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Cents and the City

Pittsburgh council slows park, questions check, considers campfire song in struggle with budget crisis.

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If you park in Oakland, the Pittsburgh budget crisis may have just saved your space - at least temporarily.

On Sept. 10, city council applied the brake to a plan to turn the Schenley Plaza parking lot into a parklet. The plan calls for transforming the 238-space lot into what City Planning Director Susan Golomb called "not only a town square, a center for Oakland, but also an entry into Schenley Park." The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy are spearheading the project, and they'd raise privately the $5 million cost. But the city, which owns the land, would spend as much as $1.2 million on street improvements, and on adding 90 nearby on-street parking spots to replace some of the lost spaces.

Councilors worried that the city might not have the $1.2 million. (It may face bankruptcy by year's end, according to City Controller Tom Flaherty.) Some also wondered how much parking revenue the city would lose. (Golomb didn't know.) And Councilor Sala Udin doubted Golomb's assertion that the loss of spaces would have a negligible impact on Oakland parking. "When I go to the university, that's about the only place I can find to park," Udin said.

All Golomb wanted was council approval for a memorandum allowing Pitt and the Parks Conservancy to begin designing the park. Council instead asked her to return on Sept. 17 with more details on the plan. So drivers whose hunts for Oakland spaces often end at Schenley Plaza have received a reprieve.

But beware: Golomb warned that if Pitt and the Parks Conservancy build the park, and the city remains strapped for cash, the proposed 90 on-street parking spaces might go by the wayside. Then frequent visitors to the Hillman and Carnegie libraries, in particular, would really be screwed. What the budget crisis giveth, the budget crisis may taketh away.

And though Mayor Tom Murphy claims to be watching city spending like a hawk, council found reason to question one expenditure on Sept. 10. The administration asked council to approve a $118,000 check to John Zottola Landscaping for stones the company put in along Nine Mile Run in Squirrel Hill, near the Summerset at Frick Park housing development. Turns out the city never sought competitive bids for the job. "Zottola seemed to be the logical choice, seeing as they were already on the site" working on improving the stream, said Director of Engineering Fred Reginella. "The cost of advertising [to solicit bids], the human resources needed to advertise it, just isn't warranted," he added. "And [$118,000] is not a lot of money."

Tell that to the 500-plus city workers who've been laid off. Council voted 7-1, with Udin voting no and Twanda Carlisle abstaining, to approve the payment to Zottola. Councilors then took turns thanking the Murphy administration for seeking ways to bring back some laid-off police and emergency medical technicians, though their returns to work are not yet certain. "Everybody now hold hands and sing Kumbaya," Udin said, as the meeting closed.

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