raceway Plaza, and Kmart at nearby Chartiers Valley Shopping Center, some of Great Southern's retailers have pinned their hopes for survival on the rumor that discounter Target is considering a slot in their mall. (Neither Target nor Great Southern's leasing agent would comment on that.) But ominously, the plans for Collier Crossing include a 132,000-square-foot anchor store -- almost exactly the size of an average Target. Beste won't say whether he's aiming to lure Target to Collier Crossing.

"If you put a Target [at Collier Crossing], and we don't get a Target here, we're floundering," says Damon Spencer, owner of Stayin' Alive Dancewear, which moved to Great Southern two years ago.

Using TIF for malls is essentially "shuffling around retail in a sort of spatial dogfight," says Mark Muro, a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. Muro helped study Pittsburgh for a much-quoted 2001 report on sprawl by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The report found that from 1982 through 1997, the Pittsburgh region's population dropped by 8 percent, but the amount of developed land increased by 42 percent. It measured sprawl as the decrease in population density, and found that Pittsburgh was one of the 20 fastest sprawling regions in the nation. Using TIF to create more suburban shopping, he says, "is especially troubling in very slow-growing regions, where the [economic] pie is not getting bigger."

Under new TIF guidelines Davin put in place in May, the development department has hired California-based Economics Research Associates to study Collier Crossing's potential impact on neighboring businesses. The developer has to pay for the study.

Another section of the new guidelines won't be enforced on Collier Crossing, says Davin. It reads: "Tax Increment Financing for retail developments, which generally create large numbers of lower wage jobs compared to other sectors, will be avoided."

Collier Crossing's developers filed their application before the new guidelines were written, Davin notes. It wouldn't be fair, he says, to apply the new ban on retail TIFs when the developer had already spent time and money preparing the application. "We can't [apply the guidelines], otherwise we wouldn't even do this TIF," he says.

That logic doesn't satisfy county Councilor Dave Fawcett, an Oakmont Republican elected at-large who is a frequent critic of retail TIFs. "There's no reason in the world why the TIF guidelines created by [the] economic development [department] wouldn't apply to this situation," Fawcett says. "If it's deemed that the rules don't apply, it would be more of what we've seen in the past -- exception after exception for projects the administration likes," says Fawcett.

* * *

Collier Council is still wrestling with leftover issues from the township's newest shopping center, Route 50's Collier Town Square, which opened last year. "I'm sure the business in that mall isn't what you hoped for," says Councilor Roger Horgan to retailers and residents assembled for a special hearing on zoning rules. "I've been in there on a Friday night, and it's not filled."

Collier Town Square's developer, Praxis Resources, isn't conceding that business is bad. But Praxis' lawyer has come before council with a host of shop owners and a request: Lift a ban on neon signs in the shopping center's windows. Rotelli Restaurant representative Robert Andrews says the "premise" of his chain is that "we are a neighborhood restaurant, with signage." UPS Store owner Gregory Glass notes that he can see the advertising lights of the McKnight Road UPS Store from his North Hills home, but can't turn on his own when he comes to work in Collier.

"I don't think we want to be able to sit at the light at Route 50 and be able to see that there's pizza, and takeout, and faxes, and everything in every business in there," counters resident Madeline Fotovich, who says she helped write the ordinance banning neon signs in that area. "We were not going to turn it into McKnight Road."

They may have little choice. Collier is besieged by developers seeking TIFs or other tax breaks. "Everyone is trying to convince us that Collier is blighted," says Collier Council President Darlene Restich. "Because there's a flea market there with 500 vendors each weekend, is that a brownfield? Is that blighted?" Under Pennsylvania's definition of blight, she says, "You could call the beaches of Hawaii blighted, because they're too sandy."

Onorato knows the issue. He was a Pittsburgh City Council member in the 1990s, when Mayor Tom Murphy went on a TIF spree that eventually helped to develop everything from old mill sites to prime North Shore real estate, but failed to stem the flight of people and businesses. Davin, meanwhile, grappled with sprawl's effects in 17 years at the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, culminating in a stint as its housing director. "You look at the Brookings report, and I agree with that," Davin says. Still, the county can't restrict itself to brownfield development, he says. "You can't force people to go where they don't want to go....I just think we need to provide choices for people if we're going to grow."

The choices visible from the county bus are stark. It rolls through McDonald Borough, a former oil town that straddles the border between Allegheny and Washington counties. Its downtown is falling apart. Its budget of $500,000 doesn't come close to covering its needs, and it is near the limit of its taxing powers. Clusters of new homes are visible from its run-down main drag, but they're across the line in South Fayette, and therefore contribute nothing to McDonald's coffers. Its problem is a miniature version of that faced by Pittsburgh and countless other old towns drained by sprawl.

The bus pulls out of McDonald, and heads for well-heeled Oakdale, where the big issues are planning a new playground and trimming a really big tree. Then it's off to congested Bridgeville, where most of the municipal officials left their cars. Collier Councilor Sandra Lamb says some of her community's old-timers are worried that Collier's rural character is endangered. Some are talking about moving to Washington County. "I do like growth," Lamb says. "It's just coming in leaps and bounds, very quickly....Collier is noted for its country atmosphere. It would be nice to keep some of that."

Up Deer Creek

Five years after its TIF was approved, the most controversial mall proposal is now Onorato's problem

The county commissioners who gave the Deer Creek Crossing mall the spark of life are long gone. But like a venison Frankenstein, it can neither die nor find love. Its hoof now scrapes at Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato's door.

Deer Creek Crossing is a proposed big-box retail strip, slated for a wooded, 245-acre site in Harmar Township. In 1999, the county approved a $25 million tax-increment financing subsidy to help with road improvements needed to support the mall. Since then, it's been stalled by environmental permitting issues and lawsuits related to the plan to "relocate" six acres of wetlands. Texas-based developer The Woodmont Co. modified the project enough to get its environmental permits and win the lawsuit. A new layout and the passage of time, though, forced the developer to submit an amended TIF application in mid-May.

"It's a huge amendment," says county Development Director Dennis Davin, appointed by Onorato in February. "I'm looking at it as a completely new deal." That means conducting a new study on Deer Creek Crossing's potential impact on nearby stores. The site isn't far from Harmarville's existing strip and the Waterworks Mall, and would feature some of the same stores those two areas currently host. Says Davin, "We're going to have some issues if the impact study comes back and says, 'Hey, this is going to kill Waterworks, this is going to kill other retail.'"

Apparently, the county won't make an issue of the fact that subsidizing Deer Creek Crossing would violate the county's new TIF guidelines. In May, the county Department of Development adopted new guidelines saying TIFs for retail developments "will be avoided." Davin says that provision won't be strictly construed in this case. "There could be legal ramifications to us not [agreeing to the amended TIF]," says Davin, noting that Woodmont has spent millions of dollars planning the mall, and might sue the county if it gets stiffed on the TIF. "We have a developer who wants to come in and spend $40 million or $50 million," he adds. "You can't just shut the door."

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment