Land bank bill sparks larger development debate at City Council

Discussion of year-old legislation to help activate Pittsburgh’s much-hyped, much-delayed blight-fighting agency seemed to reopen wounds from old development efforts Wednesday, leading to emotional back-and-forths among members of City Council.

Council ostensibly was preparing for an ultimately successful preliminary vote on an amendment offered by Councilor Deb Gross, D-Highland Park, to a bill that would create a standardized process to send city-owned properties to the city land bank. The agency is designed to clear properties of tax lien liabilities and then get them back on the open market for community-minded redevelopment.

But provisions to essentially authorize the land bank for only two years, and what was finalized as a “goal” to use most properties for affordable housing, triggered intense conversation. Much of it focused on how much involvement and oversight council should have in sales of city-owned properties, which are largely concentrated in predominantly Black, economically struggling neighborhoods.

Councilor Ricky Burgess, D-Point Breeze, derided what he described as undue attempts to constrain the land bank. He chairs the land bank board, and his district contains by far the largest number of city-owned properties.

“It’s always people who don’t have vacant land in their council districts that want to control the distribution of the land, to keep African Americans from having their own rights,” he said. “People outside the district, because of whatever reason, think they know best for how African American communities should be able to dispose of their own land.”

Councilor R. Daniel Lavelle, D-Hill District, cautioned that building solely income-restricted affordable housing isn’t necessarily what’s needed in all parts of the city, and having residents with a mix of incomes can help a neighborhood flourish.

“I spent $11 million building a grocery store that couldn’t sustain itself because it didn’t have disposable income to support it” he said, referring to the 2019 closure of a Shop ‘n Save on Centre Avenue. It will soon reopen as a location of Salem’s Market.

“There’s a reason why Penn Hills and other areas are where Black homeowners are going to purchase homes, right?” he added. “They are above the thresholds that in some way we’re sort of arbitrarily setting here. So at some point, we collectively have to have a greater conversation over what we’re doing.”

City Councilor R. Daniel Lavelle, D-Hill District, speaks at a special Pittsburgh City Council meeting about land reuse, Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (City Channel Pittsburgh)

Lavelle said he wants to take advantage of safeguards in the land bank’s sale process, where purchase proposals are evaluated on more than whether someone can pay the highest possible price for a given property.

“An investor from Pitt or somewhere else will quickly pay the highest price and put student housing in there. Or they’ll jack up the rent so high that residents from the neighborhood cannot afford to stay,” he theorized of what could happen to some properties in the Upper Hill if the checks weren’t in place. “I need to be able to utilize [the land bank] in order to be able to clear title and bring the appropriate sort of housing mix into the area.”

One amendment offered by Gross took aim at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the city’s economic development agency. It said a city-owned property moved to the land bank could not then be transferred to the URA without approval of the councilor whose district contains it.

The agency, which led the 1950s effort to essentially wipe clean the Lower Hill for construction of the Civic Arena, has developed a reputation that’s been hard to overcome with some residents, despite efforts in recent years. Council President Theresa Kail-Smith applauded the agency twice at a June meeting for recent work — leading to a shoutout from Lavelle and a fellow councilor jokingly reaching toward her forehead and asking, “You feeling OK?”

Lavelle, who is the No. 2 on the URA board, said it’s somewhat awkward that councilor approval would be required for properties moving from the land bank to the URA. He added the amendment originated with concerns that the URA might essentially take properties out of the land bank for its own purposes without sufficient oversight.

“In my mind, based on how I operate, the URA wouldn’t be doing any of that without my approval on the front end to begin with, right? So I would absolutely be checking off, because I’m going to be working with them,” he said. “But it is, potentially, a veto by members.”

City Councilor Barbara Warwick, D-Greenfield, speaks at a special Pittsburgh City Council meeting about land reuse, Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Pam Panchak/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Some councilors seemed skeptical that there was enough opportunity for public input in the land bank’s sale process, although three councilors sit on the nine-member land bank board and residents can petition for a public hearing to speak their minds on a proposed sale.

Councilor Barbara Warwick, D-Greenfield, said she wants an opportunity for residents and elected officials alike to have a voice to potentially block what she described as scenarios in which predominantly white organizations try to purchase large swaths of land in mostly Black neighborhoods or if a community development corporation is “buying up the neighborhood.”

“There’s such distrust,” she said. “That’s my entire hesitation here.”

Warwick added that one of the reasons she ran for office was because she’d seen public property in Hazelwood not used in ways desired by residents.

“They just didn’t even inquire because they knew what they wanted to do with that land, and they didn’t give a damn what the community wanted to do,” she said, without naming any specific projects. A spokesperson for Warwick did not immediately respond to a request for comment seeking clarification.

The discussion’s bluntness did not go unnoticed.

“This is so refreshing, and I’m so glad that we’re having this discussion,” Warwick said.

RELATED STORY: Deed restriction in limbo for city-owned Bloomfield property with pending sale

Jon, a copy editor and reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and working as a co-editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Reach him at [email protected].