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Stalled on the Hill

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The master plan process to decide what will be built around the city's new Consol Energy Center has stalled, according to officials.
  • The master plan process to decide what will be built around the city's new Consol Energy Center has stalled, according to officials.

Hill District leaders say efforts to craft a neighborhood master plan -- efforts that are already four months behind schedule -- have stalled entirely, due to concerns with the Philadelphia-based planning firm heading the initiative. 

"We ran into a snag," announced Carl Redwood at a June 11 Hill District Consensus Group meeting. "Right now, the master-plan process with the consultant is on hold."

Hill District leaders have sought to develop the plan as part of a community agreement with government officials and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The plan was intended to help guide the Penguins' redevelopment of the 28 acres around the new Consol Energy Center, as well as envision the development of the greater Hill District. Among other development considerations, the plan will address land use, historic preservation and transportation.

To shepherd the planning process along, Hill District leaders pressed the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority to hire CHPlanning. The firm is headed by a Hill District native, Charnelle Hicks, with headquarters in Philadelphia and offices in New Orleans. 

But thanks to numerous delays -- some of which were blamed on postponed URA board action -- CHPlanning was hired late in the process: The master plan was supposed to have been finished by February 2010. And the firm has had little success making up for lost time. 

Thus far, CHPlanning has held just one community meeting, on April 1. At that meeting, Hicks and other consultants introduced themselves to more than 100 Hill District residents and stakeholders. But while a handout distributed at the meeting pledged the process would "establish a policy guide for achieving community goals," no community meetings have been scheduled since. 

"People from the community indicated a lack of confidence in the current team," says Redwood, convener of the Hill Consensus Group. Redwood declined to spell out those concerns, except to say the process "wasn't moving quickly enough for folks."

Reached by phone, Hicks acknowledges, "No one is 100 percent satisfied with where we are now." She originally anticipated completing the plan by the fall, she says, but "We didn't anticipate we'd be at this reassessment point in June.

"It's not that this project is daunting or overly complex," she adds. "But our approach is a community-based plan -- not a back-door plan. The real planning work will commence after we get significant input from the community."

But URA Executive Director Rob Stephany says, "We never really got the [community stakeholders] and the consultant team on the same wavelength. That was really one of the responsibilities of the consultant team: to get us all understanding what it is that we want out of this [plan]." 

Stephany notes, however, that the team behind the planning process is much larger than CHPlanning. While CHPlanning is leading the process, it is in fact a much smaller firm than one of its partners, Sasaki Associates. Sasaki is a global firm that has worked in such far-flung capitals as Abu Dhabi, Beijing and Ho Chi Minh City -- as well as Hershey, Pa., and Baltimore. 

"The existing team is a pretty strong one," says Stephany. "But we need a strong leader in front of the community, shepherding us through the entire process. I'm positive we can work with members of the team on a great plan." But, he adds, "at the end of the day, CHPlanning might take a different role in how [the plan] unfolds."

In any case, Stephany says getting rid of the Philly-based firm entirely isn't likely. "From a time-management standpoint," Stephany says, "having to stop this process and start a whole new one would be disastrous."

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