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Development: North Siders storm developer's office looking for CBA meeting

When Continental Real Estate ignored a Stadium Authority directive to negotiate a CBA, North Side residents took matters into their own hands.

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Chester Thrower asked North Side residents on April 17 to "accept my challenge.

"I believe in action," the North Side United member told about 30 residents inside a North Side Church, urging them to visit the office of developer Continental Real Estate on April 18. "Let's go to the front line."

 They did, and it worked.

Continental, which is planning to build a $26.5 million, 178-room Hyatt Place hotel on the North Side, was directed by the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority on March 14 to meet with neighborhood leaders within 45 days to discuss a community benefits agreement (CBA). 

Initially, the Stadium Authority was expected to sell Continental the land between PNC Park and Heinz Field on the North Shore on March 14. But when about 30 North Siders showed up asking for a CBA, the board unanimously voted to hold off on the sale until the developer met with community leaders. 

But that was easier said than done.

Residents say they made scores of phone calls to the company's President of Development Barry Ford, but they never successfully reached the developer. With the April 27 deadline less than two weeks away, they finally decided to storm his Homestead office. 

"It's been over a month," negotiator Sam Williamson told Ford's assistant, Linda Betters, shortly after entering the office. "Let's break out the calendars and set up a meeting." For nearly 30 minutes, members and officials of Northside United -- a local campaign of Pittsburgh-UNITED, which promotes community input in neighborhood development -- echoed Williamson's comments. Much like Hill District residents are seeking investment guarantees from the Pittsburgh Penguins, North Side residents want Continental to give back to their neighborhood by providing such benefits as living-wage jobs, youth training and housing-repair programs.

Despite threats from office staffers to call the police, North Side residents refused to leave until a meeting was scheduled. Tensions mounted until Betters called Ford on his cell phone, and then announced to the group that Ford would call Michael Glass, the group's lead negotiator and executive director of North Side Common Ministries, April 21 to arrange a meeting. Initially, residents were wary. But Glass told his group that he would trust Betters' promise, and his faith was borne out.

According to Jen England, a spokeswoman for the Northside United campaign, Ford later called Glass and agreed to meet with negotiators from the North Side on April 30. 

"I think we made a point," Glass said after leaving Continental's office. "The North Side residents are upset about the way we've been treated."

That includes the way some say they've been treated by public officials, particularly by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

"I think Mr. Ravenstahl has demonstrated amazing disregard for the North Side," says Glass. "He should be in favor of a CBA, especially on the North Side, where he's from." 

Instead, Glass says, Ravenstahl's actions of late have led him and others to believe that the mayor is fighting against a North Side CBA.

Specifically, Glass and others have noted the "questionable" removal of city councilor Bill Peduto from the Stadium Authority board. During the March 14 Stadium Authority meeting, Peduto urged the developer to meet with the community. Only a few weeks later, Ravenstahl announced his intention to replace Peduto with fellow city councilor Bruce Kraus.

The mayor "just kicked me off," Peduto says. "There is no reason that he gave."

Spokesperson Joanna Doven said the mayor's office would not comment for this story.

Still, as Peduto acknowledges, Ravenstahl "has every right" to remove him from the board. Peduto's four-year term on the Stadium Authority board expired at the end of 2007.

  "It was never a question of whether or not he could. It's why," says Peduto, a frequent critic of Ravenstahl who briefly ran against him for mayor in 2007. Peduto also questions the timing of his removal, which came shortly after he started advocating for a North Side CBA, rather than immediately after his term on the board was finished.

Complicating matters is that, although Peduto says the mayor's office sent him personal notification of his removal, Ravenstahl has asked council not to act on Kraus' appointment, or a number of other similar appointments. Council must confirm any appointments, but council President Doug Shields says he's not sure when Ravenstahl will formally submit the changes. 

"What is [the administration] doing?" Shields asks. "I have no idea." 

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