Friday, August 29, 2008

Rule #32

In light of recent local events, Rule #32:

Cover thine own ass.

Any incriminating documents that you need someone to look after can be sent to

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Roll Call of the States...

Just a few observations about the role call vote at the DNC Convention -- the only time anyone actually cares about Guam.

Democrats Abroad, apparently, are allowed to split their votes in half. Must be Swiss.

Glad you could show up Florida.

Do the Hawai'ians have to wear leis everywhere they go?

Illinois passes.

Kansas is apparently famous only for being the home of Obama's grandparents.

Minnesota is really, really proud of their women's collage hockey team.

Nobody cares about Norman Maclean, Montana. Nobody.

Hey look! There's a black person in the New Hampshire delegation.

New Jersey made it a point to highlight the fact that they are the home to the Superbowl champions (read: "Suck it Massachusetts").

Everybody and their mother in New Mexico yields the floor to Illinois.

Illinois yields to New York... who hands off to Hillary Clinton, blindsiding Gov. David Patterson. She fades back...



Moves that the convention suspends the rules and moves that Obama be selected by acclamation.

And it's in the HOLE! It's in the HOLE! Do you believe in miracles?!? Elvis has just left the building.

Almost looked like a real convention there for a moment... and then they started playing "Love Train," drowning out Nancy Pelosi.

Pat Ford: First Shoe Drops

Bob Mayo posted it first: Pat Ford has taken his marbles and gone home. That doesn't surprise me. The tone of this, what can only be described as, invective, however, is a bit surprising.

Now, I've written/helped to write/read resignation letters before, but this one is pretty good. The normal resignation letter usually follows the formula: [Dear So & So] + [Announcement of Resignation] + [Resignation Effective Date] + [Statement of Warmth, Appreciation or other Acknowledgment of Time Served] + [Sincerely Whatshisname]. It is short, sweet and to the point.

This is not that kind of letter.

You can almost hear Pat take a big old, wet, Taco Bell-induced dump right on Ravenstahl's desk. Here's the short paragraph, by paragraph analysis of this letter:

(1) Dear Yarone
(2) I resign, but expect to be paid through the end of the year.
(3) Bob O'Connor was great.
(4) I'm a victim of Luke Ravenstahl's suckiness.
(5) You and Luke suck.
(6) You suck.
(7) You and this town obviously don't appreciate my awesomeness. Eat shit and die.
(8) Sincerely, etc..

I'm sure we'll be parsing, analyzing, and otherwise dissecting this letter in the days/weeks/months to come. My gut reaction is that the No. 2 which Pat so dramatically left is going to really hit the fan sometime soon. I would not be surprised if, with no bridges left to burn, he's going to take this opportunity to take somebody down with him, whether that's folks over at the URA, Yarone Zober, or even the Mayor himself. Pat has given the slobering mob some tasty morsels, which someone needs to take a closer look at. It will be interesting... especially if Ford turns into John Dean III.

Still, let's be fair here: there are plenty of dirty deeds left to be uncovered, and just because Ford fell on is sword as a martyr, does not mean that he is a saint and the rest of the administration is full of sinners.

What this all does illuminate is what seems to be a fractured administration being run by a guy who's not smart enough to realize how clever he's not. There's obviously tension between Ford and Zober, Ravenstahl and Ford, and Zober and Ravenstahl... Lord only knows how the rest of the Mayor's Office or any of the other City Departments line up on this fault lines (if there are only 3 of them, that is).

[As a side note: isn't Luke in Denver with Yarone this week? Isn't it convenient that Pat would drop this bomb with no one in town to rebut any charges?]

Getting back to the resignation, however, I find it preposterous that Pat ever thought he could return to the head of the URA. Even before this letter, Pat had lost valuable political capital and was increasingly becoming a liability to the Mayor. The Administration, however, dragged its feet on bringing down the axe on Ford, which allowed him to get in the first, angry strike.

I can believe that the current Administration was "interfering" with Ford while he was at the Housing Authority and the URA, but I'm sure that Ford's apparent aggressive and confrontational management style did not help matters much... and neither did some ridiculously stupid, public statements made by his camp in the last few weeks.

In the P-G report, Pat's lawyer did throw out the whole recent controversy over URA contracts to an engineering as "evidence" of corruption at the highest level. I think that's a bit of a red herring, especially considering it was a decision that was made, conveniently, while Pat was unavailable to make that decision. If there is an underlying culture of deception, Ford would have to be up to his neck in it, otherwise he's admitted to being deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid... or at least wholly unethical.

Stay tuned...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pushing an Elephant up the Stairs

When you've been involved in a State Ethics Investigation about whether you've traded gifts for influence, the last thing you want to do is send out a request soliciting money to help pay for your legal bills on the matter:

Pat Ford, the city development czar who has been on paid leave since April during an ethics investigation, and his wife are reaching out to friends -- including developers who have worked with Mr. Ford -- for help with his legal bills...

Ms. Sirk's e-mail says Mr. Ford is in the "fight of his life" and "he is committed to restoring his good name, his career, and the cooperative and productive relationships that he enjoyed with Pittsburgh's development community."

After saying that a confidential defense fund has been set up with Mr. Ford's attorney, she wrote, "I am contacting you because I know that you have worked with Pat in the past and appreciate how much he has given to our City. Pat wants what each of us wants, which is to move forward and get back to work."

Mr. Ford's attorney, Lawrence Fisher, said the fund was launched in June and has received "an outpouring of support." Neither he nor Ms. Sirk would identify who has given to the fund or how much is in it.

Asked if she was asking developers who work with the city for money, Ms. Sirk said via e-mail that the appeal "was a personal e-mail to friends. I never intended for the media to obtain a copy..."
Don't know what to say to all that. I'm seriously dumbfounded. I'm beginning to get the feeling that this whole sordid saga is just an Andy Kaufmann-esque meta joke about local government, because that seems to be the only justifiable and reasonable answer to this level of shenanigans.

I can't understand why anybody thought this was a good idea. Receiving gifts from friends was what got everyone in trouble in the first place... and why would you put the request in writing, where it can be easily copied, pasted, and distributed with a few quick clicks of a mouse?

I can only assume that Ford or Zober or Ferlo or somebody has something on the Mayor (hookers, blow, live boy, dead girl, etc.). That's the only other explanation for such cajones, outside of an intergender wrestling championship send up.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Special Announcement

I am Obama's VP pick.

Please tell the media, so they can stop pestering Joe, Evan, and Tim.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Business Casual Friday

Because it's too long until St. Patrick's Day...

(Try not to look at Shane MacGowan's teeth.)

If it's Brown, Flush it Down

Saw this in the P-G this afternoon:

Former city councilman Len Bodack Jr. has left the boardroom of the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority for its payroll.

Mr. Bodack has been hired to a $56,000 job as maintenance supervisor at the agency, after serving on its board of directors as a city councilman. He resigned from the PWSA board (which is appointed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl) after applying for the position this month.

He had been council's District 7 representative for four years before being beaten in the Democratic primary by Patrick Dowd last year, and lost a three-way primary battle for a state House seat this year.

Before joining council Mr. Bodack served as operations director for his father -- a former state senator and head of the county's Democratic Party -- and ran an auto repair shop.
So, really this is a step up for Bodack, considering his past experience in human excrement. Although, I suppose if your goal was a do nothing job, your choices were either PWSA or running for City Council again.

However, don't most organizations frown on moving from the Board of Directors to employee?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Intercepted Messages

Through our contacts in the Mexican embassy, we intercepted the following message, apparently originating in Germany:

Wir beabsichtigen, beginnt am dreiundzwanzigsten August unsere sechste jährliche Hothouse Veranstaltung in den oberen Stockwerken der Union Trust Building in Downtown Pittsburgh. Die Veranstaltung dient als Bühne zu präsentieren, welche einige der innovativen Projekte und Führer der aufstrebenden Gemeinde erfolgreichen Initiativen unterstützt durch Sprout im vergangenen Jahr. Die Siedlung im Detail ist links auf unserer Website. Sie informieren die Bürgerinnen und Bürger die meisten heimlich so bald wie möglich zu gestalten. Bitte rufen Sie an alle Aufmerksamkeit auf die Tatsache, dass das Ereignis erzeugt eine unglaubliche Chance für den breiten Querschnitt von Pittsburgh's geschäftliche und gesellschaftliche Kreise, die zusammen kommen jedes Jahr zur Unterstützung Sprout-Mission zu treffen und vermischen. Unterzeichnet - ZIMMERMANN

Not sure what it means, but I've alerted President Wilson.

Monday, August 18, 2008

3-2-1 Contracts

Saw this in the Trib, which a couple people are commenting on. Let me pull out something a bit disingenuous from Jeremy Boren:
Matthew McTish, president of the company that bears his surname, gave $10,000 to Ravenstahl's campaign in December 2006. It is one the few five-digit contributions the mayor received between September 2006 and December 2007, the latest campaign records available.

Six Wilbur Smith executives, including company president Hollis Walker Jr., gave Ravenstahl a combined $7,500 between January and October last year, the records show. Wilbur Smith won three engineering consultant contracts worth $1.12 million in 2007.
The folks over at 414 Grant Street go a little further:
The head of the engineering firm McTish, Kunkel & Associates that, according to yesterday's Tribune Review article, won a URA bid for work at the Technology Center after being the highest bidder gave a $1,000 campaign contribution to URA Board Member and PA State Senator Jim Ferlo on March 9, 2008. It should also be noted that Senator Ferlo also happens to be URA Board Chairman Yarone Zober's former boss.
Of course, no mention is made of Trumbull's contributions to anyone... probably because they slyly run their contribution through their own political action committee, TC PAC... and, of course, that PAC gave generously to CAPAC (Constructors Association PAC), along with such names you might recognize like Ferlo, DeWeese, Roddey, Frankel, Stevenson, Orie, Wheatley, etc.

So, without delving into more specific records, I find it hard to believe that somehow Trumbull missed the payment on their yearly bribe to the Ravenstahl Administration and was, therefore, "disqualified" from the bid in question. There's plenty of money floating around, so this is just a red herring.*

The other error, speaking as a Bureaucrat, is that the general public somehow erroneously believes that contracts should go to the lowest bidder. That's just plain stupid.

Contracts are supposed to go to the lowest responsible bidder, to use the jargon. *I* could have bid on this contract and I could have said that I could have done it for $1, but only an idiot would have accepted my bid, based on the fact that I have little or no experience in road paving, utility line relocation, or landscaping. The result would have been me out in the middle of Second Avenue with a pick axe and a shovel, trying to avoid the on-coming traffic. I would not have been a responsible bidder.

Still, there's more than just experience.

Some of you may recall back in the 90s when Sala Udin tried to mandate that a certain percentage of work that was done with City money be given to contractors from the City of Pittsburgh. While that decision was defeated, if it had passed, the above referenced contract would have had to have gone to the contractor (all other things being equal) to the contractor that was from the City. If two of the contractors had no representation from the City whatsoever, the URA would have had to have given the contract to the remaining contractor, even if the cost was higher. Again, those who fail to meet this threshold would not have been a responsible bidder.

Finally, Zober, insisting that the URA move away from using the same firms repeatedly, shows, what I would consider, a lack of knowledge regarding the practicalities of public bids. The public bid process, of course, requires some initial effort on the part of the bidder; there is always an up front hurdle in getting your foot in the door. Once you go through the public process, as it is with nearly any process, you know what to expect for next time and you can refine your proposal so that you do better next time.

Of course, if you either (a) decide that this is too much work or (b) repeatedly can't make the grade, you'll probably give up, leaving the contracts to folks who are willing to work through the process and fulfill the qualifications of a responsible bid. Success, in this case, begets success... unless Zober is comfortable with using failure.

I appreciate Mr. Boren, et. al.'s attempt at controversy, but sadly, I think there's less going on here than meets the eye.

Sort of like a reverse Transformer.

* Like Communism, Mr. Green.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

ADB Reads Craigslist So You Don't Have To

Saw this on Craigslist:

$13,000,000 100 year-old Government Office Building

Barely renovated, 14 half baths.
Comes with own Housing and Redevelopment Authorities, Building Inspection, Planning, and Fire Departments.
OK, maybe not on Craigslist, per se.

I'm having difficulty trying to figure out the logic of selling that building, so bear with me.

I'm assuming that the URA or the City owns the building out right, so there's no outstanding debt on it.* I would also assume that that means that nobody's really paying rent to be in the building, so a sale means that the occupants would have to either (a) have to find new, cheaper space or (b) start ponying up some dough.

I'm also, also assuming that the City/URA can't collect any tax benefits on the depreciation of the building or any of the systems. So, like GE Capital does, it may make sense from a market perspective to have a private owner reap the benefits of owning a building and improvements.

Obviously, the building is tax exempt, so the City/County/School District is missing out on about $163,000 in taxes/year, although only $77,000 of that would go to the City's coffers. That works out to about a value of $1.1 million over thirty years, at a 5% interest rate.

According to the P-G, it costs about $12/square foot to maintain the building,** so the trade off for the Municipality would be that it would have to start paying rent and improvement costs to a private owner now... which, according to the underlying assumption, should be less than $12/sq. ft. That's doesn't really seem reasonable if you think a private company is supposed to, you know, make money off of the building.

Now, I don't know much about Real Estate, but I do know that the Union Trust Building has sat vacant for a long time. I would consider this a comparable building to 200 Ross Street, for lack of a better example at hand. I'm inferring from this that there is, in fact, a high vacancy rate for this kind of office space. I would question, therefore, what the demand to purchase this kind of building would be.

I guess you could boot out HACP/URA/City and turn the whole building into residential condos, but, with the exception of maybe Cyril Wecht, who really wants to spend more time in that part of town than they have to? Ross Street is not exactly the center of Pittsburgh nightlife.

Maybe the sale has something to do with that new, proposed hotel across the street? Is someone trying to get a sweet deal?***

Intuitively, I don't see any real interest in 200 Ross Street and I'm not convinced that the City will be netting any money from its sale and that the net value of the deal is going to be close to zero. That leads me to believe that this is either a feel good, "look-at-us-we're-trying-to-return-publicly-owned-properties-to-the-tax-roles" proposal from the folks in the City-County Building or a cynical "look-at-us-we're-trying-to-return-publicly-owned-properties-to-the-tax-roles-before-an-election-year" proposal from the folks in the City-County Building.

* I mean, if you can't pay off your loans in 56 years, you're probably Bernardo Katz.

** Although, having been down in that building one or two times, I kind of wonder if someone isn't scrimping on the repairs; 12/sq. ft. doesn't sound like enough money.

*** Not that we're implying that anyone would ever do something like this in Pittsburgh, and we will gladly admit that we're grasping at straws here, but this is really the only other new building that's occurring in that part of town since they built the PNC building on First Avenue.

Pittsburgh Tea Leaves

Fester has already started doing a bit of local Kremlinology on the 2009 Mayoral race, and, despite his woeful unfamiliarity with the characters in Mayberry, says about 90% of what I was going to say, had I not been beaten to the punch:

The challenge for any challenger will be how to beat the Pittsburgh machine on a city wide basis. Beating the machine has not been that difficult in favorable demographic neighborhoods such as Shadyside and the 14th Ward. The last round of City Council races saw challengers beat multiple machine backed candidates, but the City Council new blood bloc has been ineffectively theatrical. So how does a challenger assemble an effective electoral and governing coalition within the city?

The Pittsburgh Democratic machine is still the strongest and most powerful political unit in the city despite its trickle of losses over the past few years. The non-Machine candidates have a strong base in the city's East End and other gentrifying neighborhoods while the traditional Democrats do better in areas that are older, and generate less buzz. One of the core machine areas are the African American neighborhoods that run aside the East Busway.

I think the Obama coalition that that won the city by roughly 16 points offers a good example. However, I want to examine the past two large scale city machine runs for some lessons and contrasts.

In the 2005 primary, the late Mayor O'Connor put together a machine coalition against the East End Cupcake Classer Bill Peduto and the earnest wonk who cares about bond repayment reserve funds, Michael Lamb. He won a plurality with approximately 48% of the vote; his two major opponents each received a quarter of the vote and a variety of vanity candidates mopped up the rest. O'Connor won on the basis of the machine, and he won on a multi-racial coalition. Looking at the district level demographics (provided here), he did better in African American districts than he did in white districts.

Now let's fast forward this to the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary. The city and county establishment Democrats on the whole backed Hillary Clinton. She won Allegheny County but lost the city of Pittsburgh by roughly sixteen points. She underperformed Bob O'Connor but this underperformance was not evenly distributed. The easiest breakdown of the difference between the Clinton coalition and the O'Connor coalition was by race; the more black a precinct was, the less likely Clinton would do well, and vice versa. This is in sharp contrast to Bob O'Connor who built his win on the East Busway neighborhoods...

The previous challenges from outside the traditional machine have failed as they can never expand past a limited geographic and demographic base. Right now that limited base is willing to vote for a ham sandwich over the incumbent mayor, Luke Ravenstahl. However winning Shadyside and Squirrel Hill will only allow one to become King of the Mardi Gras bar.
Now, I'm not one to resist the urge to slice open the political entrails of Bill Peduto and Tom Murphy and try to divine some mystical prophecy about May '09. Let me go back to what I said three years ago:
I see five different undercurrents in the Pittsburgh Democratic structure: the Old Guard, the Revolutionaries, the New-Old Guard, the Black Caucus, and the Leftovers.
I still hold by this analysis, more or less.

What is interesting, as Fester alludes to, is that the Revolutionaries have never been able to break out of their East End base (save for outcroppings in the South Side, Mexican War Streets, and Crawford Square)... until they found common cause with the Black Caucus in the Obama campaign. Now, this does not mean that any candidate that has support of these two factions will be able to win the Mayor's Office. Indeed, there are a whole boat load of folks in both the South and the North that feel different than their friends in the East.

So, broadly speaking, what are the current Mayoral threats?

Well, first, let's start with the advantage: since time immemorial (more or less), no incumbent mayor of Pittsburgh has ever lost reelection.* Sure, there havve been people that have resigned, decided to not run, and died. That's the biggest advantage for the incumbent.

Second, while we can talk until we're blue in the face about policies, in Pittsburgh being the Son or Daughter of so-and-so, and going to church/bridge club/bowling with so-and-so, is a huge advantage. I think you'll find that folks 'round these here parts are more likely to vote for someone if "he's such a nice boy" over whether he feels a certain way about the land/value split on property taxes.**

Here's where the threats come in: (1) Internally - a rebellion from the within the Party, (2) A broad candidate - someone who can unite some of these other factions, and (3) a major f-up - bribes, drugs, mistresses, a dead girl or a live boy.

While there have been muttering amongst the rank and file in the local Party, my general sense is that Luke won't have any trouble securing the nomination... as long as another "nice boy" with "good parents" doesn't come in and steal it away from him.***

In such a case, a three, four, or five way race gives the incumbent has an advantage. Should a serious challenger arise, be prepared for a strawman/sock puppet candidate to split the discontent vote.

Fester has already selected a candidate that he feels can appeal to the East End, the Black Caucus, the South Hills, and is a "nice boy" with "good parents." And while I'm unsure how real his proposed candidate's desire is to make a run at the office, (if the half-psychotic ramblings of the Pittsburgh rumor mill are to be believed) supporters of the incumbent Mayor have already taken to trying to squeeze and strong arm this potential candidate out of the race that hasn't happened yet. If true, that should be a good indication that someone feels threatened.

Still, unless you can find a candidate that has loyalty within the party, comes from "a good family" or is at least a "nice boy," can bring together multiple factions and generate voter turn out, *and* can capitalize on any of the incumbent's screw ups and skeletons in his closet, you have four more years of Luke.

* Any Pittsburgh historian who can give me a definitive answer on this one wins a free internet cookie.

** This is why yours truly will never be elected to anything, ever.

*** Doug Shields is not that person; irrespective of his little spasm in Council the other day, Doug doesn't have the broad appeal that would allow him to win outside the East End. Plus, he talks too much.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Investor Neil Bluhm Warns of Bankruptcy for City Casino

Threatens to sneak up behind Sen. Jane Orie and yell "BOO!"
Ravenstahl, Onorato already requesting clean change of undies
Gaming Review Board whistles nonchalantly past graveyard

Царь умер. Да здравствует Царь!

The P-G had this article on the new "bike czar", who, apparently is supposed to solve every bike related problem in the city... which I presume to mean the fucking hills.

The new Pittsburgh bike-pedestrian coordinator's job, though, is to make pedaling or walking the city's 89 neighborhoods, car-choked pinch-points and steep slopes a little less of a thrill ride.

Mr. Patchan, 32, of the South Side Flats, started work Aug. 4 and yesterday he got his marching orders from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Councilman Patrick Dowd and cycling enthusiasts who crowded Enrico's Tazza D'Oro, a Highland Park coffee shop...

Over the next two years, though, Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Dowd want to see tax credits and zoning preferences for businesses that accommodate cyclists, better bike route signs, more bike racks, local and national pedal-power events, and volunteer bike registration, among other things. They'd like to find money to repair city steps, with Mr. Dowd suggesting that the focus be on staircases that lead to transit.
Where the power to exalt every valley and make every hill low comes in is not indicated by statute.

My real interest in this story, however, comes from the assignment of the title "Czar" to this new position. One should remember that the erstwhile Pat Ford was given the title of Economic Development Czar before he decided to take gifts not unethically.

So what is it about this title of "czar" that has compelled the media and the administration to use it so frequently, over such equally impressive titles as "marquis" or "generalissimo" or even "high exalted grand poobah".

Does it evoke images of absolute power and authority over a given realm, or is it merely a warning to the officeholder that at any given time the proletariat could revolt and you may find yourself in front of a firing squad.

I'm obviously opting for the latter.

Mr. Patchan better start sending jaywalkers to the gulag now, before it's too late.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Moving the Goal Posts

This story has been sitting in my news feeds for the last few days, so I figure I should be getting around to it. From the Business Times:

Pittsburgh officials Friday completed the foreclosure of four properties in the Beechview neighborhood acquired by developer Bernardo Katz in 2004 and 2005.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and other officials are planning to unlock the buildings in the 1600 block of Broadway Avenue in a noon ceremony as part of an ongoing effort to generate interest from developers in the properties.

The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority initiated foreclosure proceedings on the properties earlier this year after the agency said Katz failed to make timely payments on them.
Now, we've covered the Bernardo Katz saga elsewhere, and, let's be fair here, the whole thing is a big old clusterfuck.

That is a technical term, by the way, for an economic development initiative where a mortgagor defaults on his/her mortgage and then flees the country.

So, it's good news that the property is now in the control of an organization that's supposed to have the best interests of the City at heart.

However, I don't think that it's necessarily a great idea to draw attention to a (as we stated above) a giant clusterfuck. It's like taking a giant shit in the living room and proudly asking for a cookie when you cleaned it up. Now, in the current administration's defense, Katz was not their fault... but they could have, I don't know, hastened the end of this mess a little bit more instead of dicking around for the last umpteen months.*

In any case, it's not something that you want to celebrate, but rather something you want to quietly deal with.

* So why, you may ask, did this all come about now instead of months ago? What was the impetus here?

Friday, August 08, 2008

Business Casual Friday

It being Friday and all, let's kick open, relax, and pop open a few useless graphs:

song chart memes


Thursday, August 07, 2008

Maybe the Grass isn't Always Greener

In my browsing this evening I stumbled another one of those rankings from Forbes. This time it was America's Fastest Dying Cities. For those of you that don't want to click the link, here's the spoiler:

Canton, OH
Youngstown, OH
Flint, MI
Scranton, PA
Dayton, OH
Cleveland, OH
Springfield, MA
Buffalo, NY
Detroit, MI
and of course...
Charleston, WV
But whither Pittsburgh? I, and I'm sure many of my 7 readers, are shocked that Pittsburgh isn't included. I mean, we suck, right? Right?

It would seem, to me anyway, that either we're actually not doing as bad as we could be or that the Forbes rating is off.

Of course, saying that we're better than Flint, MI or (God help us) Cleveland is probably not exactly what our civic boosters want to run in trade periodicals.


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Have You Driven a Ford Lately?

Now, I wasn't surprised that the Pat Ford Ethics Investigation came back negative. Indeed, I believe that I had posted on another blog somewhere that I felt that Ford would be exonerated, but the real challenge will be what happens now.

[At least, I think I posted something like that... I could be back tracking, but whatever.]

The real challenge now is what Ravenstahl does now. Since Ford's departure, the URA hasn't collapsed (at least not that I can tell), so the acting folk in charge must be doing a halfway decent job. You have to wonder if Ravenstahl is willing to rock the boat on this one, or if he wants to put his guy back in the saddle.

And then, of course, there's the whole thing with HACP. I mean, Ford went off and talked to the Feds about the Housing Authority, so I'm sure that's going to cause some tension if there's any inter-authority projects.

And it's an election year. Whether or not this is a "substantial issue," the perception is the reality and Ravenstahl's political enemies will definitely try to make hay out of it. The only good news is that this story seems to have resolved itself in August instead of, like, March or April when it really, really would have hurt him.

And, of course, perception being what it is, you have to wonder if Ford will be as effective as he could be, or will potential clients feel that the rules are skewed against them.

Maybe the solution here is just to give Pat his old job back. Not the URA job or the HACP job, but the City "Development Czar" job. That way Ford can still pull the political levers and buddy up with Developers, but there's a nice little buffer between him and... well... being called in front of Council every other day.

Just a thought. I doubt it will happen at this point.

The decision, at this point, rests in the hands of the Ravenstahl appointed URA board, but perhaps Ford can make the decision easier by resigning with his reputation in tact.

I also doubt this will happen.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

And While We're On the Subject of Parking

Just a brief thought experiment:

With the increase in gas prices, concern about the viability of foreign oil, and a collapsing housing market, one may suppose that there would be a return to denser, transit oriented development. If that happens, one of the first casualties, in my mind would be the parking garage.

The parking garage is a very specialized structure, serving exactly one purpose: to house automobiles while we're not driving them. They are usually very large structures, built of concrete, steal, and the occasional LED billboard, but all have the same function.

Now, I'm not suggesting that parking garages are suddenly going to be empty; the American desire to be a V-8 cowboy will probably never completely go away. I am suggesting, however, that if fewer people drive on a regular basis, operating parking garages becomes less profitable.

The result are old derelict structures, empty and taking up space. (Which, to be fair, is pretty much what most of the garages downtown look like anyway.)

So my questions are these: Are architects planning for the whole life cycle of these structures, i.e., what do they become after they fulfill their useful life? What do we do with the ones we may have coming up in the future? Can they become homes? Office buildings? Urban Farms? Or are we just going to end up with big ol' piles of rubble?

My mind flashes back to a probably apocryphal story about why the halls in the old buildings of Carnegie Mellon are sloped: if Tech failed as a school, Carnegie was planning to turn the buildings into workshops.

Do we have such foresight?

Vermicious TRIDs

Saw this today in the P-G (and the Trib for that matter) and felt it deserved a comment:

The city is making its first application for state funds used to boost development near transit stations.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is sending legislation to city council today to apply for $300,000 in-state Transit Revitalization Investment District funds, to write redevelopment plans for transit hubs in three city areas: Beechview/Mount Washington, East Liberty and Homewood/North Point Breeze. The Urban Redevelopment Authority is also going to Allegheny County Council and Pittsburgh Public Schools for approvals.

TRID plans are under way for developments by light rail transit stations in Mt. Lebanon and Dormont. The city hopes to spur similar development near the South Hills Junction station as well as East Busway stops in the other neighborhoods.
So I did a little digging to try to uncover what this whole thing is about.

Basically, the bill is supposed to be a tool to encourage economic development at transit stops (subway, light rail, busway, and train stations) and encourage more public transit ridership. Take an existing or proposed busway stop (for example), draw a half mile wide circle around it and you got yourself a TRID district.

Now, here's where it gets interesting:
Consistent with the existing authority or limitations of public transportation agencies to condemn and acquire land for public transportation purposes, such entities are hereby authorized to acquire and improve property located within a designated TRID for real estate development purposes...
If I read that correctly, it gives PAT the authority to assemble property via eminent domain for development purposes within the TRID boundary.

Yes, the same Port Authority that has a half vacant garage sitting next to South Hills Village. Yes, the same Port Authority that dug a giant tunnel under the Allegheny River. Yes, the same Port Authority with persistent budgetary woes. Yes, the same Port Authority. But I digress.

If we go further on:
In conjunction with the formal establishment of the TRID boundaries, a coterminous value capture area shall simultaneously be created to enable local municipalities, school districts, the county and the public transportation agency to share the increased tax increment of real estate and other designated tax revenues generated by new real estate investment within the TRID.
Or, as the folks down at PNC call it "a TIF". Y'all remember what TIFs are, right?

I can see this portion being used to support the improvement of roads, sidewalks, transit stations and water and sewer systems and the construction of new amenities like parking garages that support the economic development investment.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't think that this a particularly bad idea (apart from the whole PAT involvement) and I think certain neighborhoods in the East End and the South Hills could potentially benefit from this project.

However, if this was truly forward thinking, we shouldn't be focusing on where transit is, but where transit should be and focus our regional development strategies on that.

And believe me, I got a few ideas where PAT can go.

McCain Godwins Campaign, Withdraws from Race

Washington D.C. (Reuters) - In a turn of events that has left the 2008 Election in turmoil, John McCain has withdrawn from his Presidential campaign under pressure from the Federal Elections Committee following his comparison of Barack Obama to Hitler.

"This is not something I relish doing or I wanted to have happen," said McCain in a terse speech to assembled members of the media, "but the law is the law, whether it's Gravity or Godwin's, and I am forced to step aside."

McCain's withdrawal from the campaign comes mere hours after a television ad that ran in several media markets drew fire from the entire spectrum of the political establishment. The ad shows several still pictures of Barack Obama giving his, now famous recent speech in Berlin with a caption and a voiceover saying "You know who else the Germans liked? That's right: Hitler."

The ad was immediately brought to the attention of the FEC who unanimously ruled it a violation of the 1990 Godwin Law. The law imposes severe penalties to individuals who invoke the principle of reducio ad Hitlerum; in the McCain case, that penalty was a forced withdrawal from the race.

The McCain campaign had appeared desperate over the last few weeks, claiming a media bias for Obama. The campaign however, seemed to continue too lose its footing and began running ads claiming that Obama had not visited with US troops while in Afghanistan, that Obama was too much of a celebrity to be President, that Obama liked arugula, or even that he was the father of two black babies.

Former Washington Post columnist Allen Henry says that the pressure "evidently became too much for the McCain Campaign."

"You see all these ads getting more and more bizarre, and you see them basically grasping at straws. Without any real any focused, substantive attack it was obvious that the whole argument was just going to devolve into Hitler and Nazism. It's a shame really."

There's no word today about how this will effect the race for President, although anonymous insiders from the McCain campaign have vowed to fight on without him, calling his departure "a dead weight off our shoulders".

Senator Obama, meanwhile, continues to be awesome.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Densities, Development, and Regionalism

Harold Miller, Mike Madison, and Chris Briem have been writing and blogging about the City's dense job concentration. As Harold notes, the Pittsburgh ranks 25th in the number of jobs located in the city, even though it ranks 59th in the number of residents. That leads one to the obvious conclusion: the City has the jobs, the suburbs have the bodies.

Mike's teasing out the inevitable tension between the two: "A "City of Pittsburgh first" approach to regional policy threatens to perpetuate the zero-sum thinking that often dominates regional economic developments efforts. If the City grows, the suburbs lose."

It's easy to see (from 100,000 feet) that a better model for City/Suburb relationship is not one of victim and parasite, but one of symbiosis. Picture the region as a hunk of lichen: fungus and algae mutually supporting one another, and, should either one die, the other would not be able to support itself. To draw out the analogy, the City specializes in the jobs, higher education, culture, entertainment and sports, while the Suburbs specialize in housing, primary education, and small retail.

The theory, however, does not necessarily work in practice. Indeed, the City has its own needs for housing, primary education, and small retail, and suburbs have their own needs for jobs and entertainment. Moreover, the suburbs are competing for housing, retail, and jobs amongst themselves. Municipal policy decisions that are made are not made with view to the entire organism (the region), but rather independently and, as Mike notes, as a zero-sum game.

Of course, the problem is that the first municipality to stop playing the game will be the first to lose; politicians need to raise tax revenue so they can bring in more jobs so they can get votes so they can be re-elected so they can do more projects to increase population to raise more tax revenue so they can bring in more jobs, etc., etc. Municipalities (and elected officials) that are unable to raise revenue through population or revenue through employment, start spiraling down the drain.

But, if the City of Pittsburgh invests in a multimillion dollar corporate center, with the view to increase a corporate presence in the region (rather than just slosh jobs around), surely it is not just the City that benefits. Indeed, not everyone is going to want to live in the City and there will be some "leakage" to the surburban communities... a positive externality, if you would.

So I guess the question really is, can the suburbs win by losing, that is, if suburban developments can be positioned in support of larger City development, then would the suburbs benefit with, but not at the City's expense?

Or would that take too much coordination?

PennDOT Holds Parkways Hostage; Issues Ransom Note

The following was found on the HOV lane of the Parkway North today:

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I believe we're dealing with desperate men.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Pirates Trade Roster for Magic Beans

Pittsburgh (Sportswire) - Pirates Owner Robert Nutting has announced today that he has traded the entire roster for a sack of beans, which, according to Nutting are said to be "magic".

"I realize that most Pirates fans are going to question this decision," said Nutting in a late night press conference, "but I have been assured that these beans are 100% guaranteed as Magic by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn."

Pirates fans were outraged.

A caller to Stan Savran's show on ESPN Radio called this the worst move in the last 8 years. "I mean, is the head office even trying anymore. They bring up new talent year after year, and once they get even the slightest bit good, they sell them like a fire sale."

Still, even after the trade, the Pirates still remain ahead of the Washington National's in ESPN's Power Rankings.

This is not the first time that Nutting has been involved in a controversial trade. Recently, Nutting traded Xavier Nady to the Yankees for four minor league prospects, last year he traded Jason Bay for 1000 bags of pennies, and three years ago he traded his chocolate pudding for a half eaten package of cheese & crackers at lunch.

Late reports indicate that Pirates President & CEO Frank Coonelly has managed to steal the beans, and has thrown them out of the window.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Whither Pat Ford?

So it's August now, 116 days have past and we still don't have a hint of the resolution to the Pat Ford incident.

Napoleon was able to escape from exile, raise an army, take on Russia, England, Austria, and Prussia, and lose one of the most famous battles in history in less time.

Of course, Napoleon wasn't fighting the State Ethics Committee. If he had to battle those folks instead of all of Europe, he would have just probably rather stayed in Corsica.

Friday, August 01, 2008

And While We're At It...

Back to the subject of Counterproductive Taxation.

If the folks at F.A.C.T. really and I mean, *really* wanted to go after a tax that was counterproductive to the economic vitality of the City, they might consider reintroducing the progressive real estate tax system that the neanderthals on City Council pushed out in the early 2000s.

[Dear Reader: this is the point at which yours truly descends into his yearly rant about the abolition of the land/building split in City property assessments and how the current system is actually and impediment to growth. I believe there are exactly two people, myself included, that care about this nuance of public policy in the Blurghosphere, so if you want to skip to the next post, please go ahead. Or you can read a previous rant on it.]

If you remember, back in the day when the County Assessment debacle first hit, the geniuses on City Council headed by the late Bob O'Connor spearheaded a switch from a split valuation system (in which land was taxed at a higher rate than the building on the land) to a single valuation system (where the building & land was assessed together).

Under the current system, the City & School District taxes property owners at 2.472%. If I have a $1,000 piece of land, my taxes are $24.72 per year. If I have a $100,000 house on that property my taxes are $2,496.72 per year. If the value of my house goes up to $200,000, my taxes go up to $4,968.72 (an increase of $2,472). If the value of my house plummets to $50,000, my taxes go down to $1,260.72. So, the logical course of action for me as a homeowner is to push the value of my home down and not make any substantial repairs that would cause the assessments to go up.

Now, under the old system, the land is assessed at a higher rate and the building is assessed at a lower rate. Let's assume that the $1,000 piece of land is taxes at 100% of its value for a tax of $1,000, but the $100,000 home is taxed at a rate of 1.496%. My taxes, under this scenario are still $2,496. If the value of the house jumps, however, my taxes are only $3,992 (an increase of $1,496.00). If the value of my home drops to $50,000, I'm still paying $1,748.00.

So, what does this mean? Well, under the old system, property owners were not excessively penalized for improvements to their properties. Your tax amount on the land was not going to fluctuate as much as the tax on the home, so from year to year you would see a more predictable tax bill. Also, it did not reward people for demolishing buildings (thereby undercutting their taxable basis to the City). The net effect of the old system encouraged people to return vacant land to productive use and did not discourage owners from improving the buildings they already had.

Is it any wonder, therefore, why legitimate businessman Sal Williams is so interested in demolishing buildings and providing surface parking in Uptown? If Mr. Williams was taxed at a higher rate on his land and a lower rate on the buildings, he might reconsider his plan.

So seriously, this was once one of those "progressive" things that Pittsburgh was lauded for. Of course, we got rid of it.

Just wanted to set the FACT straight.

And... Drink Tax

I'll start off by reminding the Friends Against Counter-Productive Taxation (FACT) of a little bit of History. The original Whiskey Rebellion became the first assertion of Federal Authority, and resulted in the US raising a militia about the same size as the entire Revolutionary War Army, ultimately setting a precedent that U.S. citizens who wished to change the law had to do so peacefully through constitutional means. While the tax was repealed in 1803 (having been found noncollectable), it was not the actions of the rebels that really did the tax in.

So, bringing the discussion forward a bit, the current proposal on the table is to replace funds raised from the Drink Tax to fund Public Transit with funds from an increase to the Property Tax, which, as the wags over at the 3rd Avenue Cafe note, is like having your dad beat you with a switch instead of his belt.

But let's think about who gets impacted from both proposals: The Drink Tax basically impacts those that are using public amenities (restaurants, bars, clubs, etc.). I think it would be safe to assume that these folks are a very heterogeneous mix, but are folks, basically, with enough disposable income to waste it on Iron City or invest it wisely in a nice Chateau Lafite '93. Clever folks who don't want to pay the tax can either (A) drink at home or, and this the morally suspect choice, (B) remain sober. My gut feeling is that the people that use public amenities (i.e. "drinkers") are more likely to take advantage of public transit than those that do not use public amenities (i.e. "teetotalers")... or at least they should, considering the legal and moral hazards of DUI.

Again, no proof on that, just a gut read.

Of course, if you go with the Real Estate option, the tax is spread out on homeowners across the county. The approximately 9,500 riders that PAT carries on a daily basis, obviously represent a small subset of those who would be taxes, and there are surely some positive externalities going to non-riders that result from getting drivers off the road and into a bus. Unfortunately, homeowners who ride PAT make up a subset of all riders; renters and students, I'm sure, make up a large bulk of of the passengers. These folk, however, do not pay Real Estate taxes, so they're benefiting at the expense of other residents of Allegheny County. I don't believe that these other residents are going to be none too happy about paying this bill.

Let's set aside the fact that the County Real Estate Assessment System (which generates the base numbers for all the Real Estate Taxes in the County) is FUBAR.

There is a common good associated with Mass Transit: getting folks off the road, reducing energy dependance, encouraging denser development, and so forth. Irrespective of the problems that PAT has encountered over the years, not having viable mass transit would burden the City and the County.