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Despite some concerns, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto gets high marks for freshman year

"A lot of the changes we've done go to the core of the city's culture."

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It's the week before Christmas and Mayor Bill Peduto is at a senior high-rise in the Hill District. After some gentle prodding, a room of senior citizens talks him into singing "Jingle Bells."

Moments later, he goes into the room next door, where more residents of the K. Leroy Irvis Towers are waiting. Once they get wind that he's sung for the first group, he's pressured for an encore. He concedes.

"This is the good part of the job," Peduto says afterward. "I need it to balance out the other side, which is dealing with negativity. I have an all-access pass to the city. To be able to walk into a room of people, whether it's wealthy or poor, black or white, hipsters or orthodox Jews, and be welcomed is the single best thing about being mayor."

The positive has seemed to outweigh the negative during Peduto's first year in office. Even his critics — those who say his actions haven't quite lived up to the ideals he campaigned on — are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But critical voices during these first 12 months have been few. Much louder are the accolades Pittsburgh has received during Peduto's tenure in office. He campaigned on the idea of a new Pittsburgh, different from the city run by former Mayor Luke Raventshal. And in many ways, his initiatives have moved the city's renaissance forward.

Bill Peduto's first-year in office
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Bill Peduto's first-year initiatives have been generally well received.

"When someone can appeal both to the hipsters and the people living in blighted neighborhoods by talking about what we can do together, that's a unified message," says Barney Oursler, executive director of activist group Pittsburgh United. "He's talking about a renaissance in the city, but every time he's talked about that, he's also very carefully said it's going to be done differently, so parts of the community aren't left out of that movement."

To that end, Peduto describes his freshman-year accomplishments as culture changes. He's doubled down on efforts to improve the city's basic functions like snow removal and pothole repair. But he's also made more drastic changes, like creating protected bike lanes and selecting a police chief who didn't come up through the city's ranks.

"A lot of the changes we've done go to the core of the city's culture," Peduto says. "Eliminating a lane of [Penn Avenue] Downtown to put in a bike lane, that's a culture change. Bringing in a police chief from outside of the city, that's a culture change."

Bike lanes are perhaps the most visible impact the mayor's already had in Pittsburgh. To date, there are three protected bike lanes in the city, and funding earmarked for cycling improvements in the 2015 capital budget promises more to come.

"He ran on the idea of making Pittsburgh biking- and walking-friendly," says Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh. "He's made investments in safe, comfortable bike infrastructure, and we're working with his administration to build off of those projects in 2015 and beyond."

In addition to addressing issues on a grand scale, Peduto has also waded into smaller, neighborhood-specific controversies — the type of scuffles that one wouldn't ordinarily think a mayor would step in to.

"The term [for it] in the office is 'in the weeds,'" Peduto says. "They want me to stay out of the weeds, but after years of doing this on council, sometimes I have to get back into it."

In July, for example, Peduto served as a mediator in an unlikely neighborhood battle: the dog park in Mount Washington. Residents were divided about whether the off-leash area should stay in one of the neighborhood's parks. After meeting with residents, the mayor reached a compromise to relocate the park to a different location nearby.

"It divided a neighborhood in half. It wasn't about a dog park anymore," Peduto says. "Mount Washington is a neighborhood in transition. You have a lot of families that are generational and a lot of young people. I was involved in Mount Washington because it was about more than a dog park."

He was also vocal about the sale of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. Through the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Peduto helped ensure that a group of local foundations were able to purchase the center after it was foreclosed on and nearly sold to out-of-state developers.

"With all the great things being said about Pittsburgh, losing a cultural center that was built by the African-American community would have been devastating," Peduto says.

But if you ask Peduto what his greatest accomplishment in his first year in office was, it's not flashy new initiatives, national recognition or mediating local controversies. Instead, it's the city's finances, particularly the community process for creating the 2015 capital budget.

"Even though most people don't think about it, it's the foundation that will affect the next five years," says Peduto. "It's not the sexiest, but it's important."

In other ways he's worked behind the scenes during his first term to get legislation passed on city council. Among his successes was land-banking legislation that will give local communities a say over vacant and abandoned properties.

"His leadership in the creation of the city's land-bank legislation was really indicative," says Oursler. "When city council had some struggle with it, because it changes control of the land, it takes it out of the hands of individual council people, the mayor stepped in and brought everyone to the table. It ended with almost unanimous support on council."

And there are other issues where the public says it was beneficial for the mayor to insert himself. These include negotiations between UPMC and a group of organizers attempting to unionize workers at one of the city's largest employers.

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