Complete with PowerPoint presentations from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and developer Keith B. Keys, Pittsburgh Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess asked for community input and support for a plan to begin rebuilding Larimer.

“My main point—what I want, is what the residents want,” he said. “The people who live here should decide on this plan and benefit from this plan.”

YOU TELL ME—Pittsburgh Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess tells an audience of Larimer residents that they should guide and benefit from a proposed 40-unit, mixed-income housing development. (Photo by J.L. Martello.)

Burgess continued to stress that point as 200 or so residents enjoyed the catered chicken, meatballs, salads, desserts and beverages he provided, and watched the presentations.

“If you just want to eat the chicken and tell us to get lost and then go watch the Steelers game, that’s fine. It’s your decision,” he said.

The presenters addressed several points that members of the Larimer Consensus Group like Kingsley Association Executive Director Malik Bankston had raised concerning the lack of community input on the placement and design of the mixed-income units Keys’ company would build in the development’s first phase.

Burgess, they said, was essentially shoving Keys and his plan down the community’s throat by saying it was necessary to meet the October filing deadline for the next round of federal development grant money and state tax credit financing.

Burgess said, thanks to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s commitment, he has the opportunity to bring significant resources to East End communities for the first time.

“I’ve received a number of conflicting reports that the community hasn’t been heard in this process. That’s what this meeting is for,” he said. “The URA and the housing authority had conflicting plans. I got them together to work out a compromise. You may say you don’t want this. But there is no guarantee this opportunity will come again. But whatever you tell me, that is what will be done.”

Fulton Meachem, executive director of the HACP, responded to the housing and finance issues by noting that the design plan for this particular phase of the Larimer Plan had changed three times since it was first put forth in the 2010 Larimer Visioning plan.

The latest version does not place Keys’ 40 mixed-income units on “gateway” properties along East Liberty Boulevard, nor does it cluster all the subsidized housing in the middle of the development blocks from the bus lines. The version they would, Meachem said, submit for federal housing grant consideration has nothing placed on the “gateway” properties.

As for the haste in applying for the financing, Meachem noted the project was not approved in last year’s funding, two other Pittsburgh projects—one in Homewood—were. The reason, he believes, was a lack of leveraged funds.

“One of the things you have to show to get a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant is the ability of the project to leverage other funding. The $15 million in state tax credit financing would definitely be considered leverage,” he said. “Its’ way too early in the process for people to be saying everything they want isn’t in the plan.”

As Jessica Smith Perry of the URA noted, this is just the first phase of what will be a multi-year, multi-project redevelopment of the Larimer neighborhood. It is strictly about the mixed-income housing portion of the project. Keys’ firm was selected only for this phase.

“We vetted nine different developers’ proposals and we qualified them all to work in this,” she said.

Other phases of the redevelopment, market rate apartments, townhouses, stand-alone homes, commercial and institutional development, will be part of future phases and would likely include multiple developers.

Though Keys showed during his presentation that his firm could handle also the planning, financing, property management and support services for those projects as well, he stressed that, while it hasn’t yet, the community would be at the table for all the design approvals in the first phase.

“You will sit down with our architects. You will make sure they draw what you say. The time for that is just not now,” he said. “But you will have the input. Larimer will look the way you want it. People say I just want to build what works. Yeah, I’ll build what works because what you want is what works.”

Following the presentation, speakers fielded community questions about topics ranging from neighborhood employment and support services to gentrification and infrastructure improvements.

Louis McCullough, an electrician said he applied to work on Keys’ redevelopment of the former Garfield Heights public housing community but couldn’t get on the project. Keys said priority went to people from Garfield. Larimer residents would get priority consideration for employment on this project.

“There will be a special registration for all African-American contractors before any bids are put out to the public,” said Keys.

Addressing a complaint about the terrible condition of the sewer system under Meadows Street, Meachem told resident Donald Clark that by law, the new development is required to have all new utility infrastructures, adding that ALCOSAN, per a federal consent decree, will also be replacing all its systems.

Meachem also said there are programs in place to insure residents who want to stay are not removed during the development and have priority on getting a new unit if they desire. He also told Rev. Richard Payne, who lives just outside the boundary of the development zone that the URA has grant and loan programs to help those with adjacent properties make improvements.

Consensus Group member Betty Lane said representatives from all the city agencies and Keys’ firm should be attending their meetings and responding to their concerns.

“We meet every week and they haven’t been there,” she said.

Bankston, who in the Aug. 29 edition of the New Pittsburgh Courier, noted the Consensus Group had been repeatedly rebuffed by Keys’ firm about building design and placement, thanked Burgess for convening the meeting, but said little had changed.

“It doesn’t change anything because the proper thing to do with this concept is to introduce it to the comprehensive planning process that’s already under way, and have it vetted in that way,” Bankston said.

“I also think it’s disingenuous for the councilman to suggest only the residents have a vested interest in how this is done. The organization I run invested $9 million here when no one would.”

Speaking by phone from the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, NC., Burgess reiterated that this is just the first phase of a multi-year redevelopment project.

“This investment is in low- to moderate-income housing because that’s the money that’s available now. Part of it will be replacement housing for public housing people in Hamilton-Larimer, and if we get the federal money, we can replace the rest,” Burgess said. “I just want to thank the residents for coming out in such large numbers to plan their future. It’s clear to me they want my help and I will proceed with efforts to get the resources needed to move forward.”

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