The Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science wants to knock down a building to expand a parking lot. Photo by Brian Hyslop.

In May 2022, the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science went before the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment to request permission to tear down a one-story building on Baum Boulevard near South Euclid Avenue so that the entire lot could be used for parking.

It was the type of request that the members of the Baum Centre Initiative (BCI) likely would have opposed, calling for the school to add trees at the very least.

But BCI was never informed. A 2018 ordinance calling for developers to inform communities through Registered Community Organizations, or RCOs, means the school did not have to work with the civic group because the BCI is not registered.

BCI — like the Shadyside Action Coalition did in March — flirted with disbanding in June when its annual membership dues are due, but members, including Shadyside architect Rob Pfaffmann, have stepped up to create a working group to breathe life into the organization.

The city knows the 2018 ordinance is a problem.

While Pittsburgh has 90 neighborhoods, Karen Abrams, director of city planning, says there are 35 RCOs that cover 45 of those neighborhoods and many of those organizations overlap. Portions of the Hill District and Oakland each have four Registered Community Organizations and part of Squirrel Hill North is covered by two.

One of the duties of an RCO, Abrams says, is to facilitate meetings between the community and developers, known as Development Activities Meetings, or DAMS. But when there is more than one RCO in an area, or when there are none, the responsibility for the meetings falls to the city’s planning department.

Karen Abrams, Pittsburgh director of City Planning.

Abrams says her staff spent 500 hours last year “responding to RCO inquiries and questions in 2022, that’s just in one year.” The staff also spent 450 hours administering 80 development meetings last year.

She says she told Pittsburgh City Council that her staff was stretched too thin because of the requirements.

Baum Centre Initiative used to meet regularly with developers, including UPMC, which still attends the meetings. But it is not an RCO because there isn’t enough manpower to meet the RCO requirements that it organizes as a nonprofit with a website and regular elections of officers. Instead, Lenore Williams, who represents East Liberty, acts as chair of the organization.

The Baum Boulevard-Centre Avenue corridor used to be a sort of no man’s land where five neighborhoods met, but none took responsibility for the oversight of development.

Williams says the Baum Centre Initiative was created by former Mayor Bill Peduto when he
was a member of Pittsburgh City Council to stop developments like the Pep Boys at Centre and South Millvale avenues from being built. That development is technically in Bloomfield, but across the street from Shadyside and down the street from Oakland.

The initiative has members from five neighborhoods: Bloomfield, East Liberty, Friendship, Oakland and Shadyside.

Williams says the organization “has been that zipper. It has been bringing all sides together to work towards a common good and I still think it is. I still think it can be. But it can only be so with participation.”

In the past, BCI backed up organizations from East Liberty that opposed renovations to the McDonald’s restaurant there to make it look like it was in the suburbs.

But last spring, when the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science proposed knocking down a building to create a parking lot, BCI was never informed.

“I’m mad that we were pretty much ignored as far as the mortuary school,” Williams said during BCI’s meeting on March 16.

Her complaints were nearly an echo of comments made by Marimba Milliones, president & CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation, during a City Council meeting on March 1.

Milliones noted that the aspirations of the RCO ordinance were laudable:

“I particularly want to lift up that City Council, according to the ordinance, was striving to improve community voice, was striving to ensure that communities could be heard by developers such that they could respond in meaningful ways, and that one of the goals was certainly to achieve more equitable outcomes in the city regarding development.”

The Hill District already had a process in place by which neighborhood community groups and nonprofits would meet with developers to express their concerns and push for developments to be more responsive to community needs, Milliones says. That community process was undone by the Development Activities Meeting requirement that when a developer requests a meeting, it has to be held within 35 days.

The Baum Centre Initiative was created by former Mayor Bill Peduto when he was a member of City Council to stop developments like the Pep Boys at Centre and South Millvale avenues. Photo by Brian Hyslop.

District 5 City Councilor Barb Warwick of Greenfield says there are also problems because the city formally recognizes some community organizations but not others.

“In the communities that I represent — and across the board — the presence of RCOs has created divisions and mistrust within the communities of the RCO, and that is across the board in every neighborhood,” she says.

“Once the status is there and that connection, that sort of exclusivity is there, then you get into issues of, well, ‘Who gets on the board of the RCO?’ and ‘How are those board members elected?’ and ‘Who should run?’ I’ve seen multiple cases where I’ve seen fighting. We’re getting break-off organizations, and then you get two organizations.”

On the other side of the table, Warwick says, developers will have a small meeting with an RCO, ignore the larger community, and claim they had the required community meeting.

“It’s almost like a box checked on the developer’s part,” she says.

Abrams’ office created a survey on the city’s use of Registered Community Organizations that was posted on the city’s website for community engagement. She says that in the first two weeks, 75 people filled out the survey. Other surveys were placed in senior centers.

She is waiting for the results of the survey before making recommendations on how to change the RCO ordinance.

Milliones says there needs to be more outreach beyond a survey in order to gauge the impact of the ordinance on community engagement with developers.

She says the ordinance attempts to give residents a say over what developments are built “at a time where Pittsburgh is experiencing considerable market-rate development in a city that is still working class.”

Milliones adds: “So when we miss that layer and those opportunities, we are talking about pretty considerable displacement of existing Pittsburgh residents. I think that that’s a concern that we all have to be very thoughtful about when we’re talking about eliminating opportunities for people to give input.”

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.