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Development On The Lower Hill Will Begin This Year

Jake Savitz
90.5 WESA

After nearly 15 years of start-and-stop negotiations, development on Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill will begin this summer. On Thursday, the boards of the Sports and Exhibition Authority, or SEA, and Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority unanimously approved plans for a 26-story office tower and public green space on roughly two acres of land.

Questions remain about the developer’s proposal to invest $50 million in the community, but officials said the time had come to move forward.

Referencing public comments received by the URA, board member and city councilor Daniel Lavelle said, “The sentiment is clear, that the community is ready to move forward today and thus I will stand with them and vote yes.”

Board member Ed Gainey, a state representative and democratic nominee for mayor, said he’s been talking with Hill District residents, businesses, and leaders for the last few weeks.

“I’ve come away from those conversations believing that the majority of folks in the Hill, though they may have some misgivings about aspects of the deal, ultimately want to see this development move forward,” he said in a statement.

The $225 million office tower will be anchored by First National Bank, and is one of the largest projects envisioned for the 28-acre site. The lead developer for most of the site, the Buccini / Pollin Group or BPG, has proposed and signed a $50 million community reinvestment package for the Greater Hill District. However, it has yet to win community approval.

That’s particularly important in the Hill District, more than 100 acres of which were demolished in the 1950s as Pittsburgh pursued an aggressive urban renewal plan, and displaced thousands of Hill District residents and businesses.

Marimba Milliones leads the Hill Community Development Corporation. During Thursday’s URA board meeting she said BPG sent an updated proposal on Wednesday but her organization had not yet had a chance to review it. She noted while there had been some areas of improvement, further changes were needed. Milliones has said repeatedly that her organization supports the development, but she urged the URA to condition its approval on a signed agreement to ensure accountability.

“It is critically important that we have job opportunities beyond construction, hospitality and building services,” she said. “And that Black-owned and Hill District businesses have a clear opportunity to participate … no one should feel like a visitor in their own neighborhood.”

The URA board voted to move forward without that signed agreement.

In a statement afterward, the Hill CDC urged government to more clearly hold accountable “private interests who benefit from such tremendous public resources and tax dollars” instead of leaving that job to community-based organizations. In addition, the statement acknowledged that BPG has committed to work on reaching a mutually-signed reinvestment agreement, as well as to continue to work with the Development Review Panel, the Hill District’s community process. At a URA briefing in May, Lavelle asked BPG to do the same.

Leaders of BPG were not immediately available for comment.

Part of what the community review process determines is compliance with a 2013 agreement called the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan, or CCIP. The document, which the developers agreed to be bound by, lays out focus areas the developer must fulfill. One of those is a recurring revenue stream for the community.

On Thursday, Lavelle committed to securing such a revenue stream, proposing to take $1 per car that parks on the Lower Hill. City leaders have pursued that idea for many years.

The Pittsburgh Penguins hold exclusive development rights to the land in the Lower Hill. In a statement the team’s president and CEO David Morehouse called Thursday’s events “historic” for the city and for the Hill District.

“We are proud to be finally advancing toward construction of a world class first phase development,” he said.

Also at Thursday’s meeting the URA board approved guidelines for how tax money generated from the development will be invested. The Lower Hill is a Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance or LERTA area, which means revenue that normally would flow to city, county, and school district coffers instead can be used by the developer to invest in the site.

Thanks to a 2015 lawsuit filed by the Hill CDC, half of the tax revenue will stay with the developer while the other half will flow to the Greater Hill District Reinvestment Fund. Lavelle and the Hill CDC will co-chair the group that decides how that money will be spent. Four percent of the fund will go to the Hill CDC to cover the group’s operating expenses.

Speakers at Thursday’s meeting urged more community involvement and oversight of the fund. Lavelle responded by committing to full transparency.

The SEA board also approved the project on Thursday morning.

Before the vote, SEA board member and State Senator Wayne Fontana said “regardless of how these votes go … I expect conversations to continue” about additional commitments to the community.

SEA board member Reverend Glenn Grayson, who leads Wesley Center A.M.E. Zion Church, said some of the commitments made by BPG could not be included in the written agreement and remain verbal commitments.

“I’m operating on a trust … [they] will still be honored,” he said. “It shouldn’t take as much negotiating to do what I feel may be ethically right,” given the history of the Lower Hill.

All five of the seven members who voted approved the sale of two parcels of land. Board member Sala Udin did not vote, after SEA’s legal counsel advised he should recuse himself. Udin’s son Bomani Howze is a vice president for BPG.

After the vote, Tim Stevens, the head of the Black Political Empowerment Project, called the project “a historic opportunity,” but he urged all parties “to repair some of the historical damage done to the Hill District,” and to “fully meet the commitments and obligations … and to help make the Hill District whole.”