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Pittsburgh officials pledge better services, more police Downtown

Downtown Pittsburgh businesses, community groups and residents met with Mayor Ed Gainey and other city leaders Thursday to discuss how to improve the area — which has been struggling to come back from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

At a meeting inside the Union Trust Building, Gainey unveiled details about how a plan to triple police presence in the area fits into a broader strategy of cleaning up streets and alleyways, as well as encouraging new residents and businesses to locate Downtown.

Gainey pushed back against criticism that the city hasn’t acted quickly enough to address concerns about increased crime in the neighborhood. He argued his administration inherited difficult problems that didn’t develop overnight.

“The reality is we're talking about a multi-prong problem that is going to take multiple agencies, multiple solutions, because there are multiple problems,” Gainey stressed.

He noted that city leaders have been meeting for months with Downtown stakeholders on initiatives to rein in violence and public nuisances.

Gainey was joined onstage by some of those groups Thursday. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Downtown Neighbors Alliance and the Building Owners & Managers Association of Pittsburgh led the discussion by unveiling plans to clean up trash and graffiti and launch an ambassador program to help police provide services and support.

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA

Of the hundreds of residents and business owners in attendance, many voiced a desire for more police in the area to manage aggressive panhandlers, littering and homeless encampments. Others asked the city to invest in amenities, businesses and development in the area.

Gainey announced that a new police unit dedicated to Downtown will begin patrols by the end of March. According to Pittsburgh Police Commander Matthew Lackner, who will head up the division, 18 officers will split the shifts.

Lackner said the city expects these officers — who will be reassigned voluntarily — to get to know business owners, residents and others who frequent the neighborhood. That, he argued, will allow police to better serve it.

“It’s going to be the same officers every single day,” he told WESA. “[They] are going to have their finger on the pulse of what's going on Downtown."

The unit will initially be based out of the Lantern Building at 600 Liberty Avenue. It plans to move into a new public safety center before the end of 2023.

In the meantime, officials confirmed that Allegheny County police are patrolling the neighborhood more frequently in conjunction with city officers.

Leaders also shared plans to supplement the police patrols with trained civilians. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership will launch a 10-person “Golden Triangle Ambassador” unit next month to help police manage non-criminal nuisances, connect people to mental health services and provide support during large events in the area. The Downtown Partnership said it plans to employ the team during a five-year pilot program funded primarily by grants and donations.

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Although Gainey assured those in attendance that the city is taking public safety seriously, he stressed that some problems can’t be tackled by city leaders alone. Gainey spoke ardently about how local efforts struggle to keep guns out of the hands of young people today

“[Kids] don’t fight. They shoot,” he said. “This ain’t just Downtown, this ain’t just Pittsburgh… this is all over.

“We refuse as a society to change the law to deal with gun violence even though the killers are getting younger,” he added.

Some Downtown groups are engaging with young people who need a place to go between home and school. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh expanded its hours of operation last month toward that effort.

The city also plans to open more community rec centers to offer programs and after-school activities. But Gainey noted his power to curb gun trafficking is limited, and he implored the audience to write to their state and federal representatives to do something about gun violence.

“I could have a cop on every corner,” he said. “If they see who they want, they’re going to go get it. I’m not just saying it just to say it. It’s proven.”

While public safety took up much of the nearly three-hour meeting Thursday, residents and business owners also asked the city to do more to attract local businesses and new residents by cleaning up alleyways and creating more affordable housing.

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA

Another issue discussed at length was a lack of public restrooms Downtown — an absence that leads to public urination and defecation. When residents suggested police arrest those found defecating in public places, Gainey stressed that “detention is not going to solve it” and that more public restrooms are needed.

A report commissioned by the Building Owners & Managers Association of Pittsburgh confirmed a desperate need for more public restrooms Downtown. Amanda Schaub, the association’s executive director, said people often have no access to a safe public restroom.

“There are people that just do not have the option to go somewhere so you can cite them, but literally there is no public restroom in downtown Pittsburgh,” she said.

A city spokesperson said leaders are considering a range of options to increase restroom availability Downtown, including portable toilets and parking garage facilities.

Second Avenue Commons remains closed this week.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Second Avenue Commons.

Leaders also acknowledged the increasing need to serve the city’s homeless population Downtown, as a new shelter on Second Avenue is beyond capacity.

A surge in homelessness “is not a city problem, that is a problem regionally,” said Jeremy Waldrup, CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. “They are our neighbors. We need to get those folks who are ready, willing and able into housing.”

To that end, the city announced 45 new single-room units will become available soon on the city’s North Side at the Allegheny YMCA and Bethlehem Haven.

Gainey stressed his administration will not create policies that criminalize people for being homeless.

“We have to find a place for them,” Gainey said. “[But] there was never a plan for additional housing. There was never a plan for affordability. We’re creating it now.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.