History Makes Hill District Residents Wary Of New Development
The Pittsburgh Penguins and their lead developer hope to break ground on a new office complex in the Lower Hill this summer. But even as plans for the 26-story tower advance, a fundamental question still lingers: Is this new development doing enough to right the wrongs of the past?
Pittsburgh City Councilor Daniel Lavelle represents the Hill District, and he said fear about the Lower Hill development is really a fear of being erased.
Residents, he said, “fear private capital comes, and it comes in a manner that’s sort of uncontrolled, unmanaged by the community, and the community gets run over.”
These aren't idle concerns. Black families were among those who settled the Hill in the early- and mid-1800s. Over the next century, they made it a powerhouse of Black business and culture. But in the early 1950s, city leaders razed more than 100 acres to make way for what they said would be a cultural district with the Civic Arena as the centerpiece.
Now, more than 60 years later, the community, the city, the developer — everyone — says the destruction of the urban renewal period set the Hill and Black residents back generations.
Dr. Kimberly Ellis is a Hill District resident as well as the director of community, arts, and culture for lead developer, the Buccini / Pollin Group, or BPG. She spoke about the neighborhood's past issues with development.
“We don’t want to repeat this process, that’s the whole point,” she said during a recent presentation of the development plan.
Yet many people worry that’s exactly what’s happening, said Reverend Glenn Grayson Sr. He’s a board member of the Sports and Exhibition Authority, but spoke as an individual.
“I don’t think anybody wants to stop the development,” he said. “But I think many would rather [have] none than a disadvantage again. So I’m not taking a side, but I think that’s the struggle.”
As part of the development of the $230 million office tower, BPG and its primary tenant, First National Bank, have pledged $45 million for small businesses, housing stabilization and workforce development in the Middle and Upper Hill.
However, critics say the reinvestment proposal has worrisome gaps. For example, while it offers a job center to link residents with jobs that become available on the site, some say they want more details on training opportunities so they can qualify for those jobs. Minority- and women-owned businesses comprise 45% of the pre-development work, but doubters say there won't be enough ownership opportunities for businesses once the project is built.
Daniel Armanios, an assistant professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and a board member of the Hill Community Development Corporation or Hill CDC, said research consistently shows that the most sustainable and successful infrastructure projects center community skills and needs.
“That does not seem to be the path that the developers of [the Lower Hill want to take,” he said, adding that this high-profile project will show how, or whether, the city values equity.
Reverend Lee Walls is a member of the neighborhood’s Development Review Panel, which evaluates whether proposed projects deliver on neighborhood goals as outlined in the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan or CCIP.
“It’s not so much about the dollar amount,” Walls said, referring to the term sheet. “The biggest problem is the interpretation of the CCIP and compliance with the CCIP.”
The 2014 agreement is intended to ensure the development helps residents. But the DRP has consistently given plans for the office tower a failing grade. In response, the developers have taken a series of steps to address gaps in their plan. However, their score dropped in the most recent review, which took place in March 2021.
The DRP says the developers failed to provide documentation for their commitments, and also cited the controversial change of a census tract boundary. But the developers say the setback raises concerns about the DRP’s objectivity, suggesting it keeps moving the goalposts..
“We've really given the community every last bit we possibly can,” said BPG co-founder Chris Buccini. If the development doesn’t move forward, he warned, “I am 100 percent certain that this site sits vacant for the next 20 years and whatever comes next will never generate anything of this magnitude.”
Meanwhile, community members are upset that BPG has continued to move forward with the project — most recently seeking the approval of the planning commission — without first winning approval from the DRP.
For Hill District resident and curator Samantha Black the decision to move forward does not incline her to trust the developer.
“To neglect that entire [DRP] process and just say, ‘Hey, we know what’s best for you,’ is insulting, at best, and anti-Black, at worst,” she said.
Another resident and business owner, Deidra Washington, said she feels like decisions have been made without input from the larger community.
“We just assume to know what people want because they’re in need,” she said. “Or what they need because they’re in need.”
Marimba Milliones is the executive director of the Hill CDC, and she said the relationship between the developers and the community doesn’t have to be fraught.
“Every single thing you’re supposed to do is already written out [in the CCIP],” Milliones said. “Get down to the business of doing what you committed to do.”
The new project does have plenty of supporters. Cheyanne Bronzell is the chef and owner of Phat Girlz A Cooking. She told the city's planning commission this week the plans made her hopeful.
“I was born and raised on the Hill, Webster Avenue, … at the time where the Hill was flourishing, full of Black businesses,” she said. “That’s what I would like to see again.”
Buccini said his company was hired two years ago to create that kind of future.
“I personally wrote the community reinvestment term sheet and summary, and I've said I look forward to the day of signing this and being held responsible for this,” he said.
Buccini said the reinvestment proposal has changed significantly due to community feedback. The $45 million pledged to the Hill is 50 percent more money than was initially on the table. Amachie Ackah is the co-founder of Clay Cove Capital, which is putting up the money for the project. He said despite their concerns about the DRP, dialogue with the community will continue.
“We're going to do whatever we can to stay engaged with the community. We are here in good faith,” he said, adding that even if they didn’t care about the community, they need the Middle and Upper Hill to succeed for the Lower Hill to succeed.
However, developers said some community demands, such as requiring future building tenants to aim to hire a certain percentage of locals, are simply not realistic.
Lavelle said no written document can address all the fears of a community that has already been betrayed. He said there has to be trust, which will only come if a developer is held accountable.
“Which is why the present matters so much,” he said.
The project next goes to the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Sports and Exhibition Authority.
Correction: This story was updated at 1:18 p.m. on May 12, 2021 to reflect that the developer's score did not increase at any point during the DRP process .