Council Considers Initiative To Help Vulnerable Neighborhoods With Community Planning

Dec 3, 2015

The index for choosing the most vulnerable neighborhoods would take into account vacancy percentages, income levels and rates of home ownership.
Credit Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

City Councilman Ricky Burgess is pushing a pair of bills that he said would empower people in some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods to guide economic and community development.

Burgess initially introduced the two bills – one to create a Priority Communities Commission to oversee the effort and one to authorize the initiative itselflast February. He said in that time, he and his staff have been working with the Department of City Planning to refine the proposal and the process for choosing neighborhoods of focus.

The Priority Communities initiative would use a number of indicators, including annual income, percentage of vacant lots and rates of home ownership, to identify the top 20 neighborhoods most in need of investment.

Many of the details of the legislation are still being worked out, but Burgess’s chief of staff, Shawn Carter, said that list would be narrowed down to six regions or communities, which could be made up of two or more adjacent neighborhoods.

“We haven’t identified the funding stream, but the idea would be, theoretically, to set aside $300,000 and each one of those three of the six (communities) would, over three years, get about $100,000 to do a comprehensive community plan,” Burgess said.

Burgess spelled out the five steps of community development, as he sees them:

1)      Bringing community groups and members together to build consensus.

2)      Creating a holistic community plan.

3)      Developing the capacity and technical expertise needed for development.

4)      Finding the capital needed for development.

5)      Construction and infrastructure improvements.

He said the idea behind the initiative is to assist communities with the first two steps, saying it often takes longer and is more difficult to develop a community plan than to move from a plan to actual construction.

Councilman Ricky Burgess represents some of Pittsburgh's most economically depressed neighborhoods, including Homewood, Larimer and Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

“When you start doing the planning process, development starts to happen. I don’t want to say magically, but that’s how it works,” he said. “When you start doing this comprehensive planning, projects just start happening because you invite, for the first time, you invite the market to have a different conversation with the community.”

He said community plans should be comprehensive and include workforce development, social services, housing and schools, so that residents can “re-envision what their neighborhood could look like.”

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak expressed concern that some neighborhoods aren’t even ready for step one yet.

“Sometimes we’re starting from negative one, because we don’t even have the community groups on the ground, where we have self-selected community leaders to be part of a team,” she said.

Burgess said in some areas, there will be an element of community organizing that needs to happen as part of the initiative, pointing to Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar in his own district, which he said has no formal community groups, no schools and few businesses and churches.

Councilman Dan Gilman said he wanted to make sure that neighborhoods that don’t end up in the list of the top 20 most disadvantaged aren’t ignored by the city if the initiative moves forward. He used the example of Allentown, which he said would probably fall near the middle of the pack in such a ranking.

“They’re doing amazing work up there, they have a great (community development corporation), they do have a plan, they’re in a different place. They have a great small business district that’s coming back,” he said. “I want to see the city invest. They’ve done so much great leg work as a community … I want to make sure that we don’t in any way take the capital the city should be investing to match their effort away.”

Councilwomen Theresa Kail-Smith and Darlene Harris expressed skepticism of the bill. Kail-Smith said she was concerned about the city, developers and other organizations “exploiting” neighborhoods for their own benefit, without engaging community members.

“I want to help the neighborhoods that want development, but I want the neighborhoods to tell us, not to say, ‘Hey, you’re number (X) so you have to have this.’ Some neighborhoods are happy just with what’s going on in their neighborhood, and some desperately want help,” she said.

Harris said she was concerned about who might end up on the commission, saying when Council created the Land Bank Board of Directors, the North Side did not have any representation on the body.

Burgess assured Council members he would take all of their concerns and feedback into consideration and would “move at their pace.” Council voted Wednesday to hold the bill for further discussion at next week’s committee meeting.