The race for the District 7 Pittsburgh City Council seat looks to be wide open heading into the election Tuesday. Five candidates are vying for the spot vacated by Patrick Dowd in July. Politically, the candidates are as diverse as the district.
A Democrat, a Libertarian, and a handful of independents all want to represent District 7, which runs from the Strip District to Highland Park and includes Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Polish Hill, Friendship, Morningside, and Stanton Heights.
Strip District Redevelopment
It would be almost impossible to compare every candidate on every issue; even the hour-long debates held this summer couldn’t do that. However, there is one issue that can give voters a good idea of where the candidates stand, and how they would govern.
The Strip District redevelopment project.
The project raises issues of historic preservation, gentrification, tax increment financing, and transportation infrastructure.
A little background: The Buncher Company is proposing a redesign of the riverfront area of the Strip District into a multi-use development called Riverfront Landing. The debate has revolved in part around whether the Produce Terminal Building could be preserved as part of the development.
Deb Gross, who has mayoral candidate Bill Peduto’s endorsement and is generally considered the frontrunner in the council race, said preserving the terminal is her only concern about the project.
“No one wants to see that giant section of riverfront land be undeveloped,” said Gross. “No one wants to see the produce terminal sit there empty and deteriorate further, so where’s the solution?”
On this issue, Gross and independent candidate Tony Ceoffe seem to be on the same page. Ceoffee said he’s concerned about continuing to push off the project in the hopes that another developer will be able to use the produce terminal building in whole.
“We can’t continue to let the building collapse around itself without a sound plan going forward,” said Ceoffe.
Ceoffe is a former placement specialist for the city Housing Authority and is active with the grass roots organization, Lawrenceville United. He narrowly lost the Democratic nomination to Gross in May.
Tom Fallon was a staffer for Sen. Jim Ferlo when he was a Pittsburgh City Councilman. Fallon owns business that focuses on environmentally friendly residential development. He called the strip district project a house of cards, saying it doesn’t jive with the city’s Allegheny River Green Boulevard plan, or with a proposed commuter rail that would run from New Kensington into downtown Pittsburgh.
“If we give out that huge parcel of property, there is absolutely no possibility, probably to get a light rail system coming behind that,” said Fallon.
He said he would rather see the Produce Terminal preserved and turned into a giant farmer’s market.
“That’s going to be more profitable to the city, that means even more people are going to be visiting the city,” said Fallon.
Fiscal conservative and Pittsburgh historian, James Wudarczyk says he’s opposed to the tax increment financing that would offset some of Buncher’s development costs.
“We finance the infrastructure, we give them all kinds of low interest loans, and they don’t have to pay taxes for 10 years,” said Wudarczyk. “It’s going to take us a long period of time to recoup that money.”
He also said he’s concerned that some people would be priced out of the area.
“Many of the housing projects that are proposed will be paid for by taxpayers in the city who cannot afford to buy into those kinds of houses,” said Wudarczyk.
The fifth candidate on the ballot is libertarian David Powell. Powell is cautiously supportive of the project, and is glad to see that Buncher wants to save about two thirds of the produce terminal building. However, he says he wants to make sure that the company takes public opinion into account, every step of the way.
“[I would] make Buncher go to endless meetings where they have to hear about what everyone wants, make sure that this is not railroaded through,” said Powell.
Powell said, while he’s not a huge fan of tax increment financing, he thinks this is one project where the funding tool might be appropriate.
The candidates all differ on what they see as the most pressing issues citywide.
For Wudarczyk, it’s roads, parks, and infrastructure.
“If you look at our roads, they’re pothole-ridden, we have decaying infrastructure, and many of our parks are a disgrace,” said Wudarczyk.
For Powell, it’s privacy, violent crime, and loss of a tax base through suburban flight. He’d also like to see property owners taxed on the value of their land, rather than the value of their home.
“How close you are to a bus line, how close you are to shopping, and various other aspects of the land,” said Powell. “It would increase the holding costs so we wouldn’t have empty lots all around town … It would also help with removing the penalizing of improvements.”
Gross is concerned about schools and revitalizing main streets in a manner consistent with the character of the neighborhoods. She cited the rapid growth of the Lawrenceville neighborhood as an example.
“How do you balance new investment with it still being your neighborhood,” asked Gross. “One of the things on my background has been working with community development financial institutions which are non-profit financial institutions or lending pools.”
Ceoffe is worried that the current hydraulic fracturing ban isn’t strong enough, and wants to pass zoning legislation to permanently prevent fracking within city limits.
“We have the fracking ban right now in the city which I’m in full support of, however multiple council members have admitted that there’s not a lot of base to that law,” said Ceoffe. “If challenged, it’s very likely that it would fall through.”
Fallon says he’s concerned about schools and wants to make sure kids have safe neighborhoods to which they can come home.
”We can’t educate kids unless our government is on board with Pittsburgh public schools, and we unify ourselves to make sure that our communities are safe and sound for our kids when they do come back from school,” said Fallon.
UPMC & Hydraulic Fracturing
Where do the candidates stand on a few other major issues, including the city’s ban on hydraulic fracturing, and UPMC’s alleged labor violations and non-profit status? Here’s a quick rundown.
- Tony Coeffe said he wants to see UPMC pay more in taxes as a way to fund schools and other services for children, and that he supports workers trying to organize a union: “I think that we really need to stand beside our residents and make sure they have a fair hand in things as well when they’re going to work every day. We can’t allow these non-profits that are enjoying economic and financial success in our neighborhoods not contribute and be a solid partner with the city.”
- Deb Gross said she is supportive of the city’s lawsuit challenging UPMC’s non-profit status: “I have for a long time wondered why UPMC has so much physical property that they do not pay taxes on, and how they might be taxed greater than they are now … There is probably some places where the property that they own is not entirely serving their charitable purpose. And if it is not serving their charitable purpose, they should pay taxes on it.”
- David Powell said he is skeptical about the efficacy of the city’s lawsuit against UPMC: “I would not really support suing them because they’re a giant employer in the area. Without Pitt and UPMC, Pittsburgh would be in much worse financial straits then we are now. I would go more for getting them for the property taxes for the land they are occupying. Now perhaps there is some legitimate challenges to whether they are giving enough charitable care away for their non-profit status, and perhaps that stuff should be looked into. It seems like killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”
- Tom Fallon said he is more concerned about UPMC’s alleged labor violations than he is about the challenge to their non-profit status. He would like to see the city resolve its conflicts with UPMC through negotiations, rather than through a lawsuit: “Some of their employees are not even making a fair wage. I’d rather sit down at the table and talk to them about that, because if our tax payers aren’t making a living wage in order to provide for themselves, they’re surely not able to provide for this city. They can’t buy property, they can’t buy a home. They have no disposable income, and those are the things this city runs on. Our number one revenue in the city is property tax. If people aren’t making enough money to buy property, where’s our tax base?”
- James Wudarczyk said he think it’s a problem that so much land in the city of Pittsburgh does not generate taxes, but he’s not entirely supportive of the lawsuit: “Right now UPMC’s the bad guy, they’re not paying taxes. Well guess what, they have a legal right not to pay taxes … I agree [with the city that] it’s a problem, but it’s going to be up to the courts to decide. You can make any kind of promises you want when you’re running for office, but the reality is, it’s a legal issue and City Council cannot arbitrarily overturn their tax exempt status.”
- Ceoffe is worried that the county’s willingness to frack in parks could bleed into the city: “There’s additional conversation about merging our parks management with the county. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has made it clear that he’s going to frack in the parks in our county. My concern is that once that happens, if we merge with the county parks system, that’s going to segue the conversation to allow fracking in the city. Or at least a challenge to the ban. And without having actual zoning legislation protecting the communities, I think we’d have a big concern about fracking in large green spaces.”
- Gross said she is supportive of the city’s band on hydraulic fracturing: “I think if it works, that’s great. I would not like to see fracking. I think fracking should be banned within the city limits, so hopefully it will stand.”
- Powell said, while he’s not completely opposed to hydraulic fracturing, he supports the current ban: “Just like you wouldn’t put any other kind of factory necessarily in the middle of a neighborhood or in a park, I certainly think that within the city limits is pretty close for the kind of activity. Also, for one thing, the cost of gas has plummeted due to all this production, so certainly I think the city and probably the county should keep it as an ace in the hole for maybe 20 years in the future when gas is triple the cost or whatever. Maybe then it might make some sense, and also I would like to see a lot more safety data on it before going whole hog on that kind of thing.”
- Fallon said he is strongly opposed to hydraulic fracturing within city limits, citing public safety as his greatest concern: “I think there should be a complete moratorium on any natural resources in the city limits. I just think it is a huge potential for problems. In a very urban area, we can’t afford anything to go wrong ... I don’t really trust people who say ‘trust us, we know what we’re doing.’ It’s about the safety of the people in the city.”
- Wudarczyk said he is supportive of the hydraulic fracturing ban at the moment, but that could change as more safety data becomes available: “I think we have to be very open minded about maybe 10 or 15 years down the road revisiting this. I stand behind the ban for a couple reasons. One, the current method is very noisy, and two, there are safety issues. Right now the federal government is conducting a series of six studies on fracking, and what they’re finding is that the first study showed that it’s safe. But we don’t know what the long term effects are. That gas is still going to be here 15 years from now.”