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Politics & Government

Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning will have a new leader next month

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Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA

One of the City of Pittsburgh’s most consequential departments, city planning, will have a new director in early February, WESA has learned. It is unclear if the current director, Andrew Dash, will remain with the department in some other role. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The move will be among the first high-level personnel shifts from former Mayor Bill Peduto's administration to Mayor Ed Gainey's era: Public Safety Director Wendell Hissirch disclosed that he had been given his own walking papers late last year. The change in city planning is an early sign that Gainey will approach development differently than his predecessor did.

The city has no comment at this time, a spokesperson said Thursday afternoon.

And while city planning is a less visible function than public safety, the department is “an integral part of how the city functions … to accomplish what we want to see, and what the neighborhoods want to see,” said Councilor Bobby Wilson, who heads the committee on Land Use and Economic Development.

Beyond updating and managing the city’s zoning code, which ultimately determines what can be built where, the department is tasked with building long-term plans and collecting the data necessary to do so, Wilson said: “Green infrastructure, sustainability, affordable housing, equitable access to transit.” And then: “How do we make informed decisions about that data?”

Peduto appointed — and city council confirmed — Dash as the director of city planning in June 2020: He had been serving as acting director after Ray Gastil left the top post in 2019 for a job with Carnegie Mellon University. Dash himself joined the department in 2008 as a senior planner and was named assistant director in 2014, according to his LinkedIn page.

During his time with the department, Dash has helped push for inclusionary zoning, a tool to create affordable housing. He also helped spearhead an effort to expand the city’s housing supply with a pilot that allowed people to build additional housing, called accessory dwelling units, on their properties.

When told about Dash’s pending departure from the department’s top position, Wilson said he’ll be sad to see him no longer leading it.

“I’ve had a great working relationship with him. Andrew Dash is great,” he said. But “I trust that [the administration] is going to make the right decisions, and I hope to have a strong working relationship with the new director.”

Wilson said he hopes that the future of the city’s vacant and abandoned land will be a larger focus of the department moving forward. While he acknowledged that mission is also in the purview of the city's land bank, he said city planners can play a role in creating a strategic plan.

The Department of City Planning also works directly with neighborhoods to help guide how they change, said Joanna Deming, executive director of the Fineview & Perry Hilltop Citizens Councils.

Deming compared the City of Pittsburgh to a board game, where city officials make the rules and serve as the bank.

“City planning is the architect and the graphic designer of the game,” she said. “They’re determining what the board looks like … and they’re also qualifying the players.”

For example, city planning plays a key role in determining which neighborhoods are next in line to create a community plan to then be adopted by the city.

“Those plans are supposed to inform investment,” and guide what development projects win approval from the city, Deming said. “If there’s going to be equitable investment, there needs to be an equitable distribution of plans and engagement.”

Most community organizations are short on people and resources, so they rely on city planning for advice on how to move projects through complicated approval processes, said Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.

“Development is controversial,” he said, and city planning is at its best when it’s a neutral arbiter. “We’re trying to diminish the level of distrust that exists towards government in our community.”

Swartz said a new planning director could help change people’s perceptions about the direction the city is headed. That, he said, could “reduce the level of suspicion that wealthy neighborhoods are going to remain wealthy forever and that poor neighborhoods are going to remain poor forever.”