Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pittsburgh After Dark

There's been lots of chatter lately about the Pittsburgh's college corridor and connecting Oakland and Downtown via mass transit. The new chief executive of the Allegheny Conference (the new Wizard of Oz as it were) lists the connection as one of the conferences highest priorities.
"In addition to linking the two business centers, a transit link also would provide students access to Downtown, which would make the area more vibrant after dark." But will it?

Temporarily living in Arequipa, Peru, a city known for its urban crime, has given me a new perspective on downtown Pittsburgh. Last night, I ate dinner in a crowded hopping restaurant with purse "leashes" on every seat. The idea is you hook your purse to your seat so that random bag-snatchers have a harder time filching your valuables while you're relaxing over a meal. You'd think that this threat would deter the nightlife. However, central Arequipa is a very bustling shopping and socializing destination. Just this week they installed walk signals on the intersections where their ridiculously long walk-street crosses traffic streets - really an innovative compromise to traffic concerns. Alongside these throngs of people are also lots of police officers. Arequipa appears to be sparing no expense on security.

Reasons crime-ridden central Arequipa is more popular than downtown Pittsburgh?
Lots of events, attractions, and shopping. People need a reason to come downtown.
Lots of cops (without billy clubs). People need to feel safe (but not threatened.)
Lots of public transportation. Peru doesn't have mass transit, but it does have a gazillion taxis and mini-buses.

If a magic subway showed up between Downtown and Oakland tomorrow, do you really think that Downtown would become a great destination? No. Downtown needs a coordinated effort between the theaters, the universities, the restaurants, the bars, the police and public transportation. I head to downtown Pittsburgh regularly for movies at the Harris and plays. But on a weeknight or weekend, almost all the stores and restaurants are closed. Downtown feels like a ghost-town because of all the shuttered storefronts not because of the lack of people. The first time I visited downtown on a weekday afternoon (courtesy of jury duty), I was utterly amazed at how alive and happening the city was and how difficult it was to find parking.

Of course, Pittsburgh does have sure-fire ways to get people Downtown after work. The crowds flock to the city for special downtown events - from Gallery Crawls to First Night to Light Up Night to St Patrick's Day to the Thanksgiving Day Parade. But the saddest thing I noticed? Macy's didn't open up their store on the day of the Thanksgiving Day Parade until after the parade started and the crowds had been milling around for an hour. The day after the busiest shopping day of the year, and my family was waiting for Macy's to open in order to go shopping. They certainly don't stay open late for the quarterly gallery crawls. Where did my family eat the day of the parade? Sammy's Famous Corned Beef. Why? They're good and they're always open.

How about this simple idea? The next time the URA helps fund some new retail development downtown, they can add in a caveat, you must be open on the weekends and on weeknights. That's how to get people staying and coming Downtown.

So, in summation, do I want mass transit between Oakland and Downtown? YES! Do I think it will solve all our problems? NO! Do I think there are steps we can take in the meantime to help solve our problems? YES! What do you think?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Big Brother Is Watching

The school board is a scary beast. With little to no experience, you can be elected to the school board because voters are under the impression that these folks aren't very important.

Yet time and again, school board members exercise more power than we give them credit for. The highlight of questionable school board decision making in history is clearly Brown vs The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. However, from religion to evolution to banning of books, school boards often control the future of our children (and therefore our society) more than we expect.

Here in Pittsburgh, our school board members have a history of hacking and slashing at schools without asking for input while parents yell. Then when the school board plans a study regarding future hacking of schools:

The study already has drawn criticism from school board member Randall Taylor, who said the work should have been done before the district closed 22 schools in June 2006.

I say: Better late than never.

Tonight, the school district is holding a "city-wide community dialogue" on the future of Pittsburgh schools. Attendees will receive an overview of the district plans and pass out questionnaires. Additionally, the district is offering free transportation from the area high schools to the location. I think it's a great idea to try to get all these parents in one place and ask for their input.

To the parents of children in Pittsburgh schools, try to attend this show.

To the school board, send these questionnaires home with the report cards. Pass them out at parent-teacher meetings. Get these surveys into the hands of as many parents as possible. Not just to the parents who have the time and energy to show up at your meeting. Also, it's not a "dialogue" if attendees aren't allowed to talk.

To the Post-Gazette, try to publish this information more than a day in advance next time.

To the Tribune-Review, try to publish this information.

As a note: Kudos to the Pittsburgh Public Schools for trying out twitter. In the past month, they have made 72 updates. It's a new and innovative way to attempt to reach parents. Between twitter and tonight's meeting, it seems like the school board is attempting to address their recent lackluster C+ grade from a community watchdog group. Let's make sure they keep it up.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

And The Winner Is?

Last month, the request for consultants was sent out with a March 20 deadline of applying to be a consultant for stepping the city through the complexities of leasing the parking garages. It's been 6 days since that deadline. Did anybody apply? Maybe I should have. I have a few suggestions.

Recommendation #1: I echo Dowd in demanding that we have a complete and properly staffed Parking Authority board.

Recommendation #2: Don't do it now. The State Auditor is currently questioning the recent attempted "fire sale" of a downtown building. Michael Lamb, our County Auditor will inevitably pipe up with an equally practical audit requesting that we not "fire sale" our parking garages in time of economic downturn. Let's cut this off before we spend oodles of cash on a consultant that will inevitably be the uncle of a big city political contributor.

Needless to say, I didn't discover any information on the Parking Authority's website, but I was delighted to learn that they're currently hiring.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Whole New Can Of Worms

We've all gotten used to the selling of the naming rights to sports arenas and music venues. Of course, old habits die hard. As a newcomer to Pittsburgh, I was bewildered by the mythical Star Lake for a few months. However, call me old-fashioned, but I always thought that museums held a sacred place un-beholden to corporate seizure. Oh, Well. Come this fall, the SportsWorks will be re-christened the Highmark SportsWorks. Museums have always prided themselves on education, and now we'll be teaching children young that everything has a price, especially knowledge.

What's next, the Campbell's Soup Andy Warhol museum? The Home Depot Botanical Gardens? With the recent announcement of the upcoming Consol Energy hockey arena, I'm hoping for the Consol Energy Natural History museum, with a special exhibit where you can teach your children how to mine for coal, and brainwash them into believing that there is such thing as clean coal.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reality Checks

I'm a big fan of www.factcheck.org which I used extensively during the recent presidential campaign.
Since copying is the biggest form of flattery, I've decided to do a little fact-checking myself.

From a recent Ravenstahl campaign announcement (courtesy of the Busman):

"Pittsburgh needs leadership, not a desperate politician willing to do or say anything to get elected. That's why and how he's run for four political offices in the last 8 years with no accomplishments to show for it. While he's talking and done nothing, I have submitted campaign finance reform pending before Council and I am reforming Pittsburgh's decades old procurement practices. Politics as usual from Dowd. Try again, Pat."

Let's get this straight. Back in June, Ravenstahl vetoed the campaign finance bill that City Council passed. Councilman Dowd voted for this campaign finance reform bill. At the time, Ravenstahl said: "It provides an unfair competitive advantage for the wealthy and will have a chilling effect on the labor movement. It will inhibit the ability of challengers to mount successful campaigns against incumbents." Six months later, in January, Ravenstahl and Onorato co-introduced a joke of a campaign reform bill that is clearly too late to affect this year's election, and has ludicrously high limits. Now, "Mr. Ravenstahl said previously that the proposed campaign finance bill will make substantive changes and could hurt incumbents like him." So which is it? Will Ravenstahl, the incumbent, be hurt or helped by campaign finance reform? We're supposed to believe that Ravenstahl will veto a bill that will help him, yet be a proponent of a bill that will hurt him. Ha.

I've already done a report on what I think Dowd has done right over the past year. You can decide for yourselves if you think Dowd has "no accomplishments to show for it." Additionally, in the past week or so, he has also been continuously calling out Ravenstahl on issues from pay-to-play politics to the PWSA bond issue. I wish he hadn't waited until deciding to run for mayor to call out the incumbent, but it's better late than never.

Things Ravenstahl got right:
Pittsburgh does need leadership. And a lot of us are pretty sick of you, Ravenstahl, the desperate politician willing to do or say anything to get elected.

In the Strip

Last week, Brian O'Neill highlighted new plans to build a Market House in the Strip District. Given my recent Cleveland trip raving about their West Side Market, I am very excited to hear about this potential addition to Pittsburgh. Imagine being able to get Clara's Pierogies, Breadworks bread, Mike & Tony's Gyros, and some cannoli's from a bakery in Bloomfield all under the same roof. Not to mention all those small-potatotoes farmers that I've never heard of. Throw in an outpost from PennMac's cheese counter, and you might actually be able to buy cheese on Saturdays without a long wait.

Personally, I do 95% of my shopping at the Strip. I find that it's hell on Saturdays, but on a weekday afternoon it's a great way to shop. The Strip District is a Pittsburgh treasure. A market house would truly complement and complete the existing offerings - giving smaller shops that can't afford to man a storefront 6-7 days a week an outlet for their wares and giving a new year-round outlet for established eateries and grocers around the county. It would also be a nice escape from some of the cold winter days when it's harsh to be walking from store to store in the Strip.

For weekly shopping the Strip can be intimidating. It's annoying to figure out which store sells the best ricotta (Penn Mac), filo dough and feta (Stamooli's), or chuck roasts (Strip District Meats). But figuring it out is also part of the fun, and once you start, you'll be excited to see which fruits Stan's has on super-markdown this week or which fish Wholey's is practically giving away. With the addition of Right By Nature, most excuses have been thrown out the window in terms of shopping at the Strip. They offer all the basics, including about 20 different brands/styles of yogurt, and they offer 2 hours of free garaged parking if you shop in their store. No more excuses. Get yourself to the Strip, and show these great grocers that with a market house, their business can only increase.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Stay Tuned

For the next 2 1/2 months, I'll be updating this blog from Peru keeping up with the Pittsburgh community through blogs, twitter, and newspaper websites. It's really not much different than what I do in Pittsburgh. But it does mean I'll have to wait 2 1/2 months to visit the new Hofbrauhaus in Pittsburgh.

While I expect Peru to exceed Pittsburgh in terms of fresh fruit and the temperature, I'll work on comparisons of political corruption and public transportation options.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Drink And Let Live

As I feared, Saturday's drunken revelry ended in tears and bloodshed. Unlike Councilman Kraus, though, I believe that there were plenty of police. There is a dangerous culture of drinking and driving prevalent throughout this city. If drinking and driving were not acceptable from a young age, then this problem would not have happened. Unfortunately, Mr Haniotakis had a clear history of drinking and driving and aggression. Less bars on Carson Street would not have changed the outcome Saturday night. Taking away Mr Haniotakis' license might have helped. Drinking and driving is not acceptable. There should be harsh penalties in place for those who do and plenty of alternatives for those who choose not to. I'll re-iterate my plea from Saturday - cut back on a few billy-club-shaking overtime cops in riot gear and instead, let's have some real leadership in Pittsburgh broker a deal with Port Authority that all buses after 10pm are free. And make sure there are actually buses running until after the bars close on Friday and Saturday nights. Re-institute the party shuttle down Carson Street. Teach kids in school that it is NOT okay to drink and drive. Teach kids to drink responsibly. While we're celebrating St Patrick's Day, why don't we splash some bloody ugly commercials on TV like in Ireland?

How do you pay for these things?

Ever hear of the drink tax?

Or maybe instead we can just add more police? I understand treating the immediate symptom, but this is getting ridiculous. Soon, we'll have more police than bar patrons on Carson Street. Let's treat the root of the problem by stopping drunk driving. Excessive binge drinking is next on the list.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Happy Pittsburgh St Patty's Day

IMG_0047, originally uploaded by ccs-pics.

Walking about today, I can't help but realize that today is St Patrick's day, not March 17. While I'm normally a big fan of partying up for any reason, I'm a bit concerned about Pittsburgh-ers predilection for this holiday. Tonight, I will not be driving anywhere and I sincerely hope that anyone who is driving is sober and careful. I'd hate to see pictures of squashed green cowboy hats and bloodied emerald t-shirts as tomorrow's headlines.

Enjoy the parade and public transportation today. Perhaps if the city of Pittsburgh made all the buses free today, the roads would be safer and they could pay a few less cops overtime.

(photo courtesy of the creative commons license posted on flickr by css-pics )

Friday, March 13, 2009

Here Comes the Money

The federal stimulus money has begun its influx into this region. So far, we have new money for biking and walking paths, airport runways, and potholes. Not so glamorous. High on the mayor's original wish list was money for the equally-unglamorous PWSA, which Dowd has been attempting to pin down as of late. Hopefully, when more stimulus money flows in, the current complex issues surrounding the PWSA bonds (which most of us will never understand), that money won't sweep these issues under the rug. Maybe we can spend some of the money on a consultant to actually figure out all these bond shenanigans?

On the flip side of the coin, as null space points out, construction prices have continued to rise in the region in spite of nationwide drops in fuel prices and construction materials. If we have a hope of spending all this shiny new stimulus money, we need more construction workers in this region. The best way to do that? Offer competitive salaries. Wouldn't it be nice if Allegheny County had the highest paying construction jobs in the nation?

In the meantime, if you can hold off on re-roofing your house, you might want to.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Eating My Words

McKeesport is not known in these areas for its big condo developments yet the same day the downtown McDonald's drug dealing story broke, we also learn that a Detroit-Pittsburgh cocaine ring has also been busted in a state-wide effort.

I apologize for implying in yesterday's blog post that the authorities only care about locations where condo developments are happening. Clearly at the state level, McKeesport makes it onto the radar. I'll even go out on a limb and assume that local law enforcement contributed to this case. In the least, local informants were key to cracking the case.

If the war on drugs isn't your style, you can join the war on potholes instead. Ravenstahl has launched a campaign to defeat these impertinent cretins who insist on attacking our city every winter. Do your part to destroy this pestilence by calling '311' today.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Happy Meals?

So McDonald's bathrooms downtown are hotbeds for drug dealing? Little Junior gets his happy meal while Mommy gets some Xanax? Seriously, I expect this story to come out of Cranberry or Wexford. I expected that the downtown McDonald's would be peddling heroine or cocaine. In Mt Lebanon, I'd expect to find high school students peddling marijuana in the bathroom.

Seriously, though, I'd rather that a restaurant known for its kid-friendly antics is not associated with drugs in any way even if they're just muscle-relaxants. When drug dealers feel they can peddle in the bathroom, it's a sad reflection on our own police enforcement. People have been complaining about drugs in the downtown area for years.

"I know that we do get complaints from pedestrians and other businesses about drug activity that's an ongoing thing down there," said city police Sgt. William Gorman of the Hill District station, which patrols Downtown.

But now that there's some "positive development" downtown?

"The continuing cooperative effort that has been under way to keep Downtown a destination for families depends in large part on there being confidence in public safety," Mr. Zappala said in a statement. "I and other officials will not tolerate any type of criminal behavior that erodes that confidence and interferes with the positive developments taking place Downtown on a daily basis."

Well, I guess it's better late than never.

But it definitely makes me take Carmen Robinson's words to heart regarding downtown development.

"It shouldn't be just lofts in the Strip District and where the Penguins are building," said Carmen Robinson, a Hill District attorney who also is running for mayor. She said any renaissance hasn't hit Lincoln-Lemington, Homewood, Brookline or Carrick, and vowed to back community benefits agreements guaranteeing jobs and investments to neighborhoods in which subsidized developments sit.

It's great to see police cracking down on downtown drug dealing, but it's sad to see the correlation between expensive luxury condos and police enforcement. Maybe when the "renaissance" spreads to Homewood and Carrick, the cops will clean up those drugs too?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Squeaky Wheels

In Pittsburgh city government (and perhaps everywhere), there is no truer adage than "The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease." If you whine to the right people, you can accomplish anything. Similarly, if you have '311' on re-dial (and request a ticket number), you can fix the city of Pittsburgh one pothole and streetlight at a time.

Paving for McArdle Roadway (that scenic pothole-filled byway up to one of the best skyline views in the country) was literally passed over until this blog entry and some accompanying begging. 2 weeks later, the Post-Gazette informs us that McArdle will be paved post-haste.

Public Works Director Guy Costa said the city has hired Mackin Engineering for $170,000 to study the drainage problem and develop a solution. Its report is expected within a month.

But don't stop squeaking now. If the drainage problem is not fixed, the city will continue to waste upwards of $300,000 at a pop to re-pave this major artery every other year or so. And if the wheel stops squeaking, this report will get tossed under the rug for another few years.

And if McArdle isn't your pet project, call '311' and insist that your project get fixed, too. Or make some friends in high places, but I think the phone is easier.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What I Like About Dowd

After combing through the last year's articles on Dowd in the Post-Gazette, I've discovered that I do like what Dowd's been doing. That I had to comb through the Post-Gazette's online articles to discover this, I'm not too happy about, but hopefully this will save others some effort while Dowd and company complete his new website.

1) His role in the ICA/Debt Reduction debacle. He's taken a stand on putting our piggy bank in a safe place. That's cool. A real outcome remains to be seen. It surely helps my good opinion of him that my buddy Lamb is in agreement with him on this one.

2) His awareness of all those pesky city authorities and his consistent complaints that the city is not following its rules, especially regarding the very important parking authority status given the mayor's grand plan to lease the garages and potentially give us a respite from our very serious pension woes.

3) His class in cancelling a taxpayer-paid mailing with his face plastered all over it. If only Luke had shown that much class on trash cans. (Though I can see a lovely anti-Luke campaign involving "taking out the trash.")

4) His position on campaign finance reform. Dowd is one of the majority of council to vote for campaign finance reform. Unfortunately, the current mayor vetoed that bill. Maybe next year?

5) His negotiations with Lamar. The Post-Gazette gives credit for Dowd for settling with Lamar out of court and re-instating the proper board approval process. Also, I appreciate that while he joined fellow council members in appealing the original zoning board approval, he did so as a private citizen.

6) His grass-rootsness. This summer he planned a series of neighborhood meetings as coffee shops. His entire council campaign was based on "grass roots" support. He also appears to be quite popular on Facebook, which while not a ringing endorsement, shows that he has popular support and probably some charm and charisma to go along with it. If I may reach out to those supporters, I might remind you that you're not a private club. You might want to spread the word to folks outside your own circle.

I think all that adds up to looking pretty good on paper. So, why do you like Dowd?

Stay tuned. Maybe tomorrow, I'll address the incumbent.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

She's Nobody's Boy

I have alluded to the candidacy of Carmen Robinson twice before, but now I've been moved to devote an entire post to her.

So far in the blogosphere, I can count the blog posts about Carmen Robinson on two hands.

They fall into 2 categories:
1) "Who is she?" (Back in December) From Matt H, Busman's Holiday, Burgher John, and Thoughts on Government.
2) "Hmm... There's another candidate. She seems cool." From Burgh Chair and Rauterkus & Running Mates

It appears Carmen is pretty busy. She may not be buttering up the blogosphere but she's attended the Pittsburgh Hip Hop Awards ("to a roaring crowd"), has thrown a fundraiser, and has a decent website with *gasp* information about herself and her candidacy. Yes, she has had a website with content up since at least December 27. As a note, Lukey and our-savior-thank-god-someone's-running-against-Lukey Dowd still do not have any content on their websites. On top of that, she has a judicial clerkship and is running her own law practice. But you should be reading about her yourself.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

More Funding for Pittsburgh "Highways"

I'm a resident of the South Side of Pittsburgh and normally when the federal dollars start flowing in my neighborhood, I find it difficult to complain. Except for this time. Why is PennDOT widening Carson Street between 25th St and 33rd St? I just don't understand.

Carson Street is a mess. It's not especially pedestrian friendly - and in the vicinity of the Birmingham Bridge, it's especially pedestrian-unfriendly. I frequently fear for my safety while crossing the street in that area. Yet PennDOT and our generous state senators have won the fight to make Carson Street wider???

I understand that this is a heavy truck route. But I certainly don't feel the need to encourage that the home to "America's longest business Victorian National Historic District" be a more pleasant and convenient truck route.

And is it really in our best interest to enable bar patrons to drive their cars more quickly and efficiently after closing hours at the many bars on Carson St? How about we encourage them to take the bus instead?

Carson Street is not a highway. It's a business district. But if PennDOT and short-sighted leadership have their way, I wonder how long that's going to last. If I had my way, I'd shut Carson Street down between 10th and 22nd Streets to cars every Friday and Saturday night except for public transportation. If Austin, Texas and New York City can do it, why can't Pittsburgh? Heck, in my ideal world, Carson would be shut down every day of the week with walking and light rail being your only option for traveling the street. While we're at it, how about shutting down Penn Ave in The Strip every Saturday?

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Sweet Smell of Compromise in the Morning

I've previously discussed the Pittsburgh School's policy on 50% being the "minimal" grade. I was pleased to see some different attitudes being used towards a failing school system, but I was concerned that the administration appeared to be largely just pissing off teachers. I'm happy to report back a few months later, that the administration did take teacher feedback into account and has adjusted their hard line. If students refuse to even do the work, they will get a zero. However, as long as they put in a "good faith effort", they will earn a baseline of a 50%.

If the school district continues to respond to teacher complaints with action, perhaps there is hope for Pittsburgh schools after all. That's something that the Mayor's office can learn, too.

UPDATE: The above-mentioned changes are effective immediately. However, next year, the school district is making a bold change and moving to a five-point scale, where students receive grades of 1 through 5. And as a result, they're doing away with F altogether?

Under the new scale, work scored from 4 to 5 will be an A, 3 to 3.99 a B, 2 to 2.99 a C, 1 to 1.99 a D, and zero to .99 an E.

Let's all cross our fingers and hope that this change was done with teacher input.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Beer - More and Less

While we're all waiting for the inevitable yet snails-paced opening of the Hofbrauhaus, delayed by the onset of the drink tax and the slow pace of public services, we can at least continue to frequent Penn Brewery. The North Side Leadership Conference showed reality to Penn Brewery's greedy landlords who were mistakenly under the impression that an official recession was the time to triple the rent and attract new big-budget renters. Now we can look forward to another 5 years of Penn Brewery at its current location. The beer is dead. Long live the beer.