Thursday, September 29, 2005

Thoughts on Dahntahn - pt. 4

I decided to abandon my polemic on downtown revitalization as there has been a flury of "interest" in downtown housing in the last few weeks, most notably in the Pittsburgh Business Times. Additionally, however, an associate, The Pissy Inebriated Quasi-Bureaucrat will be doing some pro bono work on Downtown, and has promised to fill me in on the details when he's done.

But that won't be for a few weeks.

Some highlights of what I didn't get a chance to say:

* The URA needs to sell off property Downtown, but is hamstrung by its legal ability to just sell off property willy-nilly. The URA can't just put up a for sale sign, it seems, but needs, in order to thwart speculators, to have a buyer that will complete redevelopment. Apparently this goes for all URA property, not just Downtown. This is a problem.

* Parking is a bitch Dowtown and is a major drawback.

* The City seems to have some advantages when it comes to remediation of buildings that contain hazardous materials. The elimination of lead paint, PBCs, and asbestos on the public dime could be considered a public purpose and could lead to more interested developers for the property.

* Selling off property piecemeal is OK, although a pain to manage.

* The URA seems to do very well in directing funds, making loans, and making grants. They should focus on that.

* Why isn't there a CDC downtown like in Southside, East Liberty, Lawrenceville, or the Northside? I mean a real CDC that undertakes development on its own.

* What have PHLF, the Foundation Community, and the Business Community done for their neighborhood lately? Isn't it time they pony up dough?

* Can Downtown revitalize without bringing down another part of the region? At this point, no.

* Old buildings are nice, but you don't get a good level of marginal efficiency from managing 10 units at a time.

PIQ-B will get back to me with what he finds out.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Of Sickness and the Firefighter's Union

Spent the day in bed fighting a vicious cold with various forms of medication.

Blogging on Ny-Quil, while tempting, just makes for confusing, rambling posts and is to be avoided at all costs.

Rambling, confusing posts while not on Ny-Quil is par for the course.

Did have a chance to read about the Pittsburgh Fire Union endorsing Republican Joe Weinroth for Mayor.

Couple thoughts:

(1) Joe King, the Fire Union President, is a political player. This is the guy who's 800 votes swung the election to Murphy last time around. Joe knows this; he understands the symbolic, if not the real power of this move.

(2) We also know that last time he didn't support O'Connor either, so no big shock that he's not doing it this time.

(3) Joe says that O'Connor isn't meeting with anyone, which, according to my sources is true. According to these same sources, however, O'Connor has been meeting with some unnamed groups, and it has taken some pull to get O'Connor's time and attention. Joe's obviously been waitlisted from seeing the Don like Frankie Pentangeli in Godfather Part II.

(4) Joe fears for his job. The next mayor is going to have to make some significant cuts in City service. O'Connor will probably not cut much into broad community programs, leaving the Fire Union open for attack. Weinroth, who is not as involved in the local community scene, will probably have an easier time gutting programs that he is not vested in. The fire department, a basic city service, is less likely to get the hatchet than, say, the Parking Authority. Joe King knows this too and likes his odds with Weinroth.

(5) So, will this signal a flight from O'Connor and towards Weinroth, or will this serve to entrench the Democratic ground troops and advance O'Connor's cause against disaffected Progressives and Reformists who may fear a Republican Mayor of Pittsburgh?

November is only a month and a bit away, and the safe money is still on the Silver Fox.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Thoughts on Dahntahn - pt. 3

Part III: Strategery

A. Goals

What do we want to get out of downtown? Personally, I'd be happy if it just didn't smell like piss so much, but there's more to it than that. The more important question, is what do we want dowtown to be.

The answers I've heard lead me to believe that people want both a destination and a neighborhood: a place to live, work, play, and shop. They want Squirrel Hill, the Southside, or Shadyside, but bigger.

That seems to be a key distinction from the previous mayoral plans. Previously, the Murphy administration had sought to find one, master developer to undertake the redevelopment of the entire area. While this strategy would put the onus on a single entity, making coordinating redevelopment much easier, it relied on a strategies that were nearly enitrely homogenous, namely retail development.

People didn't seem to like that; I can't blame them.

But getting back to the goals, there are of them I'm looking at here:
(1) Relieving the City of Pittsburgh from a costly financial burden;
(2) Encouraging private investment in downtown;
(3) Providing a livable, workable, playable, shoppable space;
(4) Preserving the existing architectural features of downtown; and
(5) Sustaining the above.

And we move on...

Monday, September 19, 2005

Stormy Seas a-brewin' for 2006 City Budget

If you remember last year's budget fiasco, it'll be no surprise that 2005's budget battle is shaping up for more of the same. From the P-G:

A conservative estimate of the city's revenues could require steep spending cuts. Murphy threatened to eliminate jobs in his letter to [State Budget Secretary Michael] Masch.

Cuts would likely elicit howls from city departments and neighborhoods alike. Whether those howls would be a catalyst for more state aid or nonprofit help is anybody's guess.

Avast me proud beauty!

The Fire Bureau faces aging equipment and employees. The former need to be replaced. The latter are retiring. As a result, the city is spending $1 million a month on overtime in an effort to keep stations staffed.
Key in the 2004-2005 budget framework, were two provisions for (1) slots booty and (2) voluntary non-profit contributions. Both chases were making full sail, As neither of those sources of revenue have yet panned out, the City is looking to be in destined to dance with Jack Ketch. Arrrr! Of further concern is the ultimate outcome of the County Reassessments, those bilge sucking rats, which could either give the City enough or not enough revenue to continue on this tenuous path through the next year, or place on in the black spot.

On the other side, with 2004's drastic slash in City services, we're seeing a push to reinstate a lot of the cut programs, cut fullwidth by the budget cutlass; Council has already pushed to restore funding to the rodent control, to eliminate those rats in the bilges. This does not include all the mandatory payments (pensions, healthcare, interest on debt) that the City to which the City is bound; all of which have stolen doubloons and pieces-of-eight out of the chest.

Shiver me timbers!

Further complicating matters are the ICA and Act 47 Boards, who may (or may not?) have final say over what the City actually spends, and who have been granted letters of reprisal by the Commonwealth. Arrrr, matey! Already has the crew been sent to kiss the cannoneer's daughter, only to to be saved at the last minute from the cat.

Complicating matters even further than that is the promise of a new incoming administration, a new Cap'n for the crew, following last spring's keelhauling. While the incoming Cap'n has no official say over the 2006 budget, he will be bound to it for the duration of his first year in office, matey. This is effectively the last chance Cap'n Murphy has to have any say in the future direction of the City of Pittsburgh. This landlubber will be sent to feed the fish in Davy Jones' locker.

Without a chance t' capitalize on shared services between municipalities/authorities, a increase in revenue, a refinancin' o' existin' debt & obligations, a sudden surge in population, etc., me thinks that t' City will muddle through t' budget process much t' same as last year, endin' up with spendin' short on programs and revenues created out o' magic N'er will this ship be pulled out of the ol' bung hole.

Of course, there is always the option of invading Mt. Oliver, me hearties. Weigh anchor! Hoist the main sail! Smartly me lads; I see sails on the horizon! Ready the fore guns and prepare to board. No quarters!


Friday, September 16, 2005

Business Casual Friday

I'm running out of town for some sort of sundry activity, so enjoy this offering for Business Casual Friday.

SNL Celebrity Jeopardy

"I'll take The Rapists for $200."


Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Thoughts on Dahntahn - pt. 2

Part II:


First and foremost, the City and its related entities own too much property. [There. I said it. I feel better.] As the City acquires more property, it provides a negative incentive to private landowners to improve their own property. As the threat of acquisition by eminent domain has never fully been off the table, private owners are stuck between the choice of improving a property that might eventually be taken or selling off property to a monopsonistic buyer. Neither is truly efficient.

Second, unfortunately the City can't really get rid of the land until it has a real buyer. One of the quirks of redevelopment law is that the URA can only sell to buyers that have evidence of plans, financing, and drawings, i.e., they have a real redevelopment plan. The upside of this is that the local slum lord can't acquire publicly owned property, sit on it, and speculate; the downside of this is that unless there's a real buyer, the city is holding onto this property forever. This compounds the first problem.

Third, costs of downtown development are high, really high, but the market rents that a developer can achieve are really low. While other cities may be able to achieve $1,000+/month in residential rents, in Pittsburgh that looks awfully close to a mortgage payment. In order to offset the low rents, developers need to either (a) reduce their upfront costs [i.e. acquisition, construction, etc.], (b) reduce their overhead costs [utilities or amenities], (c) provide for additional amenities to drive up rents [i.e., provide on-site parking], or (d) spread these costs over more units to make the cash flows work. If you can achieve any of those, you might have a shot at a sucessful development, otherwise you can forget it.

Fourth, Downtown is the bastard neighborhood. There is no real community or community group as of yet to take ownership. There is no Community Based Organization to guide the neighborhood, provide consensus, or make the neighborhood economically viable. Those that do have "an interest" in the neighborhood, I would describe as transients: the City, the PDP, PHLF, all of whom may work in the neighborhood, but are not tied to it.

Fifth, yeah... parts of it still smell like piss.

Sixth, Parking. Well, not parking per se, but a "perceived lack of transit opportunities" if you would. While nearly every busline services downtown, and every T-line runs through downtown (all one of them), the option of living without a car is anathema to most of us living in the U-S-A. Combined with the 50% parking tax, this makes the prospect of downtown living nearly impossible.

Seventh, while the stock of really interesting and architecturally significant buildings in downtown is high, so is the cost of rehabilitating them to usable condition. This is slightly different from my third point above, which can be applied to new construction as well. Existing building in the downtown area built before 1978 are more than likely filled with extensive hazardous materials (PBCs, asbestos, Lead Paint), which need to be abated in what is often a cost prohibitive process. Additionally, so much of the downtown is "historic" and the cost of bringing these buildings up to historic standards is also very high.

Addendum: Almost forgot (actually did forget) to include the biggest problem, and the most pervasive, namely, that Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Region ain't doing so hot. I've seen a few measurements that show the City itself doing better than the suburbs, but when yourr competition is Wall or Cresent townships, I think you have bigger problems. This problem cannot be fully addressed through the improvement of Downtown; instead, the City of Pittsburgh will have to compete with the suburbs and exurbs for its own life. That's bad, myopic thinking for the region. Much better to compete with Cleveland or Harrisburg than to compete with Mt. Oliver.

Anyway, onto Part III... Strategery.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Thoughts on Dahntahn - pt. 1

I'm throwing down my plan for Downtown Development right here... in several parts, just to give me several days worth of material. Let's start at the very beginning, as I've been informed it's a very good place to start:

Part 1: Why I'm optimistic about Downtown.

OK... so parts of Downtown look and smell like piss, which is hardly an incentive for development. There are, however, several parts of downtown that are attractive Urban Spaces: Grant Street, Penn Avenue, First Avenue, Gateway Center, parts of Wood and Smithfield Streets, Strawberry Way and William Penn Place. Other streets like 4th Avenue and Liberty Avenue have their moments as well. So I feel there is a good basis for attractive downtown opportunities, and good public space is not out of the realm of reality.

Second, there have been some improvements downtown over the last decade: Liberty Avenue, the plaza at PPG, the CAPA School, the PNC 1st Side Building, or the convention center. While there is a debate over the efficacy of some of the publicly funded projects, they are now a sunk cost. Still, there is existing investment that can be capitalized.

Third, there is a laundry list of upcoming developments that will increase the value of downtown: the new parking garage on Liberty and Grant, the African-American Cultural Center, the expansion of student housing, ongoing housing developments, the first side lofts, etc. Each of these developments adds a bit more to the viability of the downtown.

Fourth, while the plural of "anecdote" is not "data" there is increasing evidence that downtown living across the country is becoming a viable housing alternative, mostly to young urban pioneers or older empty-nesters. We're seeing this in other parts of the country, but it's a movement that's still in its infancy, especially here.

Fifth, $3.19/gallon. At some point the commuting cost alone will justify a flight back to the inner city.

So, you have reasonable public space, with significant evidence of public investment, risk takers, a nascent market niche, and a marginal efficiency creeping in. I'm optimistic.

Next Part II: Pessimism

Monday, September 12, 2005

Network Problems

My network connection has been up and down more often than two kangaroos during the mating season... I've already lost three good posts and two bad ones. C'est dommage.

I'll regroup and start fresh anon.

We apologize for the inconvenience.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Who is Bob Williams?

On September 6 and 7, numerous national media outlets featured G. Robert "Bob" Williams, president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, falsely criticizing Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin -- both Democrats -- for their handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Williams's media tour appears to have been launched by a September 6 Wall Street Journal op-ed. He also was featured on the September 6 editions of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, ABC's World News Tonight, and Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, as well as the September 7 edition of MSNBC's Connected: Coast to Coast.

But who is Bob Williams, you ask? Media Matters has an answer.

The Fumes Must be Getting to Me

It must be the lack of sleep, carbon monoxide fumes, or the ongoing Labor Day hangover but I'm finding myself agreeing with Eric Montarti & Jake Haulk in their article in the Trib today.

Shocking, I know.

Short summary: Tax Increment Financing Deal... in suburban Washington County... on a greenfield... for retail.  The whole thing doesn't pass the smell test right away.

In order to receive a TIF, a developer must show that, if not for the Tax Increment Financing, the project would not be possible.  That argument is much more compelling in urban areas where the costs of assembling a site and remediating marginal site conditions would otherwise drive developers away from "good" sites.  Distressed, blighted, or otherwise economically disadvantaged areas receive the benefits of development, at the cost of revenues that otherwise would not have been collected anyway.  From a public purpose standpoint, it seems much more logical and cost effective to provide for development on existing infill areas, which are connected to the public network of utilities, roads, and services and are proximately located to other development.  Unfortunately, because of the inherent upfront costs, developers will usually pass up urban infill opportunities for the safer (read: less risky and initially cheaper) suburban greenfield development.  A TIF tries to create an up front incentive for developers, leveling the playing field for urban areas and making them competitive against suburban greenfields.    

Which is why this TIF doesn't seem to make any sense: the developer is already choosing a significantly safer site than, say, Homestead, and one would expect the return on investment to positive with or without the TIF.

Something's wrong. 

I can only assume that either (a) someone is tweaking the numbers to show that this project is infeasible without the TIF, which would be fraudulent, or (b) the long term cash flow of the project IS infeasible and needs the abatement to offset future losses.  If the second assumption is true, this is a bad project right off the bat, and should be quietly disposed.  If the first is true, somebody better look at the numbers again. 

At the end of the day, it will be the municipality that will have to flip the bill for the expenses related to increased greenfield development (additional Water, Sewer, Utility, Police & Fire Protection) and the residents themselves that will have to bear the burden of increased costs of living (increased traffic, pollution, environmental destruction, commute time, etc.) without an obvious public benefit (remediation of brownfield, elimination of blight, return of tax delinquent property to the tax roles, etc.).

But anyway, it's good to see that by calling this a BAD TIF project, the Allegheny Institute is open to the possibility of a GOOD TIF project.  Now if we can only get them to relocate to 240 Forbes Avenue....

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A Bureaucratic Aside

I get really excited when I sign documents, especially when one of the other signatores is THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.  
I'm aspiring to mediocrity over here.   

Monday, September 05, 2005

Compassionate Conservatism from Barbara Bush

From NPR's Market place, this little gem regarding the Katrina evacuees in Houston:

"And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them."
Patrician bitch.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Business Casual Friday

It's been a horrible, horrible week. If you haven't done something yet for New Orleans, Louisianna, or Mississippi yet, check out AmeriCares, an organization who's mission to to provide relief efforts with minimal amounts of overhead. They pride themselves as being one of the most efficient charities in the non-profit sector with money going to people not... heh... bureaucrats.

Until next week (when everyone should donate blood), enjoy this offering for Business Casual Friday.


A quick little game where the object is to power all the little squares by turning the blocks. Pretty easy, but addictive.