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The First Project On Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill Creeps Closer To Approval

Jake Savitz
90.5 WESA
After more than 100 acres of the Lower Hill was demolished in the 1950s as part of Pittsburgh's urban renewal initiative, much of the land has since been covered with parking lots.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and their lead developer, the Buccini/Pollin Group, or BPG, say by mid-July they expect to break ground on a 26-story office tower in Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District. The team provided that update on Wednesday during a special meeting of the board of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh in advance of an expected board vote next month.

Approval of the project will hinge on whether members of the board are satisfied that commitments made to the community by BPG can be enforced, URA board chair Sam Williamson said in an interview last month.

“[We] won’t approve something that’s not ready,” he said then. On Wednesday, he reiterated that “this needs to be a development that creates benefits for the broader community.”

During Wednesday’s update, BPG co-founder Chris Buccini said construction of the First National Bank tower comes with a proposed $50 million community reinvestment plan that invests “not just in buildings, but in people” in the Middle and Upper Hill District.

Those investments range from $7.5 million for a Greater Hill District Reinvestment Fund, a First Source hiring center that BPG has committed to fund for 10 years and $2.5 million in small business support. Other commitments include loans and grants from First National Bank, $5 million in Opportunity Zone funding to invest in real estate projects and $8 million for housing stabilization. Money for the housing fund, however, is tied to a separate project in the Lower Hill.

That reinvestment plan remains a proposal: negotiations regarding its terms between BPG and community stakeholders are ongoing.

Every speaker during the public-comment portion of the meeting expressed support for the construction of the First National Bank Tower and its accompanying half-acre of green space. In almost every case, however, that support was tempered by the same caveat: There is more work to be done before community members believe the development is to their benefit.

Chef Claudy Pierre is a business owner and Hill Resident. He said he’d love to see the development happen, “but with transparency and clarity,” he added. “Let’s get some legally binding documents.”

Several speakers said BPG’s reinvestment plan fails to satisfy a 2013 agreement called the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan, or CCIP. That agreement was negotiated and signed by community stakeholders, the city, the county and the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was intended to ensure the Greater Hill District benefits from any development on the Lower Hill, and it lays out seven focus areas ranging from workforce development to wealth-building opportunities.

Glenn Grayson Jr. said while the developers’ presentation to the URA tells some truths, it fails to tell the whole truth.

“Negotiation takes place when both parties agree to make sacrifices to reach a deal,” he said. “I understand not all requests can be met, but not one request from the community partners [has] been agreed upon.”

Those requests included asking future office tenants to try to hire from the neighborhood, more affordable rents in the tower for small and Black-owned businesses, and community input for the $5 million Opportunity Zone fund.

Grayson is a member of the Executive Management Committee, which oversees implementation of the CCIP. Six members of the nine-member body signed a letter of support for the project, but Marimba Milliones, who leads the Hill Community Development Corporation, said that four of those signatories work for the Penguins or the development team, or formerly had ties to the organization. In addition, she said, the developers have failed to pass the community’s development review process.

“Pittsburgh keeps flying the banner of equity, and time after time, we keep falling short when the opportunities to make real change are presented,” she said.

She and others called on the URA board not to approve the project before community members and BPG agree on and sign the community reinvestment plan.

The URA board last discussed the question of enforcement of community commitments in May 2020, when members granted preliminary approval for the office tower and open space. During that meeting, Pittsburgh city councilor and board member Daniel Lavelle acknowledged “outlying concerns that the community has that we must, and absolutely will, work through.”

Penguins CEO David Morehouse agreed, and in a statement said then that “together we need to build a development process better rooted in transparency and accountability.”

In the intervening year, it’s unclear whether that has happened.

Dr. Kimberly Ellis is a Hill District resident as well as the director of community, arts and culture for BPG. Saying “there has been misinformation on all sides,” she urged everyone to move forward.

Bomani Howze is vice president of BPG in Pittsburgh and a Hill resident. He told the board the development team will continue to work with all stakeholders, but “we can’t lose this moment to correct some of the wrongs of the past,” he said. “We want to make history. This is history in the making.”

Lavelle, who spoke last during Wednesday’s meeting, asked if BPG would commit to finishing the community development review process. While BPG has raised concerns about the process, Buccini responded: “Obviously, [I’m] willing to work with you.”

Though board members had questions about the project’s planned open space, they voted to talk about them later in an executive session rather than continue the meeting; they adjourned after four hours.

The project will go to a vote on June 10.

This story was updated at 2:48 on Thur., May 27 to correct an error: An earlier version of this story misidentified a member of the Executive Management Committee. He is Glenn Grayson Jr.