Friday, June 29, 2007

Think brownfield development is easy?

Lest there be any doubt I am a geek.... what do I spend my money on ebay trying to buy? I recently found someone selling an old blueprint for the entire rail yard that was part of the J&L site on the South Side.

I had the whole thing scanned. I can't get a smaller image to really show the detail, but if you click on the image below you will get the full PDF file (~2.5mb) which you can zoom in on. The lesson of this? If anyone thinks brownfield development is easy, take a look at what was actually underneath what we have now named again the "South Side Works". Part of the site had been industrial for well over a century. Think about that when you are shopping in REI or biking down the trail.




Thursday, June 28, 2007

Get excited... we're average

Maybe it is strange to get excited about being average. But remember the years of thumping by Forbes magazine for being the worst place for singles. They now have a ranking of best cities for young professionals. In a ranking of 40 cities, Pittsburgh came in at 21. According to them Pittsburgh has:
High marks for entrepreneurs, as Pittsburgh ranked 9th for best big and small businesses. A rank of 20th for attracting young professionals and rank of 34th for highest never-married population dragged down the score for this affordable city
Far be it from me to quibble with a number. Wait, before that... Pittsburgh ranks near the top for small business? Someone needs to dig into that.

But the only thing we really do bad on then is our "rank of 34th for highest never-married population ". I am not quite sure what they mean, I think they mean we don't have enough unmarried people around. Is it just another age artifact, we have more elderly around so the proportion of young people around appears lower. So somehow its a bad place for young professionals if you have to talk to old people every now and then. I don't think this says anything about the probability that if you meet someone roughly your age, whether or not they are less likely to be single. Forbes, meet Bayes. Bayes, meet Forbes.

but we're not last.


population again

So far there is some coverage of the population estimates that were released today, but so far it's not too bombastic. What just came out are sub-county (i.e. municipal) level population estimates for 2006. Everything else, county-level, MSA-level and state-level population-estimates for 2006 have been out for some time. The Trib did have a top of the fold coverage, but overall it seems to not be as big a story as the last round of population estimates that were put out.

Down in Cincinnati they seem to be convinced that the census has undercounted them. I would caution those who want to make the same argument here. I can think of as many reasons for why the Census overcounts City of Pittsburgh population as there could be reasons for an undercount. Why that could be is too long a topic, but one example: I don't believe the estimates take into account the depth of housing unit vacancy in the city. The methodology they use would not quickly capture increasing vacancy rates in the city, and would essentially assume the same percentage of houses are occupied this year as last. There are some reasons to think city population has not declined as much as the estimates show. Student population in dorms could be increasing and not readily captured in the most recent data. But overall, the issue is not just a city of Pittsburgh issue. There are declines throughout the county and region. In fact, if you rank municipal populations by the percentage decline over the last 6 years (per this data that is) Pittsburgh (the city) ranks near the middle of municipalities across Allegheny County.

In a sense there is actually little new here in terms of information. County-level population estimates came out months ago. All that was released today are estimates of growth within counties based almost entirely on the pattern of new building permits. There has been no new census and certainly no enumeration of people in every municipality in the last year. These are just what they say they are: estimates. One way to interpret the data today is just as an indicator of net residential housing development more than anything else. In most places that correlates pretty closely with population movement.

Here is the a map of the data released today. By and large it looks much like the pattern within the county over the last decade, and the decade before that, and the decade before that.

Estimated Population Change 2005-2006
Allegheny County Municipalities


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

factoids on the fall election

Just some basic history relevant to the announcement that there is now officially a Republican candidate for Mayor. Common wisdom says it is impossible for someone other than a Democrat to win in the city of Pittsburgh. Is it one of those possible impossibles, a kind-of sort-of impossible, or more an impossible impossible?

One could argue about whether even-year elections are a fair comparison, but consider this as a benchmark: in November 2006, 40,899 voters in the city voted a straight Democratic Party ticket. So they didn't care about picking a non-Democrat in any race, they just pushed the Democrat button and that was that. This was out of 101,005 total votes cast in the city. Even in the unlikely case that the same number of voters come out in the fall (unlikely), you start out being spotted 40 percentage points. It's worse than that in a sense. Those core party-line voters have a high probability of voting, certainly a higher probability of voting than the remaining 61K voters. Take that into account and it is entirely possible that straight Democratic party voters will be a majority of all votes cast. If true, a candidate who is not a Democrat loses before the election begins.

Other relevant historical factoids:

In 1985 then Mayor Richard Caliguiri defeated Republican Henry Sneath. 76-22%.

1993: Tom Murphy had 66% while republican Kathy Matta actually came in third with 14% behind Duane Darkins who had 15%. If you presume the Darkins vote would have split evenly between the other two you get a 73-22 D-R split.

1997: Tom Murphy over Harry Frost: 77-21%

2001: Tom Murphy over Jim Carmine 74-23%

2005: Bob O'Connor over Joe Weinroth 67-27%

and if you look at the results for County Executive. Within the city of Pittsburgh, then incumbent Jim Roddey received ~27% of the vote in 20023. In that race at least Roddey had the power of incumbency, plus a well funded and organized campaign. Yet in the end he did about the same as Joe Weinroth who had neither. Makes you question whether the campaign itself matters if Frost, Carmine, Roddey and Weinroth differ by just a few inconsequential points.

Thus the really amazing thing about those numbers is just how consistent they are. If you really strain to discern a trend, realize that Frost's numbers were low because the media apparently reported he was going bankrupt a week before the election. Overall the Republican candidates have been a diverse group. Men and women. Older and younger. High profile candidates and some who seemed to come out of nowhere. The obligatory lawyers, a philosopher and if you include Roddey you have a business background. Immensely different personalities and different circumstances over several decades. Yet no matter what, the fall results were virtually identical. Any variation was probably more an artifact of turnout more than anything else.


Here we go again... same old song again

I really need to go hide. Tomorrow the census will put out the latest population numbers for the City of Pittsburgh. Population in the city will be down for sure, but by how much and how much compared to other municipalites in the county/region? I am sure there will be plenty of talking heads acting as if turkeys are falling from the sky.

Standing by for counterbattery.......


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

It was 20 25 years ago today

I used to say that it has been 20 years since the worst of the economic decline in the region. Time marches on and it is now 25 years since the roof fell in. Today the state is reporting that the local unemployment rate is 4.2% and total unemployment in the MSA is 48,300.

25 years ago things were not good in Pittsburgh. The unemployment rate had been in double digits all year, and total unemployment had remained over 130K (so just over 2.7 times the current level). But things could have at least appeared stable. The nation was in a recession, and just as in previous recessions, heavy industry would bear the brunt of the downturn. Yet recessions, almost by definition, evetually end and turn back up. By 1982 the layoffs had lasted longer and the expected upturn was not showing itself. It was probably right around now, exactly 25 years ago that is, that even hard core believers realized that the downturn was not part of a cycle. Between May 1982 and the end of the year, unemployment in the region would shoot up from 132K to 212K, over 4 times current levels. Here is the the count of unemployment in the Pittsburgh region in 1982 compared to 2007.

Unemployment in 1982 was probably harder to deal with than today for lots of reasons. Back then, more households here were single earner households. So the jobs lost represented all the income many families relied upon, unlike today where many households have multiple incomes. That peak of 212 thousand did not being to reflect the discouraged workers who had stopped looking for work. It is just a different period altogether.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Pittsburgh immigration: Past. Present. Future?

Again the news confuses me with the blurb that was in the paper about 5 immigrants detailed out in Clarion County over the weekend. Again, it was just 5 people, it really wasn't close to Pittsburgh and they were stopped along Route 80.. which suggests they were just traveling through. Why is this local news?

Some perspective. Per the 1910 census 26% of the City of Pittsburgh was foreign born. If you include their immediate children born here you get a place where many neighborhoods were majority immigrants. It's a little hard to believe considering the consternation over current immigration levels. Not only that, but the immigrant population back then had mostly arrived recently, unlike today where the typical foreign born Pittsburgh resident has been here for decades. Back then it comes out to a flow of a lot more than 5 per hour just in Pittsburgh proper.

If you dig a little further: in 1910 the largest foreign group of immigrants then in Pittsburgh came from Germany, but where was the 2nd largest group from? Russia. (That classification would have included more countries that we currently define as Russia.) That is an influence here to this day. So the next book of the moment is on the topic of Russian immigration to Pittsburgh. Actually it isn't published just yet: a novel coming out later this year by and about Russian-Jewish immigrants trying to assimilate in Pittsburgh is:

I do not know what has me nostalgic for college.... I must be getting old. But this cries out for a plug for another friend from college who helped start a family business: Jewish Contemporary Classics which has been working to reprint classic Jewish literature.

... alas, Amazon tells me that I was unable to convince anyone to buy the bio of Gertrude Bell. I did contrive at least a symbolic Pittsburgh connection in her life.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

(virtual) things that are not there anymore

The PG had a piece Sunday about the Internet library I will poke a little fun and just say it has taken them long enough to notice.... Especially considering that the oldest Post-Gazette entry on the site has been there from January 14, 1998. The December 5, 1998 edition is a little more complete.

You can have all sorts of fun if you look hard enough. I once pointed out the archive for the Tom Murphy 2001 Mayoral Campaign. From that site I once asked: how many of this group are still in office? or better yet the site of his young opponent Josh Pollack who was running at the same time. If campaigns were won on sloganeering alone, the youngest mayor title would have clearly been his long ago. Josh really had the best ever: Uncorrupted by years of experience. Or the first Peduto for Mayor (Batman-themed no less) campaign site. Even the infamous Grantstreet99 muckraking site.

Anyone else know of other campaign web sites now overcome by events? or non-political sites now defunct? Do we have a Rick Sebak special in the making.

But there is more serious stuff as well. I have also pointed out the extensive Prelinger Archives. I recommend the archived documentary: The City (part 1) by the American Institute of Planners, 1939, available as an MPEG stream via the Prelinger Archives. and Part 2. I swear it depicts the attitude of some toward cities to this day.

other things gone, but with an echo in the ether: Remember St. Francis Hospital.. or How about an early Port Authority web site. (you could be really snarky on that.. one blurb on that site says "the future is a blank". prescient?) Beyond Pittsburgh the possibilities are endless. I was curious if there was a web site for Iraq pre 2003, but that was illusive. There is an eerie web site for the CPA in Iraq as early as August 2003.

and don't forget to make a right where Isaly's used to be.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Internet 2000-2050


Friday, June 22, 2007

politics, meta-journalism and......

National politics are a little beyond this blog's purview. I am just passing this on for the political junkies as something they might not catch otherwise. On the question of Al Gore's latent campaign for president: FastCompany magazine has an article coming out on Al Gore that may be worth a read.

Not exactly a new question on my part... but could the loser in a close presidential race, after skipping the next election cycle altogher, come back to run in the midst of escalating national debate over a foreign conflict? hmm.....


I mention this just because I am not sure there is a place in town for regular reporting on reporting. Here is another list where Pittsburgh does not show up. MSNBC has compiled a list of journalists who have donated to political campaigns, something that isn't illegal in any form though not generally considered appropriate. Here is the list and as far as I can tell, no local media outlet has anyone on the list. I'll let others consider what that means, if anything.


and this has nothing to do with anything here.. more a personal 'small world' comment. I was listening to NPR last evening and all of a sudden I hear my freshman roomate in college commenting on a supreme court decision. It's near the end of this audio clip where you can hear the comments of Doug Berman (the William B. Saxbe Designated Professor of Law no less at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University). I have no clue what it's about, but the punch line seems to be it's not good for Lewis Libby.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

parking past, parking future

Sometimes documenting the obvious is necessary. There is news that an audit by the city controller finds that no local parking operator gave back the 5% tax reduction that took place earlier this year. Is this really surprising?

Actually I am surprised there is not a bigger discussion over the future of parking Downtown. Lots of things are going to tighten the parking situation there: Not just the current and proposed bus cutbacks, but also take into account the Penguins proposed redevelopment of the Melody Tent site, currently used for parking; any other disruption in local parking caused by the construction of the new arena; and then the new casino coming in that will impact both the demand and supply of parking. Has anyone thought through the traffic/parking impacts on Downtown when all this is happening at once?


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Rural Pennsylvania / foreclosure-less Burgh?

From the Keystone Research Center is a new report on the State of Rural Pennsylvania.

It highlights some convergence between urban and rural trends across the state. It brings to mind something that I have been thinking about more and more. A friend who lives in Southern Fayette County was telling me recently that his neighbors are pretty evenly split between those that commute to work toward Pittsburgh and those that commute toward the greater Washington DC area. The commuting and migration data does not really support that anecdotal observation..... yet. The vast growth of the WashDC area has had an impact in large parts of the state, but I was not sure it is really reaching us just yet. Maybe another day I will look into if there is a definable 'migration divide' between the two regions.


Here is the factoid of the day. I have to admit I am not quite sure what to make of this. But a compilation of zip codes across the country hardest hit by foreclosures shows nary a mention of any nearby city or town among the top 500 zips. Seen first on CNN with data from RealtyTrac. There really is nothing on that list with a zip starting in 152 or 151 or 15 anything for that matter. In fact, the only Pittsburg (without an 'h') in that list is Pittsburg, CA area code 94565.



Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What happens to the Parrot?

This was played at Sunday's Pirates game. From youtube you can see a couple versions of the Parrot's Final Episode.

and someone ought to be fired for letting the power go out for the Daktronics screen.

and who knew they filmed the Sopranos in Ritters?

Update. apologies for any confusion. I shortened this post from what I first put up yesterday. There was some superfluous content on Kevin McClatchy's purchase of a stake in that just got in the way. The PG has followed up with their own story on the Pirate Parroty. Something else that is pretty funny: looking at the log for this site, it seems that literally a few minutes after I first put that post up, I started getting hits from someome at the domain. All because I mentioned their product? I wonder if I set off some quality assurance alarm.


Redistricting coming sooner than you think

For anyone interested in political redistricting you have to check out the site:

which is from USC's Annenberg Center. If you are a GIS person at all you will find the introductory video just too funny. There is a real interactive game, actually more of a teaching tool, there as well.

I was thinking... all the debate over what the 3 member turnover on city council means misses something pretty important. All the members elected this cycle will be in office when the City of Pittsburgh next redistricts itself. What are some of the issues they will face? For one: should the city have three majority-minority districts and not just two?

and for advanced wonks... something that could have a bigger impact on future redistricting here and elsewhere. A long-tail phenomenon, but there are web sites for everything. Here is a a site dedicated just to the issue of changing how the census counts counts prisoners:


Monday, June 18, 2007

tax liens.... huh?

Lots of stuff between the lines of this piece in the trib today on the repatriation of tax liens in the City.

First off, the title says "Pittsburgh development drought a thing of the past". That is quite a statement in and of itself. I am sure the average reader will think there is a building boom going on across the city. Yet, the title is immediately contradicted by the very first sentence which says merely "Hazelwood's decade-long development drought ended last week with a groundbreaking for duplexes and single-family homes on land once saddled with tax liens.". So maybe it is big news for Hazelwood but one neighborhood represents maybe 1% of the city, is it really fair to infer so much?

Much more important is something that article mentions almost in passing. I will be the first to say that the buyback of tax liens in the city may be the most important economic development news in the city over the last decade. The city and anyone involved deserves a lot of credit for making that happen. Yet when the news came out, it was pretty clear the city had entered into an agreement to buy back all the tax liens for a fixed price. Yet the Trib piece says that the "city has purchased liens only on those properties for which nonprofit groups have firm redevelopment plans. It has cleared 150 properties so far." That is 150 out of 11 thousand give or take. One of the the last news articles I saw on this said "When the city completes the lien buyback, mostly likely in March". That was a few months ago and there was no talk of only buying a few liens, but all of them. Things that really make you go 'hmm'.

Why such a big deal? Despite yeoman work by the city's many CDC's, there really is not much chance of turning around city population trends until there is an ample supply of private capital flowing into the city as well to leverage their efforts. I actually thought that was the goal. You could argue that the fundamental goal of a CDC is to be so successful at inducing investment into a neighborhood that it drives itself out of business. That argument is implicit in the appeals for using a tax abatement, whether limited or broad, toward the goal of inducing private investment.

Don't believe me. 150 liens does not make much of a dent when you look at the city as a whole. Take a look at the city's own map of lien impacted parcels in the city. That map tells the story. When Bloomberg first wrote about the tax liens in Pittsburgh it did so because of the clear impact the holding of tax liens was having on blight in the city. They were not talking about just a marginal impact, but the broad impact across huge chunks of the city. If those liens are still being held, either by MBIA in some form or even if held by the city, that impact continues.

I could speculate that an argument exists for walking before running. But if the city buys back the liens, it does not lose control of the development process. I still stay its better for the city to own the liens than MBIA or any of its surrogates or successors. (note I pointed out earlier that MBIA quickly sold off the unit holding the liens just after the proposed sale was announced. Actually I really wonder who technically owns the liens at this moment?

The city could be arguing poverty in not buying back the liens, but the city cash flow is better now than it will be at any foreseeable point in the future. If there is not the money to buy the liens back now, when will there be.

And what does this say for the abatements? I've rambled too far already, but look at the lien map and the neighborhoods getting the abatement. abatements are meant to induce private capital flowing in. If the city is not really looking to encourage that by only feeding out lien impacted parcels to CDC's, then it begs the question of what the abatements were all about.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Baby Bens (as in plural)

Down the river the Cincinnati Enquirer points out the Carson Effect presumably resulting from people naming their children for Bengals' QB Carson Palmer. (note to local papers, the Enquirer's Footnotes Blog really ought to be replicated up here... I'm sure Toland and Houser could handle a few more assignments per week).

Is Ben having the same impact here? As pointed out in Footnotes, or you can dig into the data source yourself, you will see that Benjamin is the 14th most popular name in Pennsylvania in 2006. Could be the legacy of Ben F. I suppose, but the recent trend for baby Benjamin's in Pennsylvania is:

2006 14th
2005 17th
2004 19th
2003 20th
2002 25th
and just for context.. in 1968 Benjamin was a lowly 90th.

Which got me thinking.. since 1968, what are the the biggest changes in baby names in Pennsylvania? Christopher is down from 12th to 20th. No doubt due to the near de-beatification of St. Chris, to the really great chagrin of my mother... but nationally Christopher still ranks #7. For PA Ethan is now #8 on the list yet was not listed in the top 100 in 1968. For the women, the 25th most popular name was Gianna in 2006 (not quite sure where that is from). and Mia is 21st. Both were not on the list at all in 1968. and finally, again for PA: the 98th most popular female name these days: Peyton.

Also, despite the fact that the naming babies for city names is becoming more popular, there is little evidence of a lot of baby 'Pittsburgh''s around. I think a commission should be commissioned to investigate and propose a solution to the lack of baby Pittsburgh's out there. Actually, is anyone at all named "Pittsburgh".

and finally.. just some trivia. Alliteration abounds in the naming of twins.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Seven Decision-making Principles for Major Redevelopment Projects

Via Ed and Hunter Morrison and the Northeast Ohio-centric blog.... here is something that I think ought to be incorporated into the bylaws of the URA if not city code itself. Read Hunter Morrison's: Seven Decision-making Principles for Major Redevelopment Projects.


Friday, June 15, 2007

reading list

Speaking of the reading list there on the right... some pieces of note:

The most recent Area Development Magazine has a several stories on regional competition for the biotech industry (DNA-chasing?). One article looks specifically at the incentives offered to lure biotech investment.

Not online, but the current edition of Economic Development Quarterly has an article by 3 local authors on the impact of technology change in the steel industry. See Frank Giarratani, Gene Gruver, and Randall Jackson (I am counting WVU as local): Clusters, Agglomeration, and Economic Development Potential: Empirical Evidence Based on the Advent of Slab Casting by U.S. Steel Minimills Economic Development Quarterly 2007 21: 148-164

Via the Government Innovations Network is a story out of Lancaster, PA on the rise of Chinese being taught in high school. Has anyone ever surveyed how many local schools offer Chinese as an option. You know.. I don't pretend this would be easy to pull off, but maybe a simple economic development strategy would be to recruit enough enough teachers from China to have Mandarin taught in every school.

American City and County asks if the Government Accounting and Standards Board has gone too far by mandating GASB rule 45 which says local governments have to account for future health care costs. GASB 45 was actually written up of late last Sunday in the PG. Yet I was surprised to see no mention at all of the City of Pittsburgh in that article. The sheer number of retirees the city now supports means it will be impacted by future health care costs more than almost any other jurisdiction in the nation. You would think that in itself would have prompted a least one call to the city controller of finance department to see if their GASB 45 report is forthcoming. Really strange actually.

Also not online unfortunately, but the current edition of the Next American City has an article focused on the green aspects of the new Children's Hospital being built in Lawrenceville.

and finally Stateline provides a link to this story in the Miami Herald about another weird episode at the nexus of politics and blog-dom. Something about the Lt. Governor 'vandalizing' his own web or blog. The story is confusing. I do wonder if there is a journal article out there on the nascent interaction of the two worlds.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

blogito ergo yinz

I actually try not to recommend too many other blogs or list a big local blogroll. It's not that I don't think there are plenty of blogs worth reading, but I am always afraid people will think I mean something if one blog or the other is not included. Easier to let others do that. As best I can tell, the most comprehensive omnibus index of the A-list Pittsburgh bloggers is kept by Mike M. over on Pittsblog.

but a quick exception. I think most have already seen Jon Delano's new blog on local politics: (note to Jon, your old blog is still nominally operating: ).

but also, here is something that you may not have seen but worth watching. A Downtown denizen has just started: No mincing of words there.


Commuting across the nation

The Census has a press release out with a summary of the most current information on commuting in the nation. Worth a look given the cuts that are about to take place down at the Port Authority. What is unfortunate is that the tables produced by the census do not include the City of Pittsburgh because it is so small these days. Looking at their list of top cities for commuting, where would Pittsburgh be on that list? Using the same dataset, the City of Pittsburgh has 18.9% of resident commuters using public transit in 2005. That would place the city at #7 in terms of cities with the highest percentage of public transit usage by commuters. It is probably worth noting that data on commuters only include people traveling to work by definition. The city has a high proportion of elderly and students who big users of public transit as well. If there was a measure out there that looked at overall transit usage (not just commuting to work) the City of Pittsburgh could conceivably rank even higher on such a list. That would be pretty amazing given that most of the cities ranked higher than Pittsburgh now have much larger subway/rail/light rail systems in place.

Also a curious factoid. The census also ranks cities (again not including Pittsburgh) in terms of the percentage of workers who walk to work. The City of Pittsburgh comes in at 9.2% of resident workers who walk to work. A percentage that would place it #5 in their ranking of cities, just below New York City (9.4%) and ahead of Philadelphia (8.9%) and even Honolulu (6.9%).


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

QUBE TV: 25 years later

I completely missed the 25 year anniversary of Cable TV in the City of Pittsburgh. Technically it was last April, but still worth a post. Most have forgotten that QUBE was the first cable system installed in the City of Pittsburgh and provided a nearly revolutionary two-way data service to the home in 1982. QUBE may just be another odd bit of Pittsburgh trivia I suppose, but it is a lot more important than that. The process that awarded the first Cable TV license for the City of Pittsburgh has an awful lot of similarities with how the casino license was awarded last year.

What am I talking about? In a PG business oped a couple years ago I explain some of the history of Pittsburgh's cable franchise. Basically, there was no cable tv service in the city of Pittsburgh into the beginning of the 1980's. Why not? Cable TV actually grew out of the need to provide service to areas where signal strength was low. A lot of big urban centers, being well served by terrestrial (i.e. antenna's) service would not have cable tv long after many suburban and rural areas had it. The growth of additional content had created the demand for cable service even in urban areas. Pittsburgh was one of the last major markets not to have an installed cable infrastructure.. as such it represented a big new valuable market for the growing cable industry.

But it's not like you can just go start your own cable tv service most anywhere. The cable comes on poles and is regulated as a utility most everywhere. When the decision was made to allow cable in the City, the decision was that there would be a single cable provider as was common. Thus the question: who would get the license.

At that point, you could switch 'casino' with 'cable' in the history and much of it would read the same. In neither case was any set auction put in place for the license (casino or cable). By that I mean the license was not offered to the bidder who offered to pay the most for it. Thus the competition evolved by other means. Each major cable operator teamed up with significant community groups, or coalition of groups, which would get certain defined benefits if 'their' operator won the license. Some of the other benefits that were promised to the community at large included the creation of Pittsburgh Community TV (PCTV) which exists to this day and the promise of more channels than were typical for cable systems of the day.

But the biggest selling point in the end was Warner Cable's QUBE operation which promised to put in something beyond regular cable tv, but interactive TV. So long before WebTV, or most of what we call the Internet or the web there was interactive data service into the home. Interactive tv was not new, having been put in place in Columbus in1977 and some other areas before then. It was still a big deal that needed a lot of bandwidth into the home for the extra chennels and interactivity (thus why the old analog cable in a lot of Pittsburgh homes still has two coax cables, not one). The content included a lot of things that would take off unto themselves: home shopping, home polling and potentially a of other things that really wouldn't happen until the internet took off.

The technology story is a big story unto itself. I still think the story about the politics of the process is important to this day. You would have thought some of the lessons of the period would have been remembered. In the end Warner TV won with its promise of interactive TV which it did install and build. The problem was the business model failed and within a few years the system would be scrapped for a more traditional one-way system. Did the committee awarding the license award take into account the possibility that the system would not last? Was there a better way to award a license than by pure government fiat?

The casino license in the end has everyone upset which came about because the award criteria sure seemed disconnected from the local criteria for what was important. I still find the repercussions of the whole casino license award to be corrosive on local civics. Why should the community be divided as it was into those for and against an arena, for and against one casino operator or the other, and the worst part of all, divided between different community groups that were aligned with one proposal or another. There has to be a better way to do this, just as there should have been 25 years ago. But some lessons have to be learned over and over again.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

OT: the real purpose of those coinstar machines

It's not that there is a dearth of things to talk about in town.... but for some reason the motivation is lacking. So in the spirit of Induced Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under stress, here is a story I thought would make more waves last month. If you didn't see this, it's too funny: It turns out that recently a new colored Canadian quarter (as in a coin worth one fourth of a loonie) called a poppy quarter set off a massive spy warning in the US. Some US contractors saw the things and thought they were some sort of nanotechnology spy devices. If it were April fools day I would write this off as a joke.. at the very least you have to believe it was not as big an issue as the media would make it out to me.. but even if there is a speck of truth in it then the counterintelligence folks need a vacation. . Maybe it is just an urban legend. or maybe not?

Actually, I wanted to check if this was an urban legend and all I came up with was this story about how the original dies for the Canadian Loonie coin were lost because they were handed over to an anonymous commercial delivery person when being sent to the Canadian mint for production. Can you imagine.


Monday, June 11, 2007

progress at Children's

Once a contentious issue the construction at the new Children's Hospital site appears to be progressing apace. I can attest that ironworkers have been there most weekends of late working on parts of the building. Given all the hullabaloo over a traffic study for the new casino, I am rather dubious how the area will handle traffic once the hospital relocates, but in some ways that is a good problem to have. I feel obliged to again say Goodbye, St. Francis and am also rather curious what is planned for the current site in Oakland.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

OT: So you think you know what is going on in Iraq?

At least 3 disclaimers: 1) this has nothing to do with Pittsburgh (or if it does I would love to hear it) 2) this has nothing at all to do with current politics and 3) I fully admit this comes under the rubric of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. So apologies to all the historians, political scientists, journalists, arabists or others who ought to know more than I.

That being said. I have spent just enough time in the Middle East to realize how little 99% of the daily news coverage helps anyone understand what is really going on over there. Decades of involvement in the Middle East has given the average American a vague understanding that Sunni is not Shiite, and that Arab is not Persian is not Kurd. Does it go much beyond that? Just my own personal rant, but it's not the viewers fault. It is a reflection of the preponderance of the news coverage.

So here is another book of the moment. Honestly I just bought it and have not read it yet. But if you want to have any clue at all as to what is going on in the nation-state currently known as Iraq, you really have to read about Gertrude Bell. The biography recently published is:

The fascinating thing beyond her role in creating modern Iraq is that she was not the only British woman tooling through the Middle East in the early 20th century making history. You can read about Freya Stark in Southern Arabia in this book:

and then there are the innumerable British men who were gallivanting through the region at the same time. I may save for a later OT post my thoughts on one of the most fascinating characters: Wilfred Thesiger.


Friday, June 08, 2007

remembering Centralia

Sometimes it's good to keep the daily news in perspective: The Beaver County Times has a photo-essay on Centralia, PA worth a look.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

Arts impact

Almost too much to talk about these days. The assessment thing will percolate for years so I will not add anything to the previous post on that for now.

In the news is a study of arts industry impacts across the nation. Just as historical reference here is one of the first comprehensive studies of Arts Organizations in Pittsburgh which was done by the Pennsylvania Economy League some years ago. It may be dated a bit, but was pretty comprehensive and had a lot of useful context that I think is still relevant. See:

Pittsburgh Arts Organizations: Finances Public and Private Funding and Impact on the Local Economy. by the Pennsylvania Economy League, Western Division. March 1989.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

base year bye bye?

Well well, here is the news cycle for the week. Judge Wettick has just ruled against the constitutionality (the PA constitution that is) of the base year property assessment system put in place in Allegheny County a couple years ago. This should have the talking heads going for some time even though it is sure to be appealed for years and is far from over. If it does wind up standing, it could conceivably have a bigger impact elsewhere in the state than here. Some counties are using base year for assessment purposes that are not a few years in the past, but decades. Could be quite a shock for many in the state if that were to change. But from the case summary the Judge says:

By March 31, 2008 the Chief Assessment Officer of Allegheny Co. shall complete a computer assisted reassessment for use in 2008 similar to the reassessment she prepared in February 2005 for use in 2006.

I really need to write a history of property assessment in Allegheny County. In fact, the county has a big role in the history of Computer Aided Mass Assessments (CAMA) everywhere. Some of which I included when I wrote that it's always groundhog day when it comes to property assessments in Allegheny County. Thanks to the prothontary you can check out both the ruling that just came out and the entire history of the current legal battle.

How long has this been really going on? Most think the 1990's episode when Judge Wettick ruled that the county must conduct a county-wide mass reassessment is where this all started. Not even close. For the history wonk, some interesting yet amazingly relevant points are in the Jaffurs report from 1976. In it you will learn that even through the late 70's the main documentation of most properties in the county were in the form of WPA -era line drawings. no joke. That little invention named the polaroid camera was just too newfangled a device to be used here. But in the 1980's Judge Papadakos, then a Court of Common Pleas judge but later on the PA Supreme Court, would actually take over the running of the county assessment office for several years... something Judge Wettick never did despite some who think he did. If you look at that history, its pretty telling that when it came to an end the county commissioners actually wanted to Judge P. to continue running the assessment office. You can understand why. It's just too controversial a subject for most politicians to want anything to do with it. Thus in most places, as it was here for a couple decades, you just try to ignore it as much as you can until the problems become too big to avoid.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Go Figure: Factoids on the PA state house

Using some relatively new data produced by the Census Bureau for Pennsylvania State House districts, here are some factoids on the differences across the state:

Highest Median Household Income in 1999: District 31 (AlleghenyBucks County) @ $87,416
Lowest: District 180 (Philadelphia) @ $17,324

Highest Aggregate Household Income in 1999: District 149 ( Montgomery County) @ $2.98 billion
Lowest: District 180 (Philadelphia) @ $426 million

Highest Percentage in Poverty: District 180 (Philadelphia) @ 46%
Lowest: District 178(Bucks) @ 2%

Largest Foreign Born Population: District 174 (Philadelphia) @ 13,475
Lowest: District 152 (Montgomery and Philadelphia) @ 325

Highest percentage of population (Age 25 and over) with Bachelors Degree or higher: District 31 (AlleghenyBucks County) @ 57.9%
Lowest: District 180 (Philadelphia) @ 3.2%

I have put all the profile data I extracted to produce those onto the swivel site for data. You can access it here.


Monday, June 04, 2007

USS Pittsburgh - June 5th 1945

The late historian Stephen Ambrose is personally responsible for much of the history of WWII and accolades awarded to the role of the Higgins Boat in the D-Day invasions. I wonder how the history would have been written if there had been any comparable WWII historian here who took up the topic of (many Pittsburgh-built) LST's in World War II, and in particular on D-Day (June 6th). That is just a blatant plug to stir interest in my idea to bring LST-325 up to Pittsburgh for a visit.


But speaking of D-Day. Also overshadowed because of the date is the anniversary of one of the most harrowing sea stories that does not involve a ship actually sinking. In what may be one of the most notable acts of seamanship since the age of sail, June 5th is the anniversary of the date when the the cruiser USS Pittsburgh had its bow ripped off by Typhoon Cobra Viper* in the South Pacific. The ship would not sink and would make it back to port sans bow. The bow itself actually did not sink and was dubbed the USS Mckeesport. The Navy probably didn't appreciate the irony of how improbable cooperation was between the City of Pittsburgh and one of its suburbs.

* update: I said it was Typhoon Cobra which tore off the bow of the USS Pittsburgh. That is obviously incorrect. Typhoon Cobra was December of 1944. Less well known is Typhoon Viper which was the storm in June of 1945

update June 2008. If you are finding this post, you are probably looking more for my piece in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in June of 2008 on The USS Pittsburgh vs. Typhoon Viper.


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Dusburg on the Mon / more on immigration

I didn't catch this when it came out, but thanks to Sam for noting that the New York Times Magazine mentioned Duisburg, Germany as a kind of "European Pittsburgh" last week. For any new readers I will point out again some of my pictures of Duisburg's Landscape Park.. which is kind of what the goal is for the Carrie Furnace site here in, except a lot bigger and a lot more open than anything in the US could ever be.


It's ironic that the Duisburg story mentioning Pittsburgh was really about immigration. If you read the story on immigration in the PG today you will realize just how strange immigration debates are here in Pittsburgh. It's hard not to see the similarities to the story I mentioned which was in the New Times last year on anti-immigrant efforts in Altoona. Both places have strident anti-immigrant politicians juxtaposed with populations uniquely devoid of recent immigrants.

The PG story focuses on Congressman Altmire who is said to be getting hit with a lot of public input on the issue. Yet the story points out the 4th congressional district is ~2.3% foreign born, which is one of the lowest percentages in the country. That number actually overstates the impact of immigration in his district. If you look a little more carefully at the data on immigration for PA's 4th Congressional District... of that 2.3%, less than a third arrived in the most recent decade and even of that number some are already naturalized citizens. It is even more pronounced for Pennsylvania's 12th house district which is also mentioned in the article. The data for that district shows that less than 2% are foreign born, and half of that population are already naturalized citizens.

Consider how many immigrants would have to come to Pittsburgh just to reach the proportion of population that was foreign born decades ago. Here is the percentage of population that is foreign born in the Pittsburgh region since 1940:

Just to parse numbers a bit. Here is a back of the envelope calculation: if Pittsburgh increased its rate of attracting immigrants 10 fold from where it is today, and that rate continued for a decade, and every last one of those immigrants stayed in the region, we would still be below the proportion of immigrants the region had 50 years ago. That is not an exaggeration.


Speaking of immigration. WashPost has a column today on immigrants in the military which is also worth a read:


Saturday, June 02, 2007

uber graphics on residential development

A graphic mash-up that makes some of my few attempts (one on migration patterns, another showing the growth of the City of Pittsburgh) at dynamic graphics seem childish, here is a graphic that shows the growth of residential property across the entire United States. You have to check this out:

That is just the view of Pittsburgh. But you can literally zoom into any part of the country and it then shows over time the pattern of development at the parcel level over the last century. It says it is using the date of construction at the parcel level to generate this. I would parse it a bit and say it may not capture very well successive developments that happen on the same parcel, or early development.... but that would not take away from the overall project which really is pretty impressive.


Friday, June 01, 2007

abatements again....

City Council has given preliminary approval for a selective tax abatement for certain city neighborhoods. I actually support the idea for a tax abatement on residential investment in the city, but also feel pretty strongly that it has to be city wide (or wider actually). It looks like that will not happen, but there are some pretty important points to think about even if it goes forward in its current form.

First off, why is there severe disinvestment in certain neighborhoods? I actually think the city did a decent job at identifying the neighborhoods in the most need for investment. This is distinct from the issue of whether Downtown needs an abatement... something that gets Sam really mad. But hold that aside for the moment. Let's talk about the other neighborhoods. Does somebody really think that city property taxes are the cause the severe disinvestment in places like Larimer. I don' t mean to pick on one neighborhood, but seriously. If you think an abatement is a solution for acute neighborhood specific problems then you have to believe there is someone out there saying: yes I want to build or improve my property, but find the increased city property tax I would incur is prohibitive. That argument may make sense in areas where property is worth a lot.. but that just isn't the case in the city neighborhoods where this will be focused. In Larimer, what is the median assessed value of residential property? I bet its well under $20K per property... Could it be as low as $10K per housing unit? At that level it's hard to make the case that it is the city property tax that is holding back investment. The problems in certain areas are far more complex than that. Thinking it will help the most depressed areas of the city is the wrong tool for the wrong neighborhoods fixing the wrong problem.

Then you get the question of how will you evaluate the impact of the abatement? As we go forward it will be nearly impossible to distinguish the impact of the tax abatement in these neighborhoods because they also happen to be the neighborhoods where the tax liens were concentrated. (not exactly a coincidence in that by the way) If we do see any improvement in these neighborhoods, will it not be because the liens were repatriated from MBIA? But that is a technicality that I am sure will be lost in any future debate.

There is this argument that abating new investment in some of the other neighborhoods would cost the city more than it would in these selected neighborhoods. Well, sure. Since they essentially claim it will cost nothing to abate investment in these selected neighborhoods (because there is so little investment anticipated) that borders on a tautology. One stated goal is that lost property taxes will be offset by gains in wage and other taxes. If the costs of abating other neighborhoods are higher then are not the gains that much higher as well. I would argue that the only real potential gains in the long run can come from keeping in the city the people who are moving to the suburbs. Otherwise you are just shifting people around within in the city.

I really try not to pick on individual politicians, but as part of this debate there is a quote by DS in the PG story on this the other day. He says:

"Doing it citywide would draw investment to areas where we already have significant investment,"

Really? Where exactly in the city is there significant private sector, non-institutional, non-exempt, non TIF'ed residential investment going on. The exceptions one can find can't obviate the fact that residential building investment is at all time lows despite what you read about some high profile projects Downtown. For a city the size of Pittsburgh, just to offset normal depreciation and demolitions, you need a lot more new housing units going in than we have, by far. When you factor in the fact that we have one of the oldest housing stocks in the nation (also by far), the rate of investment just to keep things from collapsing further is far beyond where we are at now.