Northside United Lawsuit Thrown Out – Group Plans Next Move
There was a sixty-year-old Oak tree growing in his neighbor’s backyard, and Michael Glass saw that the roots had begun to push out the nice wall that separated the two yards. He knew if it grew much further, the Oak would eventually destroy his wall.
So Glass confronted his neighbor, who agreed to remove it. But in the end, in order to remove the entire root structure, Glass had to dispose of his cherished wall, and he and his neighbor agreed to share the financial burden of the debacle.
It’s the same way Glass, the co-chair of community group Pittsburgh UNITED, a conglomerate of labor and non-profit organizations, thinks his group’s differences with Continental Real Estate’s new property development on the North Shore should be solved.
Those differences mainly involve two parcels of property between PNC Park and Heinz Field. The land is owned by the city, whose Stadium Authority has been given the job of developing the parcels. In late 2003 the Authority had entered into a four-year option agreement to allow the Pittsburgh Steelers to develop the land through Continental Real Estate.
They have already partnered with Continental to develop the Equitable Resources and the Del Monte buildings, both of which opened about five years ago. In early September Pittsburgh UNITED sued the city’s Stadium Authority to appeal their sale of a parcel of prime North Shore real estate to Continental to build a Hyatt Hotel for what Glass contended was one-tenth of the market price. Additionally, they faulted the agency for failing to give the public due notice of the sale meeting and for overstepping the fact that the option to develop the land had expired at the end of last year and needed to be renegotiated.
But on Friday, October 24, Judge Joseph M. James quashed the lawsuit, contending that the group had no right to appeal on the basis of the Administrative Agency Law because there had “not been any agency action that affects the Appellants’ personal or property rights.”
The key word is “personal.” Based on prior precedents, Judge James said that the AAL required Pittsburgh UNITED to demonstrate that they were personally affected by the Stadium Authority’s sale of the land.
Since the group’s lawsuit proved personal interest by showing their concern with “tax burdens, traffic congestion, debris, noise and litter,” Judge James said they have no right of appeal because these interests were public in nature.
Pittsburgh UNITED learned of the sale of the Hyatt parcel and two other parcels in early March when they learned that the Stadium Authority employees were working out the sale of the three parcels to Continental before the board’s vote.
Beside the Hyatt parcel, Continental was being courted as the future developer of a $10 million amphitheatre on a four-acre riverfront parcel and a separate office building that would be constructed at a later date.
“We essentially asked the board not to agree to sell the land until Continental agreed to sit down with us and negotiate a community benefits agreement,” Glass said.
The Stadium Authority then directed Continental to meet with the group within 45 days to negotiate an agreement. After numerous unreturned phone calls and 40 days into the period, Glass gathered members from the Northside United campaign and drove to Continental’s Pittsburgh headquarters to confront them. Barry Ford, president of development for Continental Real Estate Companies, consented to met with Glass twice and Glass shared the vision of Northside UNITED, Pittsburgh UNITED’s campaign for north shore development.
“Amongst the things we asked them,” Glass said, “was for Continental to gather the major business concerns on the North Shore and to promise us a senior-level management official to sit on the board of a Northside non-profit and to hire some interns [from the community].
“Ford said, ‘How about if I personally sit on a non-profit and hire one intern and get the Steelers to do the same thing.”
Glass and member of the Northside UNITED campaign thought this was a miniscule concession, especially when it didn’t even fully match one single demand out of 12 separate proposal concepts that make up the desired benefits agreement.
UNITED found out a short while later that the agreement was already being discussed without them.
The morning of the sale in early August, Glass received a call from a source saying the Stadium Authority Board would be meeting in just three hours to vote on the sale. This action appears to violate the Sunshine Act, which states in its public notice clause that information of upcoming agency meetings must be made public no less than three days in advance.
Board chairperson Debbie Lestitian, who works for Westinghouse as an international nuclear energy contract lawyer, was given the sale documents only 90 minutes prior to the meeting, which she said wasn’t nearly enough time to review them, although she hesitated to say the meeting necessarily violated the Sunshine Act.
“I was mad because the day before the public meeting I met with Mary Conturo and she showed me the incomplete term sheets”—or the Authority’s proposals.
“When I arrived the next day, I was told the term sheets were complete. I would like to know when this mysterious meeting took place where the term sheets were completed outside of my consultation,” Lestitian said.
UNITED presented their case to the board that the new parcels were undervalued by the city, that the meeting hadn’t been given due public notice and that the option agreement had ended and would need to be renegotiated—the complaints that later solidified in the lawsuit.
Lestitian, the only contract lawyer on the board, told the three other board members that because the option agreement had expired, the board had to wait for the agreement to be renegotiated.
However, other board members fell in line behind Mayor Ravenstahl and Dan Onorato in saying that it was better for the city to receive the lower sale price instead of risking a Steelers lawsuit that might tie “up the development for years,” she said. All three board members voted against Lestitians lone opposition vote to sell the Hyatt parcel for $1.32 million and the amphitheatre parcel for $1.37 million.
Board member and State Representative Jake Wheatley, who voted in favor, did not return phone calls.
UNITED contended that the future Hyatt parcel was being valued at nearly one-tenth of its price since another parcel further from the river was sold to Kratsa, another developer, for $76 per sq. ft., while the former was sold for $8 per sq. ft.
“[The land] belongs to the city and thus to the people,” Glass said. “Public land is tangible and finite.” Lestian agreed. “The city should have gotten more money for the land and more money for development.” She pointed out that the amphitheatre parcel is worth $10 million itself, so the Stadium Authority should have waited for a development bid that was higher, and thus more taxable, than the small $10 million amphitheatre that Continental wishes to build for the Steelers.
Though the following lawsuit was designed to force the Stadium Authority to raise it’s sale price and address the other two concerns, UNITED’s strategy was clear. They primarily used it as leverage, hoping to pressure Continental to agree to its community vision.
Essentially, that vision is a wide-ranging community benefits proposal that can be summarized in three distinct sections: a demand for good jobs for local Northside residents, financial support to renovate existing Northside housing stock and a promise to partner with local non-profits to aid the community’s youth.
At first it seems simple.
Section one has all the makings of a traditional benefits agreement—it asks the developer to build an LEED-certified building, provide “family sustaining” jobs with healthcare benefits to Northsiders on a first source basis (meaning that Northsiders will be considered first before other applicants) and allow workers the freedom to unionize.
But sections two and three are more likely turnoffs for a developer. Section two asks Continental to finance low-cost energy audits, handout grants and low-cost loans for home renovations in the general community and create jobs for Northside youth in the process—an undertaking that would likely require the part-time attention of a few full-time Continental or Hyatt employees.
Section three asks Continental to expand youth programs, donate money to Northside academic organizations, financially support childcare in the community and provide “high-level management personnel” to serve on the boards of Northside non-profits.
It is clear that UNITED doesn’t expect each part of the proposal to be adopted entirely, but they are lobbying for a good faith effort in each of the three sections.
“Ultimately, we think corporations got to serve the public good, not just their bottom line,” said Barney Oursler, Pittsbugh UNITED board member. “The Penguins did the right thing in the Hill [District], and the Steelers can do that here.”
Oursler thinks the most important feature of the CBA is living-wage jobs, preferably protected by a union. Fellow UNITED co-chair, Gabe Morgan, who is also director of local union SEIU 32BJ, said that by giving good jobs to the community, Continental could have a major impact on the quality of life in the Northside.
“Almost all major buildings in the downtown area over 100,000 sq. ft. offer union jobs to janitors that pay $14 an hour with healthcare benefits,” he said.
He contrasted the concerted effort to provide family-sustaining, union serice jobs in neighborhoods like Oakland and Downtown with the lack of union jobs on the Northside.
A full-time janitor who works in the Del Monte Building, an earlier development of Continental via the Steelers, said, under condition of anonymity for fear of risking his job, that he gets paid $8-an-hour with no increased pay for overtime or benefits.
“We don’t need another organization that will offer us $7-an-hour jobs. We need jobs that can help families buy homes,” Glass said.
Pittsburgh UNITED isn’t positive what their new legal strategy will be. But they have hired a new attorney, Claudia Davidson, and hope to follow up with another suit in the near future.
As a third-grader, Glass remembers having to move off Gironde Street in lower Manchester in response to the construction of highway 65. He blames this and other developments for destroying the Pittsburgh’s tax base and the Northside’s cohesiveness.
“We are not against development. We are against irresponsible development. We are against development that ignores the needs of the people most affected by the development,” Glass said, his voice trailing off in quiet frustration. “It’s just a matter of being good neighbors.”