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Pittsburgh’s URA Continues To 'Hunt For Resources' To Support City Residents, Small Businesses

Buccini / Pollin Group
A rendering shows a new phase of the Lower Hill development expected to begin in 2020.

Since the response to the coronavirus put most of Pennsylvania’s economy on lockdown last month, Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has provided more than $3 million in emergency loans to support small businesses.

“We are now oversubscribed and may have to close the fund,” said Greg Flisram, the URA’s executive director. The agency has received some matching money from foundations and Citizens Bank, but “we continue to hunt for additional resources.”

The public sector should not be alone in offering a lifeline to small businesses, said URA board chair Sam Williamson. He called on Pittsburgh-based businesses and financial institutions to join in the work.

“These are, admittedly, high-risk loans that we’re entering into,” he said. “But this is the right thing to do to try to keep small businesses afloat and keep workers employed as we weather this crisis.”

The news comes as the U.S. Small Business Administration announced it ran out of money to support the Paycheck Protection Program, an effort to protect small businesses and their employees.

In March the URA board approved the Urban League of Pittsburgh to disburse $300,000 in emergency funds to help families cover rent. In the first two weeks the Urban League received more than 500 inquiries, said Jessica Smith Perry, who directs the URA’s Housing Opportunity Fund.

In an address Thursday Mayor Bill Peduto talked about “our friends at the URA” who are finding ways to provide help to small businesses and renters “despite diminishing resources.” Peduto said the financial outlook for the city was bleak and that “large cuts to spending will likely be necessary.”

However, some development is moving ahead. The Pittsburgh Penguins and their partners will proceed with the next phase in development on the 28-acre Lower Hill site.

The Buccini / Pollin Group plans to build a 24-story office and retail tower on the block of land across from the I-579 cap project currently under construction. The URA board is expected to vote on the purchase of the land as well as conceptual designs for the parcel next month.

In addition, the URA is working with the city to begin an update to the Greater Hill District Master Plan, completed in 2011. The aim is to have an updated plan adopted by the city as the guiding document for the neighborhood.

The URA board also approved funding for three affordable housing developments.

The B’Nai Israel synagogue on N. Negley Avenue in Garfield will be converted into 45 apartments, 38 of which will be available to people making at or below 60 percent of the area median income; the units will remain affordable for 40 years. The URA will provide $1 million in loan funds to support the construction of the units, the first phase of the project. The second phase of the project will restore the synagogue’s rotunda and convert it into office and community space.

The URA awarded $1.25 million in loan funding to ACTION-Housing for its Flats on Forward project in Squirrel Hill. The development’s 43 apartments will all be affordable to people earning less than 60 percent area median income, with five units set aside for people earning less than 20 percent of area median income. The mixed-use development will have commercial space on the ground floor, and meet the neighborhood’s request that development on that corner of Forbes and Murray Avenues be a gateway to the neighborhood.

Another ACTION-Housing development in Lawrenceville, Sixth Ward Flats, received $350,000 more in loan funds to address unexpected cost increases on the project. The two three-story buildings will include 35 affordable units as well as ground-floor commercial space.

The URA board also discussed the results of an organizational strategy report it commissioned in 2019. The consultant, HR&A Advisors, found that the agency is at an "inflection point," and needs to overhaul how it does business in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century. 

"Our economy has been generating more poverty and more income inequality ... across race and gender than at any time in almost the last hundred years," said Williamson. "The URA is in a position to push for change on that front." 

Officials were quick to note that the report is a North Star, but not a plan. The URA will have to create a roadmap to meet the recommendations made in the report.