This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.
Discussions that may shape the Hill District’s future are happening behind closed doors, so far.
Every other Friday, a nine-member panel assembles – virtually, nowadays – to discuss the benefits the Hill stands to gain from coming development on the former Civic Arena site.
That panel, the Executive Management Committee [EMC], is charged with answering one of the region’s most contentious questions: How can the Pittsburgh Penguins-led redevelopment of the 28-acre site address the effects of decisions made in the 1950s to raze Black Pittsburgh’s hub and build an arena?
Created via a 2014 agreement, the EMC is not a public entity and thus isn’t required to hold open meetings. Nonetheless, given its importance, PublicSource has been asking since Aug. 10 for access to an EMC meeting. So far, the EMC has not provided that opportunity.
“The EMC … is working to open it up to any and all media and public attending future meetings,” city Councilman Daniel Lavelle, one of the panel’s three co-chairs, told PublicSource at the Sept. 1 groundbreaking of FNB Financial Center. That 26-story tower will be the site’s commercial anchor.
“But there are some issues [EMC members] want to work through over the next two or three meetings, and then open it up to all of the public to attend,” Lavelle said. He did not detail the issues, nor respond to requests for further comment.
Since May, the EMC has emerged publicly as a factor in decisions by the City Planning Commission and Urban Redevelopment Authority that allowed the Penguins’ chosen developers to break ground. Its increasing profile, though, has exposed divisions in a body created to forge consensus.
EMC member Marimba Milliones, who heads the Hill Community Development Corp., has alleged conflicts of interest and a resulting pro-developer tilt on the panel. A URA-prompted effort to grade the developers on their community commitments resulted in disagreement and mixed reviews among EMC members. Now there appears to be division on when and how to open the process to the public.
Kevin Acklin, chief operating officer and general counsel for the Penguins, and an EMC co-chair, said the panel has achieved a lot and that he wants its process to be public — but added that the meetings might be hard to watch.
The EMC “is where the sausage is made. It’s messy. It’s bloody. It’s emotional. There are tears shed on these calls. There are fights on these calls,” Acklin said. “Sometimes these meetings are dreadful.”
Why is there an EMC?
The EMC was born in 2014, when representatives of the Hill, the Penguins, the city and Allegheny County signed a pact called the Community Collaboration Implementation Plan, or CCIP. In it, the parties agreed that, as part of the redevelopment of the Civic Arena site, they would work together, throughout the Hill, in seven focus areas:
- Inclusion of minority- and women-owned businesses
- Job creation and workforce development for local residents
- Wealth building
- Culture and community legacy
- Community development
- Communicating, reporting and tracking progress.
The CCIP created the EMC to “set the vision” for the development’s interaction with the broader Hill District. It consists of three members appointed by the Penguins, three by the governmental partners, and three representatives of the Hill. The CCIP indicates that the EMC should only rarely have to vote, instead striving to “follow consensus building and problem-solving processes.”
Besides Lavelle, Milliones and Acklin, the panel now consists of co-chair Majestic Lane, who is the city’s deputy chief of staff, plus Penguins’ attorney Tracey McCants Lewis, retired attorney Glenn Mahone, nonprofit director Tyian Battle, neighborhood development manager Glenn Grayson Jr. and developer and consultant Irvin Williams.
The EMC has no enforcement power. Nor does the CCIP give it any formal role in the approval processes that the Penguins’ development team must go through in order to build a proposed billion-dollar complex on the Lower Hill.
On May 4, though, EMC members Lavelle and McCants Lewis went before the City Planning Commission to recommend approval of the FNB tower plan. Milliones asked the commission to hold off until the neighborhood leadership and the team had a signed community investment plan.
The commission approved the development plan, with conditions – but did not require a signed pact with the community.
How did conflicts of interest become an issue?
Even with the commission’s approval, the Penguins’ team still needed the Sports & Exhibition Authority and the URA to approve the sale of 2.5 acres of the site before they could proceed with the FNB tower. Again, the EMC would prove a factor.
On May 13, URA staff sent a “scorecard” to each of the EMC members, asking them to rate the development team’s compliance, on a scale of one to five, with each of the seven aspects of the CCIP. PublicSource obtained the members’ answers and related correspondence through a request under the Right-to-Know Act.
Of the seven members who filled out scorecards, Acklin gave his team the highest marks, 33 out of a possible 35. Mahone, a retired partner at Reed Smith with a long history of civic involvement, rated it lowest – 18 – but said he was “encouraged” by progress.
Milliones and Grayson didn’t participate. Grayson wrote to the URA that it was “premature” since there’s no signed investment plan.
Milliones wrote to the URA that at least three EMC members — Acklin, McCants Lewis and Williams — should be precluded from any scorecard process, because of “conflicts of interest.” The first two work for the Penguins. Williams, a city appointee to the EMC, is serving as a consultant to the Penguins’ chosen developer, Buccini/Pollin Group.
Williams emailed back that “all of us have some type of conflicts,” so they were not an issue.
Milliones then proposed that the EMC get legal opinions on whether members with conflicts of interest should be limited in their involvement. There is no indication that a legal review was conducted in the documents or in the interviews PublicSource conducted.
With URA board member Lavelle’s blessing, that board on June 10 approved the sale of the 2.5 acres to the development team, for $10.
At least two EMC members — Milliones and Acklin — continue to disagree on whether the panel has a problem with conflicts of interest.
“I have encouraged the body to tackle these issues in a responsible manner as speedily as possible,” Milliones told PublicSource this week.
Acklin, who also sat on the EMC when he was Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff, told PublicSource that the EMC was “built as a body to be conflicted. It was built to bring various competing forces together around common goals.”
As examples, he noted that the development of the site will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be steered to the Milliones-led Hill CDC for distribution to other efforts in the neighborhood. He added that Lavelle stands to gain politically from successful redevelopment.
Milliones countered that it “is not true that everyone is conflicted on everything. And the bigger and more important question is, how do you deal with conflicts? And I think there’s considerable room for improvement to deal with conflicts on this particular body.”
Should the EMC open its doors?
Acklin characterized the EMC process as a success, saying it resulted, for instance, in an agreement to convert diverted tax dollars from the coming development into an up-front payment of $7.5 million into a fund for improvements throughout the Hill.
“It’s not Kabuki theater,” he said. “I’ll go to a CCIP EMC meeting on Friday, take a bunch of notes, have a follow-up call with our development partners and say, ‘These are the issues that come up. How can we address them?’”
Milliones told PublicSource that the EMC suffers from a lack of agreed-upon procedures for its discussions and deliberations. “Rules of engagement are important in any committee setting, where there are shared and/or sometimes conflicting goals,” she said.
Acklin said the EMC has operating principles: “The ground rules are openness and transparency among each other, and I would argue, for the public.”
PublicSource reached out to all members of the EMC, repeatedly, seeking access to a meeting. Acklin said he supported public access. Milliones said she did not object. Lavelle pledged to open the process but did not provide a date. Lane agreed to be interviewed but then said he was too busy this week. Other members did not respond.
Acklin said he hoped that the EMC, once made transparent so the public could see the hard work it does, could become “a national model” for overseeing community benefits stemming from development.
“A lot of other projects have failed,” he said, “because they haven’t had this kind of mechanism.”
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @richelord.
Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.