Since January, Pittsburgh City Councilors and community members have debated the merits of a "land bank" bill introduced by city Councilor Deb Gross. The bill would create a quasi-governmental agency responsible for acquiring blighted, vacant or tax-delinquent land around the city; the land bank would then work with developers, community-development groups and others to revitalize the properties.
Almost everyone agrees the city isn't effectively dealing with dilapidated property now, but Gross' legislation has generated criticism from some community groups and city councilors Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess, who represent neighborhoods with a disproportionate share of blighted and vacant properties. Among the sticking points are whether city council should have direct oversight of how properties are disposed, and whether there are sufficient protections to prevent developers from swooping in with agendas that neighborhoods don't like.
Earlier this month, Burgess and Lavelle proposed a set of amendments that, among other things, would give city council direct authority over what the land bank does with individual pieces of land. Councilors Gross and Corey O'Connor, meanwhile, have proposed amendments they say would strengthen the community-input process by adding members of blighted communities to the land-bank board and creating a mechanism that allows neighbors to force public hearings on the disposition of nearby land. But they would maintain the land bank's independence from council politics.
City Paper invited Gross, O'Connor, Lavelle and Burgess to sit down on March 21 to discuss the issues presented by their amendments. (Lavelle attended via conference call.) This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
City Paper: Councilwoman Gross, you've introduced legislation that would dramatically change the way land is acquired and disposed of around the city — and since you introduced the bill in January, there's been a ton of feedback [including two packed council hearings]. I'm curious what you think you've learned in the last two months —and whether any of what you've heard has changed your perspective.
Gross: I've said it before, I've said it in the public hearings, but it bears repeating that it is tremendous and impressive how well Pittsburghers take care of themselves and how much they care about their neighborhoods. But it also speaks to, I think, the pent-up need around this issue for solutions — that there have been pent-up frustrations that have built up over decades of bureaucratic tangle. This is legislation that could really improve the way we've been doing things, so it's important to get it right and to empower the neighborhoods. They've been disempowered for far too long. As Councilman Burgess points out, the city is the biggest slumlord in the city of Pittsburgh. It's time that we change that.
CP: And Councilman Burgess, a couple years ago you introduced land-banking legislation yourself, so I'm curious what you think is problematic about the current way that blighted and vacant land is dealt with in the city.
Burgess: Well, it's a lack of investment. ... It would cost about $20 million to maintain all the vacant land in the city of Pittsburgh. This city has intentionally neglected certain communities. And so the hope of any land-bank legislation would be the potential to maintain the land. But, since I've not seen any money or heard any money to maintain the land, then there's really very little benefit for low- and moderate-income communities for land-banking without significant investment in maintenance. The land bank, without significant money for maintenance, will simply cherry-pick the best land and exclude low- and moderate-income communities from their historical homes.
CP: [Councilors] Gross or O'Connor, I'm interested in your response to the funding piece of this. I know that many have brought up about how the land bank would be funded initially, and how the city would control costs on the thousands of blighted and vacant properties that it controls.
Gross: Maintenance is a very important issue, and that's where I think Burgess is rightly shining the light. We have these thousands of parcels [and] they are a tremendous problem for the communities, especially the ones he represents, and he's the best spokesperson to that issue. The way this has to work by state law, and by our charter, in the city — there's no wholesale transfer. The land bank would not be born tomorrow with ownership of thousands and thousands of parcels in Councilman Burgess' district or anywhere else. So the properties that are a problem that the city is not maintaining would have to go through Councilman Burgess and city council in order for the land bank to take title to them.
O'Connor: And I think to the funding part [...] I don't see the land bank getting parcel one for about a year-and-a-half. And I don't want to speak on foundations, but Councilwoman Gross, who wrote the bill, can maybe talk a little bit about [that]. They're very interested in funding something like this.
CP: One of the biggest differences between the amendments that O'Connor and Gross have suggested and the amendments that Burgess and [Lavelle] have suggested is who controls the disposition of land. I wanted to give Gross or O'Connor a chance to address that. You've both talked about the importance of the independence of the land bank, and I'm interested in your argument for keeping council out of it.
Gross: What we do now is that every parcel comes before city council and we vote on it. And we see what the result is: It's a decades-long backlog in processing. What the neighborhood groups, what the community that came down to city council wants, is to be able to more easily see their neighborhoods become what they want them to be. To have more control in the neighborhoods and not in city council. There's no point of introducing this legislation if we're just going to maintain the status quo.
Lavelle: The fact of the matter is it only takes council two weeks to dispose of land. The problem is we have never funded our real-estate department. We have never given them the amount of lawyers necessary to deal with title. We don't necessarily need a land bank. Council is ... the final and last layer of public protection because we are elected by a public body who represents [community] interests.
Gross: It's absolutely true [that] we can do a lot better internally. But we don't require our real-estate department to have anywhere near the level of transparency, public input, accountability or governance that the land bank would have.