Some people tell Mayor Bill Peduto things are changing too fast in Pittsburgh. Others think change isn’t happening fast enough.
“I think that both are correct, in a sense. It’s almost like the Goldilocks effect—the truth is somewhere in the middle,” says Peduto, whose race for a second term as mayor gains momentum this month. His campaign field director started work on Monday, and he’ll announce his campaign manager next week. He’s got $836,000 in a campaign account, and by Valentine’s Day, Peduto wants to have his website up, an office open, and a staff hired.
He has big plans if voters give him a second term.
“There’s a very real buzz about Pittsburgh,” says Peduto, who loves to tell the city’s story at conferences. “It’s a story that people like. It’s how this city never gave up, how this city remained gritty and resilient and fought back when others thought we had died. And it’s a story of potential, of how others see their cities— ‘If Pittsburgh can do it, so can we.’”
Despite the fatigue that campaigns bring, he’s hoping this becomes the second of three terms in the Mayor’s Office. He won 84 percent of the vote in November 2013; his only Democratic challenger so far is the Rev. John Welch, a vice president and dean of students at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, although Councilwoman Darlene Harris has notified the Democratic Committee that she’ll seek its nomination for a mayoral run.
“I love the job. I think I’ve grown into it,” says Peduto, 52, who was a city councilman for 12 years. He talks about Pittsburgh’s hardscrabble past and its high-tech future in the same breath, and views most decisions through the P4 lens—that is, how progress might affect people, the planet, the city’s performance and Pittsburgh as a place. “That will become our international brand, how people will see and judge this city.”
Though Peduto has his critics, his campaign consultant Matt Merriman-Preston says the mayor garners support by relating to people as individuals.
“We expect that we’re going to see that again in this election,” says Merriman-Preston, owner of Ampersand Consulting. “The campaign is a good opportunity . . . to talk about what he’s accomplished and to talk about his goals.
“He’s a very good fit for Pittsburgh. You can’t talk to him for more than five minutes and not know how much he loves Pittsburgh—and exudes what Pittsburgh is. Especially now with the challenges from the [Trump] administration, Pittsburgh is lucky to have somebody like that as a leader.”
A resilient city
Peduto has a March deadline to submit a “resilience plan” to The Rockefeller Foundation that addresses anticipated challenges the city will face over the next 40 years and how to respond when they occur. He pledged in 2015 to commit at least 10 percent of city spending to flood control, and street and facility improvements, securing $5 million over five years from the foundation as one of its 100 Resilient Cities.
To quantify the results of resilience planning, Peduto has resurrected an idea from his first mayoral campaign to conduct a 21st-century survey of Pittsburgh. He’ll ask RAND Corporation to undertake a study much like The Pittsburgh Survey of 1908 that was funded by the Russell Sage Foundation of New York. In that study, 70 researchers spent a year compiling thorough descriptions of sociological conditions when Pittsburgh was a prototypical industrial city.
“A large part of our resilience plan is based on equity and how we become a more inclusive city,” Peduto says. “We want to avoid what happened when that disparity between those who worked in the mills and those who owned them was the largest in the country.
“And we need to make sure Pittsburgh remains Pittsburgh—that whatever that magic was in the 1980s when we were down on our knees and the city was dying, people knew there was something special about this town. Whatever that was, we need to make sure with the growth we’re seeing, that’s supplemented and we enhance it and make it a Pittsburgh for all.”
Peduto says his administration made government part of the new Pittsburgh. He is most proud of the team of professionals he placed in government to change its culture.
“There’s a new economy that is a part of this city. There’s for the first time an opportunity to manage growth, instead of managing decline, and there needed to be a change in the culture of what City Hall represents—and I believe we’ve done that,” he says.
Some changes the public might not notice, such as a five-year plan developed by Deloitte to rebuild city government’s technology system. “Much of our system is obsolete, and the rest of it’s antiquated,” says Peduto, who put the cost of upgrading into the capital budget.
With a $510 million operating budget this year, his goal is to be out from under Act 47 by 2019. Pittsburgh was designated a financially distressed municipality in 2003 under the law that provides state oversight for recovery.
“With no more state oversight, we would have the ability to govern,” Peduto says. “Our debt ratio that was as high as 20 percent a few years ago, will be less than 10 percent of our total budget, and our surplus will be over 10 percent in our reserve fund for the foreseeable future.”
Some issues are clear to residents, such as the need for affordable housing—at least 5,000 units, Peduto says.
“That demand’s not going to go away. If we don’t build market rate units, the price of apartments in the city will continue to escalate,” he says. He plans to approach the county and school district about overhauling tax incentive programs to make affordability one requirement for developers.
“But we want to go beyond that and create a trust fund that would be the largest per capita in the country, to incentivize smaller programs as well,” he says.
With a goal of converting vacant, abandoned properties into affordable housing stock, the Housing Authority will help implement the Pittsburgh Land Bank this year, “and we’ll be able to see how small-scale projects really affect what our neighborhoods will look like.”
Among high-profile appointments to leave his administration was Cameron McLay, who quit as police chief two years after Peduto recruited him from Madison, Wis., to reform the bureau. Peduto says McLay laid a foundation for incoming Chief Scott Schubert. He wants Schubert to assemble a “new, younger command staff” to instill in officers the concept of strengthening community trust while fighting crime.
To bolster data-driven policing, Carnegie Mellon University and others are working on analytics to pinpoint likely criminals and areas where crimes might occur, Peduto says.
“And we want to go back to the 1950s with a community-based approach to policing. We’ll put community police officers in each of the zones and create police stations in neighborhoods,” he says. When the city tried that before, “People liked them. There’s a big difference when an officer’s walking down the street and makes eye contact with you and says hello.”
With more than 900 officers for first time since 2002, the force is big enough to accommodate community policing, and Peduto intends to lobby the Act 47 team to raise the number to 915 next year.