People trickled into the Spirit of Pittsburgh ballroom at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center Wednesday night for the opening of the city’s annual meeting on P4, a decision-making framework that prioritizes people, place, planet and performance to ensure development is equitable and sustainable.
In his welcoming remarks, Mayor Bill Peduto said P4 evolved from conversations happening all over the city.
“It began with plans that looked at social equity and put together answers that just somehow never seem to become implemented,” he said. “Concerned citizens said, ‘we can do better.’ But more importantly, P4 understood that change is inevitable, progress is not.”
Even so, the possibility that Amazon might come to Pittsburgh has led to soul-searching about who would benefit. Tension was on display this week at the conference where Peduto sketched out a plan to prepare the city for rapid growth.
Inside the convention center, talk focused on inclusive economies and the importance of cooperation among municipalities. But outside, the message of three dozen protesters on Thursday was more blunt, with demonstrators voicing concerns about gentrification and chanting, "Amazon is not for us! Amazon is not for us!”
This winter, Pittsburgh was selected as one of 20 cities vying to be home to Amazon’s second headquarters, or HQ2. While supporters tout the enormous investment that could bring, including 50,000 new high-paying jobs, an influx of upper-end salaries is exactly what skeptics worry about. They fear the arrival of so many tech workers could force lower-income people out of Pittsburgh.
People have already been squeezed out of the city, away from public transit and their jobs, said Laura Wiens, a public transit activist who opposes the Amazon bid.
“If you think about how a couple hundred tech jobs coming to East Liberty stimulated the real estate market and pushed out—in particular black families, but low-income folks out of East Liberty in this incredible way over the last couple years—imagine that times 50 or 100,” she said.
Wiens said Pittsburgh doesn’t have the protections in place to prevent significant displacement: the Housing Opportunity Fund, which will help finance low-income home ownership and rentals, but does not yet have a board; an inclusionary zoning plan, which would require affordable housing as part of new residential development, remains in the works; the Pittsburgh Land Bank will eventually be able to help keep parcels in neighborhood hands, but it’s not yet open for business.
Peduto agrees there aren't enough protections in place to mitigate the rapid changes Amazon’s arrival could create.
“We have become very good at managing decline,” said Peduto. “We’re now going to have to prepare for managing growth and we're going to need new tools in order to be able to do that.”
One new tool is something Peduto is calling One Pittsburgh.
“What we're creating is a community-based social benefit fund that will empower those that are working every day to make life more equitable in Pittsburgh,” he said.
The idea is corporations, large nonprofits and foundations would all kick in money to One Pittsburgh to tackle the big problems facing the city, such as hunger, homelessness and the need for universal pre-K. While a working group has put a price tag on steps to address each need, exactly how much money various organizations would contribute has not yet been decided, said Peduto. But he rejected the idea that One Pittsburgh could seem theoretical.
“It takes all of the programs that we have been working on, puts a price tag on them and then works to raise the money to do it,” he said. “So the difference from being political theory is that there's money involved.”
Ideally, Amazon would pitch in to address Pittsburgh’s problems, too, perhaps through One Pittsburgh, or maybe through some other mechanism; Peduto declined to clarify. He said he won’t offer more specifics about the city’s bid.
“The last thing I'm going to do is let Boston know and let Philadelphia know and then allow them to say ‘we'll do the same thing,’” he said.
The One Pittsburgh plan is still under construction. It’s not clear who would decide how the organization would spend its money. Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy of activist group Pittsburgh United wonders what the public’s role will be.
“We want to be able to say, ‘This is our vision for our city and this is how we want this money to be spent, and we are going to hold you accountable to make sure that we get the city we deserve,’” she said.
An approach like One Pittsburgh isn’t a new idea. Fresno, Calif. released its proposal to land Amazon’s second headquarters. In it they suggested creating a similar body to spend the expected tax money. Amazon would have held half the board seats.
Activists like Helen Gerhardt worry that approach could risk turning Pittsburgh into a "company town" where the employers holds all the power like the steel towns of old.
“We lose democratic control, accountability, transparency,” she said. “We see that with the [Pittsburgh region’s] bid of course: We're not even allowed to see what's in it.”
A recent Elon University poll of Pittsburgh area residents suggests not everyone is worried. In fact, 83 percent of respondents said they either somewhat or strongly support Amazon coming to Pittsburgh. That poll, however, surveyed southwestern Pennsylvania residents and not just those in the city.
Peduto said his administration is working with more than 100 representatives from institutions around the city to create a One Pittsburgh agreement, but it won’t be presented to the public for another few months.