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Consulting Firm Involved In Pittsburgh’s Amazon Bid To Study URA Ahead Of Possible Restructuring

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
The John P. Robin civic building at 200 Ross St. is home to both the URA and a number of city departments and authorities.

Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority was incorporated in 1946 and needs to be restructured, Mayor Bill Peduto said late last week.

It’s an assertion Peduto has made for the better part of a decade, said Dan Gilman, the mayor’s chief of staff, who said the URA must move away from the large-scale development of its early years and look toward the 21st century.

“The URA really kept us afloat and did a remarkable job of reinvestment in downtown and reinvestment in our riverfronts and brownfield redevelopment. Now we want to look at a shift back to our neighborhoods and main street redevelopment,” he said. “It’s investing in small local business, it’s investing in minority- and women-owned business.”

Real estate and economic development consulting firm HR&A Advisors will review how the URA conducts business. The firm helped Pittsburgh prepare its bid to land Amazon’s second headquarters, or HQ2, as well as helped organize Pittsburgh’s Housing Opportunity Fund, said Gilman. Several foundations will foot the bill for HR&A’s analysis of the URA.

John Ellis is vice president of communications for one of those foundations, the Heinz Endowments. He said Heinz and others stepped up to offer in excess of $100,000 because it’s an area in which they already have a vested interest.

“We’ve worked closely with the city administration on a number of areas around economic development,” Ellis said, and added that HR&A are the “experts in the field.”

He said he expects the Heinz Endowment board to vote to approve the work in the coming months.

URA officials were not immediately available for comment, but a spokesperson said the URA board planned to announce the study in the next few months. HR&A representatives deferred to the URA and chose not to give an interview.

Gilman said he didn’t know how long a study would take or when recommendations would be released.

“This isn’t a situation where you flip a switch, this is going to be a long-term commitment to rethinking budgets and priorities. The mayor has very openly said this is not meant in any way to cost people jobs, we’re not looking to take that away,” he said. “But you’ll see it play out with everything from hiring decisions in 2019 to how budgets are structured in 2020.”

The mayor’s proposed 2019 budget made waves when it cut more than $5 million of city funding from the URA budget. Housing advocates argued that the cut would undermine the creation of affordable housing; administration officials argued that, on net, the city was dedicating more money to affordable housing.

In a November hearing before City Council, URA executive director Robert Rubinstein noted city money makes up just six percent of the annual URA budget but allows the agency to bring in more than $135 million in other public money. As direct federal and state funding sources continue to decline, the URA must compete for grants that fund important projects; that work requires paying “sophisticated staff,” he said.

Council, with Peduto’s support, eventually returned $2.5 million to the URA for 2019.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.