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Lot transfers offer proof of the 'transformational power' of Pittsburgh’s land bank

The downtown Pittsburgh skyline on a sunny, clear summer day.
Keith Srakocic

The board of Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority on Thursday unanimously approved the transfer of 17 lots to the city’s Land Bank. The move is expected to support community initiatives that range from cementing the future of urban farms to playground expansions.

URA board member Lindsay Powell said returning land to neighborhood control is the transformational power of the land bank.

“We’re seeing for the first time so many of these lots that have laid bare for so long go back into usefulness,” she said. “[They] go back into the hands of folks that have been doing the work, that have been investing in their communities and their neighbors.”

Powell thanked people for their patience with the land bank and said everyone will continue to “push forward and expand what the land bank can do for the City of Pittsburgh.”

In many cases community members already tend to the lots being transferred or have leases with the URA, said board Chair Kyle Chintalapalli, who is also the city’s chief economic development officer.

“We’re just giving them now the power of ownership related to that,” he said.

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Chintalapalli described getting to the vote on the transfers Thursday as “an odyssey.” It was unclear whether he was referencing the nearly decade-long interim between the creation of the land bank and its first sale this year, or the more recent — though relatively short-lived — struggle to streamline how properties are shuffled between the city, the URA, and the land bank.

The land bank’s sales process is the perfect fit for community-scale projects, unlike that of the URA or the city, Chintalapalli said.

And though those projects are “smaller in absolute size, [they] are no less important for driving forward positive change in our neighborhoods,” he said.

Before the land can be sold to the end users, the sales must be approved by the board of the land bank. If board members are supportive, signs will be posted on each of the lots, and community members can file objections. If 15 or more people object, the land bank will hold a community meeting on the proposed sale.

Also on Thursday, the URA board greenlit a $245,000 grant for the Hazelwood Initiative and its plan to build three for-sale affordable homes on Flowers Avenue, and a $1.6 million loan to Beacon Communities for its planned 51-unit affordable-apartment building in the city’s Bluff neighborhood.

In addition, members approved nearly $1.3 million for community organizations and businesses in the agency’s Avenues of Hope corridors, which aim to support the equitable redevelopment of main streets in the city’s historically Black neighborhoods.

Staff announced a new round of funding for outdoor dining. The URA program allows nonprofits to apply on behalf of businesses in their communities.

There are three tiers of funding, and grants of up to $90,000 dollars are available. At the higher levels, the URA will require an applicant to put up some money as a match.

Grants can be used to build outdoor infrastructure such as patios, make grants to businesses, or pay for design fees.

Applications are due Oct. 16.