Monday, October 17, 2005

Pitt squares off with private developer in a battle of Oak Hill

This is one of the ways to make residents and voters meaningless in the real power plays of life in Pittsburgh: Divide and Conquer.

Another frequently repeated trend is Pitt's willingness to fight with others. It ran to the courts when the Big East broke up and tried to force a judge to make Miami Univ stay Pitt's friend.

Furthermore, Pitt's institutional worries have spilled over to all sorts of other distractions beyond its borders. Pitt would do better to worry about its core mission and not get wrapped up in follies with other assorted sideline efforts. Pitt's students and its educational mission take a back seat to merry-go-rounds, fighting food cart vendors and housing development squabbles.

Perhaps Oak Court is going to take over the title for the "backyard brawl."

Pitt, developer battle splits Oak Hill 'They intentionally wanted to divide us,' said Ms. Foster, who blames the developer. Some others blame Pitt."

It is great to see great articles such as this from the pages of the Post-Gazette. Thank goodness Pittsburgh now has Rich Lord as a reporter at the PG.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pitt, developer battle splits Oak Hill
Resident council wants to find new developer, others want to stay with the same one
Monday, October 17, 2005

By Rich Lord, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sitting on steps in Pittsburgh's Oak Hill neighborhood, Nancy Horton recalled the days when she lived in "this court they used to call the crazy court." Yelling. Shootings. "I could not sleep."

That was when Oak Hill was Allequippa Terrace, 1,700 units of squalor atop the Hill District. Now it's 639 handsome homes, and Ms. Horton sleeps easier.

Except when the politics gets nuts.

Oak Hill was conceived in a utopian vision, nearly universally shared, of turning a ghetto into a mixed-income neighborhood.

"The community, we were real together," said Louella Foster, president of the Oak Hill Residents' Council, elected by its public housing residents.

Then developer Beacon/Corcoran Jennison and the University of Pittsburgh began a tug-of-war over the remaining land.

"They intentionally wanted to divide us," said Ms. Foster, who blames the developer. Some others blame Pitt.

A Tuesday meeting of the resident council turned raucous, as Ms. Foster's backers pushed to jettison the developer, while audience members howled in protest.

"You all didn't even consider us, and that's not fair to the community!" Ms. Horton protested, when told she couldn't speak at the meeting.

Boston-based Beacon/Corcoran Jennison built Oak Hill's beige-and-green townhouses and apartments after Mayor Tom Murphy resolved to replace Allequippa Terrace with something better.

"This is the best thing that's happened to all of us, really," said resident council Vice President Arneitta Warfield.

Now the developer wants to build 200 more homes on former Allequippa Terrace land near Pitt's campus, and then later another 252 homes nearby. But Pitt wants the land for athletic facilities, including soccer fields.

A Common Pleas Court lawsuit by the developer alleges that Pitt offered Oak Hill residents scholarships, backing for new businesses, a protective bubble over their swimming pool, and a resident-run concession stand at the university's Petersen Events Center if they support its bid.

"We want our homes," said Ms. Horton. "We don't play soccer, for one thing."

"We want housing," agreed Ms. Foster -- but not homes built by Beacon/Corcoran Jennison. She said the developer cut corners on insulation, botched cable TV service and is dragging its feet on renovating a recreation center.

Neither the Pittsburgh Housing Authority nor the Urban Redevelopment Authority boards have voted on subsidies for the next phase of housing. Residents on both sides are pushing for resolution.

On Sept. 21, the resident council voted to find a new developer to build the next phase.

But on Oct. 3, Ms. Warfield led an "emergency" meeting of residents, who voted to stick with the developer.

Both sides have written to Housing Authority board Chairman Gerald Voros requesting a vote adopting their positions. He couldn't be reached for comment. The board, which must agree to any change, will meet Oct. 27.

The community divisions run along the fault lines of long-time personal rivalries. But they're also undergirded by different visions of equity and sustainability -- concepts that took a back seat to survival in the bad old days.

Oak Hill is 71 percent subsidized housing. The next phase would be dominated by market-rate housing, with the intention of making the community more than half market rate.

Such a mix can "make it a sustainable community, and when you have a sustainable community, it grows," said Ms. Horton.

But a mix including houses that would sell for as much as $236,000, as the developer's plans indicate, is too rich for Ms. Foster's blood. "There's no residents of Oak Hill currently that can afford a $200,000 house," she said.

Beacon/Corcoran Jennison's supporters worry that they'd never find a developer willing to build homes on leftover parcels, and then Pitt would get them.

"We haven't agreed to anything with Pitt whatsoever," said Ms. Foster, whose son's employment at the university has prompted charges of bias.

Amid philosophizing, a bit of the old craziness creeps in.

Ms. Foster said two members of the pro-developer faction recently came to her door and, when she opened it, tried to push it into her face.

"I don't want to see another resident of Oak Hill set foot near my house with violence on them, because I will take action," she warned at the meeting.

"I've never seen it this divided, ever," said Tonya Payne, Democratic nominee for the City Council seat that represents Oak Hill.

Hopefully, the issue will be resolved at the ballot box. Resident council elections run concurrent with the Nov. 8 general election.

"There's about eight people we have in mind that we're going to get in there," said Ms. Warfield.

Ms. Foster said she's not planning to run for re-election but might change her mind. Why? "Just to make them crazy."

(Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.)