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Hill District Stakeholders Worry Rushed Development Of The Lower Hill Jeopardizes The Neighborhood

A rendering of the green space planned next to the proposed 26-story office tower.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and their development partners aim to break ground on a 26-story office tower on the Lower Hill this summer. Many stakeholders are eager to see investment, but want to ensure investment benefits the neighborhood as a whole. At a meeting Monday night, residents noted that while the developers have made numerous reinvestment promises, the specifics remain unclear, and therefore, unenforceable.As she began the meeting, Hill Community Development Corporation CEO Marimba Milliones said she’s more eager than anyone to see development.

“But we have to make sure we do it in a way that does not wash away the residents of our community, that does not sweep away the culture of our neighborhood,” she said.

Starting in the 1930s the Hill District, like many predominantly Black neighborhoods, was buffeted by waves of racist federal policy. Redlining cut residents off from capital to invest in their homes, which precipitated a decision by city leaders to advance a policy of urban renewal. In the 1950s, Pittsburgh condemned and tore down more than 100 acres of the Lower Hill. The demolition displaced thousands of people, hundreds of businesses and important cultural institutions. Promises to build back never materialized.

Milliones talked about that history in her introduction, calling attention to the wealth and land the Hill has lost over the decades, “and in some cases, the hope that we can do better,” she said. “That we can still reclaim our neighborhood, that we can build upon the master plan that we have envisioned for ourselves.”

Anyone who wants to develop in the Hill must go through the community’s review process, the Hill District Development Review Panel. A group of residents evaluates development proposals to see if they align with the Greater Hill District Master Plan and assigns a score; then, individual residents also vote on the plan. This process is what the Hill CDC uses to satisfy a city ordinance that requires registered community organizations, or RCOs, to create “orderly and democratic means for forming representative public input.”

The idea behind the 2018 RCO legislation was to ensure communication between developers and communities. Before a project can win approval from a city entity like the Planning Commission, it must first be presented to residents at a public meeting.

A major concern for Hill District stakeholders is that the 26-story office tower, to be anchored by First National Bank, has yet to make a passing grade in the review process. The developers — the Penguins’ development arm, Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Redevelopment LP; the Buccini/Pollin Group and Clay Cove Capital LLC — said they need to move forward anyway, but remain committed to being good stewards of the neighborhood.

In their presentation, the development team talked about Blocks G1 and G4, the site of the office tower and a green space, respectively. While they didn’t talk much about specific community investments, Bomani Howze of Buccini/Pollin Group said they have set a goal to have 45 percent of the work to be done by minority- and women-owned businesses, so-called MBEs and WBEs.

“We’re going to be talking more about those opportunities at another time,” he said. In pre-development, 41 percent of the work has been assigned to MBEs and WBEs, and the partners are working to break future work into smaller chunks to allow smaller firms to bid on it.

Over the course of the more than three-hour meeting, the chat feature on Zoom was busy. Some people asked about a census tract change that would make the Lower Hill site eligible for Opportunity Zone investments, and what effect that sudden infusion of cash may have on the neighborhood. In some instances, those investments have seemed to hasten gentrification of low-income communities. Others asked questions about what financial investments the developers would make besides the long-standing agreement to divert half of the increased property taxes from the site into a Greater Hill District Reinvestment Fund. A few people noted that other commitments  — money for the Ammon Recreation Center, the Curtain Call project, the New Granada Theater — remain outstanding. And many said that if the developers were so committed to getting it right in the Hill, it seemed counterintuitive not to meet the standards of the community review process first.

Samantha Black attended Monday’s meeting and said the developers’ approach seemed disingenuous.

“It seems like you guys are trying really hard to connect with us, and what we’re really asking for are not the things that you guys are addressing,” she said, and added that “circumventing the [community review] process is completely insulting.”

Chris Buccini of the Buccini/Pollin Group said he appreciates all of the feedback.

“I’m a human being,” he said. “I’m trying my best to listen.”

Buccini said it’s a big, complicated project under a lot of timing pressure — he said First National Bank managed to convince its board to commit to building and anchoring this project. However, they have to move fast, according to Buccini; if interest rates go up too much, the project won’t happen, and neither will the projected investments in the Hill.

But community members said before one of the most expensive projects on the whole site moves forward, what benefits will flow to the neighborhood needs to be enshrined in a contract. Attendee Kaiya Price-Dennis said Black people have been lied to for centuries.

“If you’re all about the Hill and this is such a great opportunity,” she said. “Put pen to paper.”

Amachie Ackah, founder of the minority-owned Clay Cove Capital, now a majority investor in the Lower Hill, responded and said his firm came to the neighborhood to be an investor and a partner for the long-term.

“People in disadvantaged areas, people who look like me, people who are African Americans have been unfortunately on the short end of the stick of a lot of investment,” he said. “We believe in what you’re saying, not with flowery words, but with real dollars.”

Buccini said he had put together a reinvestment term sheet for Blocks E and G, which was sent to the Hill CDC last week. However, Hill CDC officials noted that those commitments still fall short of the parties’ agreement to satisfy a 2014 document called the Community Collaboration and Implementation Agreement, which contains seven key focus areas that range from cultural and community legacy projects to wealth-building initiatives.

Buccini said he’d happily sign a term sheet tomorrow, and hopes to sign a specific agreement soon. PublicSource reported the Penguins released the proposed term sheet after the meeting. The 27-page document includes roughly $34 million of investment stemming from the tower. The development partners said they intend to go before the Pittsburgh Planning Commission in April to seek approval on their final land development plan.

The 2018 law that required Monday night’s meeting does not oblige developers to make any changes to their plans in response to community feedback. At the bottom of its presentation, the Hill CDC urged attendees to “tell the developers to come back when they’re ready to meet the commitments made to the Hill District.”

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