I used to live one street over from the Penn Plaza apartments, one of the last affordable housing complexes in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. The other low income rental units and high rise housing towers, built as part of sweeping urban renewal projects starting in the 1960s, have all been demolished and replaced with market-rate apartments and retail space. In the summer of 2015, the 200+ residents of Penn Plaza received notices that the property owners had sold the land for redevelopment, and giving tenants 90 days to vacate the premises. Following uproar from tenants and other community members who were shocked at the manner in which this decision was made and communicated, the city intervened to delay both the evictions and the demolition (the second of the two buildings is still standing, and people still living there have until March to relocate).
The developer’s plans for the Penn Plaza space was finally revealed this past summer: new high-end rental units and businesses including a Whole Foods grocery store. Whole Foods has earned ire for its expensive and sometimes outlandish offerings, is identified with an affluent-white consumer ethos, and has become iconic of gentrifying development (see the season-long gentrification arc on South Park in which the arrival of Whole Foods in a formerly divested neighborhood is treated as the catalyst for a demographic shift). The announcement that the Penn Plaza site was to house a new Whole Foods carried a particularly bitter irony because there already is a Whole Foods in the neighborhood, essentially across the street from the proposed location (calling it a stone’s throw away seems accurate). The current Whole Foods store in East Liberty opened in 2002 amidst the arrival of similar corporate retail outlets and other new developments that heralded the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification. The market was built as part of a suburban-style shopping center with accompanying parking lot that seems to be invariably congested and unfailingly irritating to shoppers, cars and buses trying to pass by on the street, and especially pedestrians using the adjacent city sidewalks. The new Whole Foods would include a larger parking lot, part of what a company representative described as “new opportunities to surprise and delight our expanding base of shoppers in Pittsburgh” (blech).
Last week the city planning commission unanimously rejected the developers’ proposal for the Penn Plaza site. This decision was unexpected, and received cheers and ovation when it was announced in the commission meeting. Why had the commissioners resoundingly rejected the plan? Their decision seemed to hinge upon a perceived lack of community engagement. As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“It begins with and ends with the community engagement piece. And at the end of the day, I don’t believe there was any evidence that there were result-oriented parts of the application and presentation that proved that the community gave input,” said commission vice chairwoman Lashawn Burton-Faulk.
The representative for the developers disagreed with this assessment:
Jonathan Kamin, attorney for developer LG Realty Advisors, said afterward that he was disappointed with the decision, arguing that the proposal met all of the requirements needed for approval.
He disputed the commission’s contention that the plan lacked community input. He said the developer held more than 35 meetings with the various constituencies and groups, adding it was “public engagement like the city has never had.”
What to make of this discrepancy in interpretation? Why did the planning commissioners consider the level of community engagement deficient when the developer believed they had conducted an unprecedented degree of engagement? At issue is the very definition of community engagement and the standards to which such practices should be held. Community or public engagement has emerged as a procedural standard in urban planning and development, and while such engagement practices may fall short of realizing the ideals of deliberative democracy to which these terms seem to aspire, at the very least it has been accepted as part of the “due diligence” of the development process. In this most recent decision on the Penn Plaza development there is an evident contrast between standards of quantity and standards of quality. The attorney for the developers cited the number of public meetings held as evidence of “public engagement like the city has never had.” The commission members, by contrast, cited a shallowness of responsiveness as indicative of the poor quality of engagement. Can one-way communication be considered sufficient “engagement”? In this case the planning board is arguing that it cannot; the developers may have held 35 meetings informing attendees of their plans, but their process did not reflect any substantive response to community input, and this was a crucial factor in the commission’s rejection. Of course, one major question that bears asking in this case is: why was there no requirement for community engagement before people were displaced and their homes destroyed?
It remains to be seen what will become of the Penn Plaza site (as well as the ostensibly public park space situated on the lot), and although the planning commission’s decision doesn’t reverse the displacement of hundreds of East Liberty residents, I still find it heartening. This decision signals that city managers are taking community engagement seriously, holding such practices to a standard beyond a mere perfunctory formality, and requiring they be more meaningful than an empty gesture. I am currently working on a study of community engagement practices in another major redevelopment project in Pittsburgh, so I found last week’s news of the planning board’s decision especially salient. More than affirming my own interest in studying community engagement practices, it demonstrates that the theory and practice of public engagement can bear material consequences to urban development projects. I hope that this result will inspire planners and developers to raise their own standards for community engagement.
Last week two topics seemed to predominate in my news browsing: end-of-the-year “best of” film lists, and the Pittsburgh Port Authority’s bus service changes. I didn’t see many new films this year, so most of the titles on the critics’ top ten lists were unknown to me. One film title that kept appearing on the year-end lists was Paterson. I gleaned from these mentions that the movie starred Adam Driver as a bus driver-cum-poet in Paterson, New Jersey. In a subsequent review I read that Paterson was directed by Jim Jarmusch, who’s made some of my favorite films.
The other big news of the new year (in Pittsburgh, at least) was the many changes coming to our city buses. The port authority instituted several new policies and practices beginning on January 1st, including changes to how bus fares are priced and paid for.
In an editorial for the Pitt News, Amber Montgomery surveyed some of these changes and how changes to fare pricing in particular will affect riders:
Perhaps the most important change coming is the new flat fare system and the few stipulations that go along with it. In 2017, riders using a ConnectCard will pay the new fare of $2.50 for a ride and $1 for a transfer, whereas riders using cash will pay $2.75 with no option for a paper transfer — meaning if you’re paying in cash, you must dole out an extra 0.25 cents per trip, and if you need a transfer, it’s an additional flat fare of $2.75.
The changes themselves are vital and will make using buses quicker, easier and more efficient, but the new system will only work best when it is likewise simple and efficient for all users. The priority needs to be on making it so cash can be converted into ConnectCard funds easily through a plethora of retail locations and machines at nearly all bus stops.
While reading up on these changes and their impact I came across Buses are Bridges, a blog dedicated to “mapping the blueprint for transition in Pittsburgh.” They have been writing about the impact that these and other urban developments are having on Pittsburghers. The provocative title of a post from new year’s day caught my attention: “A bus is in itself a city.” The author referenced William Carlos Williams, so I sought out the source of this evocative quote. The original quote is “a man is in himself a city,” and it comes from William’s epic poem Paterson. The poem was Williams’ effort to do for Paterson, NJ what Joyce had done for Dublin in Ulysses. In addition to discovering a fascinating work of city poetry and urban romanticism to add to my reading list, I also realized that Jarmusch’s Paterson film references and is likely inspired by Williams’ poem.
But back to the transit transition in Pittsburgh. Blog co-author Helen Gerhardt relayed some conversations overheard at a bus stop on the day the changes went into effect:
On the Ellsworth sidewalk across from my bus stop, I could hear three people figuring out the new bus fare payment system that just had gone into effect for New Years Day. Not being practiced at poetic distance, but instead a grassroots organizer and loud-mouthed Pittsburgher for Public Transit, I walked across the street and butted right into the information transfer.
“Yeah, everybody gotta pay as you get on the bus from now on,” the guy with glasses was saying.
“And get off at the back door?”
“Yeah, that’s what I heard. But lots of people still getting off up front. And some of the bus drivers, they encouraging people to do just like before unless the bus is crowded.”
The changes to fare prices and how they’re paid are significant, and it is important to consider how these changes will affect low income Pittsburghers and other vulnerable riders who are reliant on Port Authority service. But I want to focus here on the change to the bus entry and exit system, because it directly impacts our local transit culture.
Like public buses in many other cities, Pittsburgh city buses have two sets of doors, one near the front and another set at about the midpoint of the vehicle. Unlike buses in other cities, the rear doors are rarely used on Pittsburgh buses. With the exception of stops at the busy downtown transit hub (and at times when the bus is crowded to capacity), riders boarding or disembarking from the bus only use the front doors. Accordingly, commuters during busy periods typically have to wait for departing riders to exit the bus before being able to board.
This situation affects the ‘Burgh bus riding experience in several ways. For one thing, it means that virtually every rider files past the driver when they depart the bus. This in turn has an associated effect on public transit behavior in Pittsburgh: it is common for riders to thank the driver as they leave the bus. For comparison, consider Philadelphia, our big city neighbor on the eastern side of the state. Buses in Philly operate on the same entry and exit protocols that Pittsburgh just adopted, where all riders enter at the front and exit at the back. For most Philly transit users, thanking the bus driver would be an unnecessary and even impractical gesture. Visitors from bigger cities often find our provincial customs quaint and frivolous: to the average New Yorker, saying “thank you” and “bye” to the bus driver seems like a profligate waste of time and energy. Yet thanking the bus driver is a quirk of our local culture that I relish, and I fear it is a quirk I am fated to be nostalgic for.
It occurred to me riding home last night (after the driver hollered “Back door” as I was making my way up to the front) that the Pittsburgh transit “thank you” is going the way of the dodo. If riders are to be exiting by the back doors, and no longer passing by the driver on their way out, then the customary expressions of leave-taking are surely on their way out. While I was initially excited about this change, especially as it seemed to update our transit policies in line with how things are done in”real cities,” I will also miss what is lost in the transition. Is the new system more efficient? Almost certainly, and in many ways the new boarding system makes a lot of sense and seems like a long overdue change. But every gain is accomplished through an accompanying loss. Innumerable elements of local culture, folk knowledge, and vernacular practice have been eradicated by the inexorable march of order, standardization, and efficiency. In the larger scheme of things the loss of the “driver thank you” may be inconsequential, but it is indicative of the countless small things lost and forgotten in the wake of progress and unending urban transformation.
The Department of Transportation has selected Columbus, Ohio as the winner of the Smart City Challenge. The winning city will receive a $50 million grant to fund the development and implementation of networked and “smart” transportation infrastructure. From the Columbus Dispatch:
Columbus’ application includes several other transportation innovations, including an autonomous vehicle test fleet at Easton Town Center that would pick up passengers at the COTA terminal and deliver them nearer to jobs at the shopping center.
Columbus also wants to increase electric vehicle access in the city and improve communication between vehicles and infrastructure, which could help reduce crashes.
A key point in the city’s bid was how the money could be used to improve Columbus’ infant mortality rate. Officials have said that improving transportation options in poor neighborhoods could better connect new and expectant mothers to health care services.
As a Pittsburgher who has been following the contest for several months, I was very disappointed that Pittsburgh did not win. Not only would it have been a welcome victory for the city and local industry, but it would have been perfect for my dissertation project.
I was genuinely impressed and even moved by Pittsburgh’s video component of their proposal, which presented a people-first approach that acknowledged past planning mistakes and continuing concerns about disparities among residents. You can watch the video below:
You can watch the other finalists’ videos and read the full proposals at Network World.
A colleague who watched each city’s video presentation agreed with me that Columbus’ video pitch was the weakest, though he cautioned that the videos are ultimately irrelevant in relation to the process of selecting the winning city.
The DOT has pledged to help the other finalist cities implement their proposed transportation initiatives, and Pittsburgh leaders have also declared their intent to follow through with their Smart PGH plan.
- “Ride-sharing” service Uber recently announced a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University to establish a research center in Pittsburgh. As the Post-Gazette reported:
Uber, a San Francisco-based ride-sharing company, announced a joint venture with CMU on Monday creating a robotics research lab and technology center at the RIDC Chocolate Factory along 43rd Street that is already up and running. The partnership aims to develop new aspects of mapping, vehicle safety and technology with an eye toward autonomous taxi fleet development.
- From the PC Mag article:
“We are excited to join the community of Pittsburgh and partner with the experts at CMU, whose breadth and depth of technical expertise, particularly in robotics, are unmatched,” Uber Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden said in a statement. “As a global leader in urban transportation, we have the unique opportunity to invest in leading edge technologies to enable the safe and efficient movement of people and things at giant scale. This collaboration and the creation of the Uber Advanced Technologies Center represent an important investment in building for the long term of Uber.”
- The Pittsburgh Business Times interviewed CMU computer school dean Andrew Moore about the partnership:
CMU, a pioneer in driver-less vehicle technology, operates the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab, which was formed after CMU’s driverless car won the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007. Moore said CMU’s established partnerships with companies and federal agencies on autonomous driving will proceed as planned.
- The announcement follows close on the heels of Uber receiving clearance from the state to continue its operations for another two years:
Those conditions included a requirement that drivers in Pennsylvania agree — in writing — to report ride-sharing activity to their insurance companies. Uber also must inform drivers of the specifics of its own insurance policy, conduct background checks on drivers, and ensure any vehicles used to give rides meet annual inspection standards of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Uber and its rival ride-share company Lyft moved into the Pittsburgh area last year and have tangled with the PUC for most of that time. Over the summer, the PUC sought and was granted a cease-and-desist order, and its bureau of investigation and enforcement issued still-unresolved citations to individual drivers, and proposed multimillion-dollar fines against both companies.
- Amanda Waltz at POP City wrote about Pittsburgh as a driving force behind transportation technology:
The refurbished platforms — which feature better lighting, overhead shelter, and a wheelchair-accessible ramp — represent one component of the $130 million revitalization investment known as the East Liberty Transit Center. Partially funded by a $2.3 billion transportation bill signed by former Gov. Tom Corbett, the ongoing project, which is set for completion sometime in 2016, includes a pedestrian bridge connecting Ellsworth and Penn avenues, a parking garage, and additional residential and commercial space.
While residents can actually see construction progressing in East Liberty, there are many other innovative, yet less visible ways people are improving transportation for Pittsburgh residents and Pennsylvania as a whole.
- Bike lanes have been a key focus on transportation policy in Pittsburgh, as reported by Next City:
Pittsburgh was one of six cities selected earlier this year by PeopleForBikes to participate in its Green Lane Project, which takes municipal leaders on tours of cities with state-of-the-art bike infrastructure, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto was one of the people to take that tour, and he came back eager to buy a bike for himself — and to position his city as a national leader in street design that accommodates bicycles.
- Alan Greenblatt wrote a profile of Mayor Peduto for Governing:
Peduto has a long list of other mega-developments about to come online. In addition, he has constructed a wish list of ambitious projects that include countywide light rail, a completely revamped sewer system, and higher wages for the thousands of Pittsburghers working for large health and insurance nonprofits. In order to accomplish all this, however, Peduto has fewer tools at his disposal than some mayors. He doesn’t control his city’s schools, and transit is largely under the jurisdiction of Allegheny County. In order to address the systemic problems of the city, Peduto knows he has to turn to a wide assortment of partners.