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City becomes battleground over what makes good design

Monday, February 18, 2008
By Rich Lord,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Last week an intensifying struggle over how development is done in Pittsburgh went to the courts.

Next week, it may go to City Council.

The battlegrounds are a mammoth casino garage, a glass-clad arena and a glowing billboard — examples of progress to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford, and of broken process to a growing chorus in the design community.

To Anne Swager, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects, last week’s appeals of the casino and arena plan approvals show “a sentiment that [people] haven’t been heard.” And news of a 1,200-square-foot electronic billboard coming to Downtown reminded her that the “planning process is designed to protect the public good, and when an exception is made to that process, it puts us at risk.”

To Mr. Ford, the challenges reflect an obsession with technicalities that is holding back Pittsburgh.

“We’ve got attorneys driving the vision of the city of Pittsburgh, and we’ve got to take it back,” he said Friday. “We should be focused on leadership, collaboration and process. We should not rely on 3 inches of rules to tell us how to be vibrant.”

Last week the Riverlife Task Force challenged the city planning commission’s decision to allow a 10-story garage behind the two-story casino that’s going up on the North Shore. That appeal goes straight to the state Supreme Court.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Court gets the One Hill Community Benefits Coalition’s challenge to the commission’s approval of the plan for the new Penguins arena, which that group argues was made without proper notification to the public of changes in the parking scheme and without consideration of neighborhood benefits.

City Councilman William Peduto said that tomorrow he’ll call for a council hearing on the LED billboard that was quietly approved in December as an addition to the rising Grant Street Transportation Center at Liberty Avenue and 11th Street.

The city zoning code’s special rules for the Golden Triangle don’t allow billboards except on sites where they existed before the code was passed. The thinking was that people on Mount Washington or in PNC Park should see one of urban America’s great views, rather than a wall of logos and ads.

“The image of the Golden Triangle is an important icon for the region,” said Tom Armstrong, a planning commission member from 1982 through 2005 and chairman for the last 15 of those years. The LED billboard “is totally out of scale with the kind of pedestrian environment we have Downtown.”

Even if the sign fits under one of the code’s exceptions, it would require approval by the Zoning Board of Adjustment, or the planning commission, and, potentially, council. Any Downtown project or alteration costing more than $50,000 — and the billboard would cost many times that — must be approved by the planning commission.

None of that happened, though, when the Pittsburgh Parking Authority asked for the OK for the sign on its new garage and Greyhound Lines station. Instead, zoning administrator Susan Tymoczko and Mr. Ford worked a deal with Lamar Advertising, which will operate the sign.

Lamar will give up six old vinyl signs on nearby sites, totaling 1,400 square feet, in return for the illuminated billboard that will flash a rotation of messages.

“Our thought process is one, we can remove billboards, which Pittsburgh has far too many, I would argue, and No. 2, put up a new billboard which I believe is more visually pleasing,” Mr. Ravenstahl said.

Mr. Ford said he decided he could legally approve the billboard for three reasons. First, state law gives businesses the right to modernize. Second, city code “is silent” on whether one can trade old billboards that don’t conform with new zoning rules for new ones. And third, the zoning administrator “is entitled to [approve] minor amendments to site plans” — and a sign that he says will cost Lamar $7 million is, in his view, a minor change.

Mr. Ravenstahl said he is comfortable with the process that led to its approval.

“My understanding is that we are acting appropriately, and every approval we have made is a legal approval,” he said. “I wouldn’t be standing here saying that I support it if I didn’t believe it was legal.”

Mr. Ford cited as precedent a deal he made with Lamar when he was zoning administrator for Mayor Tom Murphy, in which Lamar removed 36 traditional placards in return for the OK to put up six LED signs.

But his boss at the time, former Planning Director Susan Golomb, said the Murphy-era deal was “not comparable” to the one Mr. Ford has worked out. None of those LED billboards went Downtown, where special rules and sensitivities apply.

A deal to eliminate some billboards in favor of others “might be all right, but you have to go through a process,” Ms. Golomb said. “You can’t just set yourself up that you can approve things without any public input.”

Grant Street “represents our values, and our vision for the entire community,” said Anne-Marie Lubenau, president of the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh. “Is that the first impression that we want to give people of our community — commercial advertising?”

“I like signs,” said Mr. Ford. “It tells us that we’re vibrant, that we’re lively, that we like business.”

A smaller electronic billboard, plus a 197-foot-long LED message board, was proposed for the transportation center but rejected by city planners in 2004. The city’s Design Review Committee wrote that the sign was “unacceptable” and “does not contribute positively to the urban landscape.”

Mr. Peduto said he wants Mr. Ford, Mr. Ravenstahl, Ms. Tymoczko and other officials to “come before council to explain how this could happen. … It is obvious that three different public processes were blatantly ignored in order to ram this through.”

His interpretation of last week’s events: “The public process has been eliminated in lieu of developers’ wishes.”

That sentiment is mirrored in the appeals of planning commission approvals.

The Riverlife Task Force argued that the commission ignored rules limiting the size of “accessory structures,” allowing a design in which the casino is dwarfed by a garage that serves it.

One Hill and its allies wrote in their appeal that changes in the arena plan were made at the last minute, not allowing for informed public comment, and that commission member Todd Reidbord left a key meeting to attend a Pitt Panthers basketball game — before returning to vote “yes.”

One Hill’s central concern, according to Michael Healey, one of the attorney’s on the case, is “who controls the development decisions, and who benefits from them?” Citizens have a right to expect that government makes decisions based on “what benefits the health and safety of the residents,” he said.

Ms. Lubenau pointed to SouthSide Works as an example of a project in which neighborhood groups, professionals, nonprofit organizations, the city and a developer worked together to plan something great. A master plan for the post-casino North Shore could have used the same model.

Mr. Ford said SouthSide Works was different from the casino, because lots of city money was involved, giving the city more leverage. Casino developer Don Barden isn’t getting public money, yet agreed to limit smoking, include environmental features and put metal screening on the garage.

“People are just using the judicial process to question the outcome that they do not like,” Mr. Ford said. “We happen to like it.”

The development process is likely to change even more. The URA, which now reaches into the planning process more than ever, is considering “significant organizational changes proposed by Pat Ford to further his vision,” according to an e-mail by its Deputy Director to Councilman Patrick Dowd, who wrote probing the authority’s budget status.

Ms. Lubenau said she just wants to be sure development is handled evenhandedly, according to rules that are clear to all.

“The planning process is a legal process. There’s a structure to that process that includes public participation,” she said. “We should be concerned when that process is inconsistent.”

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.
First published on February 18, 2008 at 12:00 am

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