Saturday, May 14, 2005

Council race really hits close to home - with more negativity

Council race really hits close to home - "Printed next to the photo, fliers mock Payne's campaign slogan -- 'Let's get our house in order' -- with the slogan, 'On May 17 tell her, 'No Tonya, you get your house in order!'

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Council race really hits close to home

By Jeremy Boren
Friday, May 13, 2005

In the heart of Pittsburgh, where boarded-up homes dot residential streets, two City Council candidates are locked in a shouting match over who is better equipped to rejuvenate neighborhoods.

A poster circulated this week by supporters of District 6 Councilman Sala Udin touched off the melee.

The signs show a run-down house on Ophelia Street in South Oakland owned by Uptown Development Corp. -- headed by one of Udin's challengers, Tonya Payne. She has been the nonprofit's president since 1997.

Printed next to the photo, fliers mock Payne's campaign slogan -- "Let's get our house in order" -- with the slogan, "On May 17 tell her, 'No Tonya, you get your house in order!' "

Udin said Payne has failed to take care of the house or to form a viable plan to renovate it.

"That's the idea," Udin said Thursday. "And there's no application from the Uptown group for development on that property."

Udin said he knows because he checked with the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which he serves as a board member.

Records from the city Bureau of Building Inspection indicate that Payne's group bought the Ophelia Street home with its numerous building-code violations in 2002. The house hasn't been touched since -- evidenced by litter strewn in high weeds surrounding its crumbling, red-brick exterior.

"It brings the whole neighborhood down," said Marissa Stanley, 20, a Point Park University graduate who lives just around the corner from the house. "If they say they're going to do something, they should do it."

Mary Fleming, assistant building-inspection chief, said the property has fallen through her system's cracks. The new owners should have fixed the code violations on record.

To settle the issue, Fleming sent an inspector to the house yesterday afternoon. As a result, Payne's corporation now could be forced to obtain a building permit within 30 days -- the first step toward correcting the house's problems.

"I don't know why they'd buy it if they weren't going to do anything with it," Fleming said.

Payne said she blames Udin for not supporting her group's efforts.

"That property is three years behind schedule because the URA -- which Sala Udin is on -- has not approved the funding," she said. "The URA is playing games with us."

That claim is at the heart of her campaign to unseat Udin, said Payne.

"Sala is always blocking progress. If it's not his idea or not done his way, you can take the highway," she said.

As for Payne's past attempts to renovate the property, Udin said: "Every (URA) application has been supported financially, and I have supported it. The very reason they got the funding they did is because of my involvement in the URA and my support for them."

Payne admits her group has had some success, including construction of five new homes and renovations for two others on Locust Street, Uptown.

In the latest flier that Payne plans to send to voters soon, she casts Udin and lame-duck Mayor Tom Murphy as cohorts who have demonstrated "blatant disregard for our neighborhoods" and have provided "sub-standard" services.

Payne says Udin has failed to bring "development beyond housing in the Hill or Manchester."

She also criticized Udin for not bringing a much-needed grocery store to the Hill District. Payne also questioned his track record as a board member for Hill Community Development Corp.

Allegheny County property records indicate the corporation owns a vacant, dilapidated home on Dinwiddie Street in the Hill District. With high grass, crumbling bricks and broken windows, it looks similar to the Ophelia Street home that Payne's nonprofit owns. The Hill development group has owned the property since 1998.

The difference there, Udin said, is that a plan is in place to renovate it and is part of an upcoming second phase of redevelopment for six properties on Dinwiddie Street. The first phase built four new homes just across the street from the run-down building.

Udin noted that he doesn't run the Hill development group -- he's only a board member.

Even so, Hill District residents said seven years is too long to wait.

"Seven years is not a reasonable amount of time," Milton Jackson Jr., 52, a lifelong Hill resident, said while sitting in the sun by his Subway franchise on Centre Avenue, a few blocks from Dinwiddie Street. "It creates a hazard."

Jackson said houses that are left to decay too long lower neighborhoods' appeal -- leading to more vacant houses. "It's a vicious cycle."

Jeremy Boren can be reached at or (412) 320-7987.