URA Files Suspect Development Grant Without Consulting Residents

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article on August 29, 2015, revealing that one month earlier, on July 31, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh submitted a $3 million grant application to the State of PA’s Department of Community and Economic Development, for a roadway to be built from the neighborhood of Panther Hollow in Oakland, running through the existing bike/pedestrian Junction Hollow Trail in Schenley Park, and exiting into the neighborhood of Four Mile Run- aka “The Run.” The Public/Private Partnership listed in the grant application includes the City of Pittsburgh, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

The PG article was a shock to residents of the neighborhoods, who had no prior knowledge of the plan. Furthermore, the URA, after what had to be months of work on a 75-page grant application, involving several city employees and various departments of City government, did not notify The Run’s District 5 City Council representative Corey O’Connor, or City Council, before submitting the proposal. When asked about it at a Dec. 7 community meeting, demanded by neighborhood residents, Councilman O’Connor said he “was blind-sided,” and had “nasty” conversations behind closed doors for being left out of the loop.

City officials assert the roadway project is needed for the upcoming Almono development, the 178-acre riverside plan for Hazelwood, approximately a mile from The Run. The proposed roadway would be controlled by private entities in order to operate a private transit system linking Oakland to Almono, and (according to sources) would eventually expand citywide, using driverless vehicles to be developed by CMU, Uber and involving other private entities.

Councilman O’Connor represents both Hazelwood and The Run, and has been involved in the planning of the Almono development for several years, starting when he was an aide to State Rep. Michael Doyle.

Upon investigation, residents discovered a 2009 CMU study where the proposed roadway was one of various alternatives to connect Oakland and the Almono site, revealing that City officials have long known of the possibility of this project, yet decided to push the plan through while bypassing the residents and city council. The study mentions a need for an unspecified amount of additional student housing for the two universities.

Many residents of both neighborhoods are adamantly opposed to the roadway project for numerous reasons, including:

  • The roadway would forever alter, and possibly erase, the character and integrity of two historic neighborhoods, settled and built by working class immigrants at the start of the 20th century.
  • The plan asserts a need for up to 12 shuttles per hour (every 5 minutes) just a few feet from residents’ houses, resulting in an exponential increase in noise, traffic and congestion, and with it additional pollution, as well as certain Public Safety issues on quiet residential streets.
  • The potential invasion of Park-and-Ride commuters taking over an already insufficient amount of resident parking.
  • A route that eliminates a neighborhood basketball court and a great deal of The Run’s limited green space–a small parklet where parents and children can enjoy the outdoors, walk their dogs and get together for neighborhood picnics.

There are numerous other concerns, but perhaps most disturbing is that the City/URA and private partners wish to seize public land, using public money, ($4.2 million minimum budget to start) then turn over that community-owned property and subsequent roadway to private entities, as a start to a citywide, privately owned and operated transit system. Also, there are several alarming questions raised as to the legality of the grant application itself:

  • There were no prior meetings with the two communities before the grant application was submitted, a violation of the Open Meetings Law of Pennsylvania, also known as the “Sunshine Act.”
  • Although the grant proposal was submitted on July 31, the URA board did not ratify it until August 13.
  • Although the University of Pittsburgh is listed as a partner in the application, when contacted about it on October 2, Attorney Paul Supowitz, Vice Chancellor for Community and Governmental Relations, responded:
    “… the University has not been involved in any discussions about the roadway project. We first learned of the URA’s application to the Commonwealth for funding when the article appeared in the Post-
    Gazette several weeks ago.”This seems an odd response from the head of a major University who is listed as a partner in the project. Which raises the question of who at the University conducted negotiations with the URA? It should be noted that UPMC is a tax-free entity that already runs a private shuttle service for its employees.
  • The application states: “The land for this project is owned by the City of Pittsburgh,” but at a December 7 community meeting, the city’s presentation for the plan revealed that the roadway would traverse through part of a parking lot and adjacent hillside in Panther Hollow owned by Pitt, as well as railroad property. Additionally, in a Nov. 3 Tribune Review article, Kevin Acklin, URA board chair and Chief of Staff to Mayor Peduto, stated the City may need court approval, as part of the proposed route is land that sits in Schenley Park, deeded to all the people of Pittsburgh in perpetuity.
  • On November 30, after a right-to-know request was made about the plan, the URA sent residents a copy of the grant application which contained missing pages. However, on November 18, residents had received the application filed with the DCED which had documents in it that were not part of the copy given to residents from URA Attorney Nathan Clark, which means there are two versions of the grant application– one submitted to the State of PA and the other given to neighborhood residents, although missing crucial information and months after the URA filed the State of PA version.

Some information in the missing documents includes:

  • Funds for the project would include $200,000 in federal funds; however, there is no documentation from federal officials that those funds were approved.
  • A letter contained as part of the proposal states that in the $1.2 million in funding from City/URA/Almono LP, Mayor Peduto will be “committing $400,000 in the 2017 budget for construction of this project,” but the budget is one year away and City Council must approve this amount.
  • URA Board Chair Kevin Acklin also submitted a letter dated September 1, 2015 to the DCED stating: “The URA will be committing $400,000 from our Major Projects budget to be used for the construction of this project.” But the URA board minutes for September, October and November 2015 contain no approval made for the funds.
  • The proposal given to the press and residents include an over-the-railroad-tracks bridge to Panther Hollow lake for access by joggers and bicyclists. The current pathways to the lake were recently abruptly cut off by the railroads, but this amenity as well as much needed flood prevention work included in the public version grant application was eliminated from the URA budget for the project.

There are additional inconsistencies involved in the grant application as well as in statements made to the press versus residents by city officials.
Contained in the URA proposal, and signed by Executive Director of the URA Robert Rubenstein, is a section stating that the act of knowingly making a false statement or overvaluing a security to obtain a grant and/or loan from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania may be subject to criminal prosecution.
On December 14, a letter to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. was hand delivered from a Panther Hollow resident requesting an investigation into this matter.

Questions about this article, or citizens wishing to share information on this story can be sent to: [email protected]

More information can be found at www.savepantherhollow.com and opnnews.org