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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The need for a Clean and Green Pittsburgh - and the need to remove the blight!

Welcome to Blightsburgh. Last week I read this story about a Northside woman's struggle to deal with the mess and nuisance of the house next door. This woman's struggle has validated my feeling that the Redd Up program under Mayor Ravenstahl has been a huge disappointment. Don't get me wrong. The public works folks and the volunteers have been working really hard, as evident by the hundreds of photos on the city of Ravenstahl-burgh's website, but I've never been in a city with more abandoned houses, more overgrown lawns, and more eyes sores than the city of Pittsburgh.

This city does not have any standards. At our house in Beechview(which we still own ), we worked hard to keep our yard looking decent, but what about the house across the street(pictured above and below)? A complete disaster. On top of the house across looking street looking like a landfill, the people living there were even worse. They sell drugs, do drugs, curse all day and night at each other, and have their friends over honking the horns and playing loud music at all hours of the day and night.

This was unacceptable, and it eventually forced us to move out. We won't start a family in that environment. Hundreds of calls to the police by us and our neighbors did nothing to fix the situation. In fact, one officer, after responding to my wife's call to the police, told her that they couldn't do anything and that we were "SOL." So, the city and its police force let a house of unemployed drug users stay and in the process lost a dual income earning and taxpaying married couple. Its a shame too, because we lived on a great street with great neighbors.

But its not just Beechview. In just about every neighborhood here in the city of Pittsburgh you will see abandoned houses that have boarded up and have not had their lawn's cut in years. You will hear from friends who are living next door to someone who does not cut their lawns, who leaves garbage on their front porch and lawn, and who has zero regard for their neighbors across the street or next door to them. I know this because I lived through this the last 6 years I lived in Greenfield and Beechview. I see more and more of it every day while I've been campaigning for Mark DeSantis throughout the city. Last weekend, while we were in Point Breeze, I almost tripped and fell down a flight of stairs at a house with garbage and debris covering its front porch. This past weekend I saw more of the blight in Oakland, Squirrel Hill, East Liberty, and Highland Park. Each day I see it in other neighborhoods as I take the T into work.

So how bad are we compared to other cities? We're not the worst, but Pittsburgh does have the 5th highest rate of vacant properties per 100 residents. Additionally, the City has 200 more vacated properties than it did under Mayor O'Connor, further proof that Redd Up under Luke has a long way to go. So what is the mayor's plan? Up in Buffalo, Mayor Byron Brown has proposed an ambitious plan to spend $100 million razing 5,000 vacated homes over the next 5 years.

The city has a nice showcase of some of these properties on the website where they are trying to sell the dilapidated houses. Here are a few of houses around the city that are for sale:

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Car Sharing with Flexcar taking off in Pittsburgh

So far so good for Flexcar here in Pittsburgh, as the service announces an expansion into Shadyside and growth to 55 cars in parts of downtown, Oakland, and now Shadyside. Click here for a map of Flexcar vehicle locations around town.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

CMU Professor Jay Apt to speak in Pittsburgh on Global Climate Change

You are invited to join us on Thursday, September 27, 2007 from 7:30-9:00 a.m. at The Rivers Club in Pittsburgh for a special alumni breakfast presentation by Tepper professor, Dr. Jay Apt on Global Climate Change.

Jay Apt holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a doctorate from MIT in experimental physics. He was selected as a NASA Astronaut in 1985, and has spent more than 35 days in space on four Space Shuttle missions, and performed two space walks (one an emergency rescue of a satellite). He has been to the Russian space station Mir, and is the recipient of NASA’s highest medal. He received the Metcalf Lifetime Achievement Award for significant contributions to engineering in 2002. Dr. Apt is Executive Director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and the CMU Department of Engineering and Public Policy, where he is a Distinguished Service Professor. He received an A.B. from Harvard College in 1971 and a Ph.D. in experimental atomic physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. His research, teaching and consulting interests are in economics, engineering, and public policy aspects of the electricity industry, economics of technical innovation, management of technical enterprises, risk management in policy and technical decision framing, and engineering systems design.

The event is being sponsored by the Tepper Pittsburgh Alumni Chapter and is open to all Carnegie Mellon alumni, students and guests. Attire is business casual and alumni are encouraged to bring business cards for networking.

The cost of the seminar is $20.00 which covers the cost of the hot buffet breakfast. You may register in advance online at www.tepper.cmu.edu/alumni/pit using your VISA, MasterCard or American Express Card. The cost for on-site registration is $25.00 by cash or check at the door.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Bring Streetcars back to Pittsburgh

NYU Law Student and former Southsider Michael Byrne wrote a compelling opinion piece in Sunday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on bringing streetcars back to Pittsburgh. The late Mayor Bob O'Connor had a vision for bringing back streetcars as a way to spur development and provide an affordable connection of downtown to the universities and hospitals. O'Connor was ridiculed by some of his opponents in the 2005 Democratic primary, but I'm not so sure those same people who argue against the streetcar idea after having read Mr. Byrne's piece.

I've been a proponent of extending the light rail from downtown to Oakland, but with the cost of that extension probably running in the hundreds of millions, coupled with the current North Shore Connector project that will cost at least half a billion, additional light rail extensions at this time or in the near future are not likely. Streetcars, as Mr. Byrne points out, are a very cost effective way to extend mass transit while at the same time encouraging economic development along the streetcar lines. Look at the table below of the costs of implementing streetcars in a number of cities that are already reaping the benefits of the economic development . In Portland alone there was over $2.28 billion in transit oriented development within two blocks of the street car lines. It looks and sounds like a no brainer to me too.

So what is keeping Pittsburgh from doing something like this? Right now Pittsburghers are currently suffering from a lack of forward thinking from our political leaders. Instead of expanding light rail to the masses, we're stuck digging a tunnel under the river that will connect virtually zero neighborhoods to the two stadiums and the casino. The tunnel and connector were not a prerequisite to new development - that was already happening on the North Shore, but we're stuck with it since the federal government was providing matching funds.

How would we fund new streetcar lines here in Pittsburgh? As Mr. Byrne points out, the Federal Transit Authority offers grants for smaller scale transportation projects. Known as "Small Starts", the FTA provides grants for the "capital costs associated with new fixed guide way systems, extensions, and bus corridor improvements. " This is one source of funding our congressmen should be fighting for.

Additionally, as they did in Portland, private corporations could be enticed to join in the funding effort through sponsorships. This is particular interesting here in the city of Pittsburgh, where non-profit entities make up a large chunk of our employers and take up a lot of land that could be used for tax revenue generating businesses. Today, the non-profits are contributing voluntarily to a fund that is supposed to assist in the city with its financial woes. That fund is set to expire, and if some political leaders had their way they would overturn Act 55 and force non-Profits like UPMC to pay taxes on their excess income.

Taxing non-profits is not the way to go. It only creates an us-against-them mentality while the city, UPMC, and other non-profits should be looking to form a partnership. The city should work with the non-profits in forming an annual fund where the non-profits would make investments in the city for specific infrastructure improvement or enhancement projects. A tax that goes into the city's general fund is not fair - especially when the city can use that money at its discretion. Having the non-profit contributions go towards a dedicated project that also provides some benefits to them, like steercar lines, makes the most sense to me.