How Can Residents Demand More Of Pittsburgh’s Development Process?

Aug 21, 2019

Pittsburgh needs more housing, but housing that reflects what neighborhoods want and need. That was the driving sentiment behind a meeting in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood Tuesday night, where attendees discussed ways to influence the development process.

Most development is driven by private developers and private capital, said Randall Taylor of advocacy group Penn Plaza Support and Action, which organized the meeting.

Even with a more transparent community process, projects seem to come to fruition no matter what a community thinks about it, he said. But then he broke from his remarks to ask the crowd a question.

“Maybe we’re wrong up here,” he said. “Do you think we control our community?”

No one in the room raised their hand.

Before the group discussion, different speakers gave short presentations about tenant rights, cooperative housing models, and how to work together to create change. The idea was to provide different frameworks from which to consider rising rents, empty commercial storefronts, and how to play a role in shaping future developments.

“One person, going up against anyone, whether it’s the landlord, whether it’s the city, whether it’s Urban Redevelopment [Authority], they can get blown off,” said Alethea Sims, president of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty. “We all have a right to organize.”

Attendee George Moses agreed. He added that the problems Pittsburgh is facing are not new, that communities like East Liberty have borne the brunt of development since the 1950s and urban renewal.

“There’s money to be made on the backs of poor people,” he said. “We must focus on the policy.”

Penn Plaza Support and Action was formed after the owner of Penn Plaza Apartments in 2015 began work to demolish the two buildings and redevelop. For many years the site had been restricted to affordable housing, but that covenant expired in the early 2000s and became “naturally-occurring affordable housing.”

After a long, acrimonious fight between the city, the developer, and several neighborhood groups, tenants were given more time to move out, and were provided with relocation assistance. Both buildings were demolished by 2017, but the events forced an ongoing discussion about housing affordability and development within the city.