When a coalition of new candidates swept the Central Northside Neighborhood Council's board of directors' elections in May, some residents worried that the community group was going to lose its focus on preserving diversity and affordable housing (See "Challengers sweep elections to North Side community group," City Paper May 14).
It turns out the elections were only the beginning of disagreements about the organization's direction.
At its September general meeting, members deadlocked 34-34 on a vote to resubmit a low-income housing tax credit for the 34-unit Ferris Apartments, a scattered-site rental housing project. As a result, the motion failed and the CNNC did not apply for the tax credit.
Later that month, the board removed the CNNC's two staff members, Aaron Churchill and Executive Director Michael Barber. They have not yet been replaced and it is unclear what shape a new staff will take.
On Sept. 29, a group calling itself Concerned Members of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council picketed the terminations in front of the Allegheny YMCA where a board meeting was taking place.
About 35 protesters carried signs that read: "Keep Housing Affordable" and "Certainly Not a Neighborly Council."
"It seems to us that they were fired for being effective at their jobs," said former staffer Morgan Ress, who lives in the community and quit in protest prior to the removal of Barber and Churchill. "It was clear to me that the board was taking the organization in a direction that I could not support."
Ress has criticized the board for putting a market-driven strategy of development before the needs of the community.
At the protest, organizer Myron Arnowitt passed out copies of a group letter that accused the current board of "successfully oppos[ing] services and assistance for low-income families and seniors in buildings near their expensive homes."
Referencing the Ferris Apartments vote, the letter said the board "threw out years of work by neighborhood volunteers who had created a proposal for building scattered-site affordable housing ... by failing to even submit the completed application."
Six of the board's 14 directors voted against resubmitting the low-income tax-credit application. All of them were elected in May.
In the CNNC's October newsletter, board President Bill Buettin – who was also elected in May, but did not cast a vote in the Ferris decision – tried to push past the recent divisions.
"The past 45 days have certainly been challenging for this community," he wrote.
In regard to the former staff members and the Ferris vote, Buettin added, "Those decisions, for better or worse, have created serious and potentially damaging tension between parts of our community. While debate and disagreement are healthy and necessary parts of the community process, this level of tension and hostility towards one another is not."
At the CNNC's Oct. 20 general meeting, Buettin said that he's "not going to talk about what happened" with Barber and Churchill because it is a "private matter for the board." He added that the board has been advised not to comment on the firings for legal reasons, and said, "It's time for us to move forward."
Despite the rifts, the CNNC is moving ahead with at least one other large project. At the Oct. 20 general meeting, the membership voted to enter into a "memorandum of understanding" regarding the redevelopment of a blighted block at the intersection of Federal Street and North Avenue.
The plan calls for the CNNC and the North Side Leadership Conference (a local umbrella group) to form a joint-venture entity. That new entity will have a six-month exclusive negotiation period to craft a master plan for a collection of Federal-North properties owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
A handful of the roughly 150 members in attendance complained that the vote was being called too soon, and that the community hadn't had enough time to review the proposal.
Former CNNC staff member Ress pointed out the memorandum included no language about local hiring or wages for the redevelopment and incoming businesses.
He also argued that the master plan for the block -- which includes the Garden Theater, a vacant adult-movie house -- should include a community-needs assessment and not just a market-based redevelopment scheme.
CNNC development committee co-chair Kirk Burkely countered that he doesn't see a distinction between the two because a market-feasibility study "certainly has to address needs."
In the end, it was the sentiment of Susan Larkin, a veteran of a 15-year-long planning process for the area, that prevailed. "It is time that something happen," she said from the floor. "In order for this to go forward, there has to be some legs for it to stand on."
The ayes in the crowd clearly outnumbered the nays in a voice vote.
In a later interview, Larkin added, "For literally decades, we have had meetings. And there would be all kinds of people there to discuss what was going to happen to Federal-North. ... All that was produced was mountains of paperwork."