Monday, March 16, 2015

Who needs (Braddock)?

To use a particular vernacular, here is the bottom line up front: A law journal article just out will be of interest to most (of the remaining) readers here. Stanford law professor Michelle Anderson authored this just published in the Widener Law Review: WHO NEEDS LOCAL GOVERNMENT ANYWAY? DISSOLUTION IN PENNSYLVANIA'S DISTRESSED CITIES.

What is the foil for the article? The geography known to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as the borough of Braddock, PA. While you may not quite catch it in all the legal verbiage, it really is a provocative thesis all but arguing that Braddock should cease to exist.

Braddock Films
Never mentioned, but I couldn't help thinking about the recent Kevin Sousa meme when reading it and maybe not for the reasons you may think. Hard to see any mention of Braddock in the popular press these days without a de rigueur mention of Sousa and his latest project: Superior Motors.  The recent PG article (Kevin Sousa, a visionary chef with fiscal issues on his plate) has sparked a new look at the project. The blowback on the article includes commentary out there such as this blog post: Everything is (Not) Awesome or “Is This Good Enough For Pittsburgh?

IMHO, I think both angles, or virtually all angles I see debated on this, miss the far more important story. I take for granted that Sousa himself is a positive change agent, but what happens if the project is successful? Or even wildly successful? A wave of prosperity comes to Braddock and spills over into neighboring communities? Some believe that has already happened.  I really do get routine queries from the media or other interested parties from all over the country asking some question about the dramatic turnaround that has already happened in Braddock.I think local folks get the difference between the vision and reality, but folks from afar don't get that message. It is a premise that I've pointed out belies some stark statistics including some of the steepest vacancy and poverty rates across Pennsylvania that have yet to show any signs at all of improving to date. If you think a restaurant is the solution to the problem, you are probably underestimating the structural problems Braddock and nearby municipalities have to deal with. 

1994! - see Lucchino referenced below.
I really think that the obsession on how big or impactful the new restaurant project can be for Braddock has a side impact of distracting the powers that be from the harder questions about the future of the borough and environs.  The more talk of the restaurant, the less talk of what it will take to address harder problems.  The problem is that the restaurant is really just the latest iteration of a recurring story of how Braddock has turned the corner,. You can't recall so many previous versions, including the earlier restaurant project in Braddock, because they have all been for naught. The redevelopment of the Mon Valley has been the county's primary economic development focus for decades, with plenty of headlines to show for it along the way. As a result we have had decades of folks talking about how much positive change is taking place in Braddock. I once was yelled at by a long since deposed County Commissioner for merely questioning the premise.  

What are those harder questions being overlooked? Well, there we come back to the law article just out that looks at just how dysfunctional some local governments are in Pennsylvania. The very first sentence of the article: "Pennsylvania is home to an exceptionally high number of small, fiscally troubled local governments—each one a monument to the decline of American manufacturing and its middle class jobs."

I'll be the first to quibble with the economic history embedded in that.  Braddock's decline started long before the decline of the steel industry, but the cause is not as important as the reality of today. Braddock, by most metrics of distress, has only continued downward over the last decade. Why is that?

Let's talk beyond Braddock to desensitize this all. Braddock in a sense is not the worst off place for its residents. Children in Braddock actually get to attend a functioning school district in the form of Woodland Hills. That is a result of the General Braddock school district being one of the original districts that were combined to form Woodland Hills as the result of a Federal consent decree three decades ago. The children of the neighboring Duquesne School District have no such luxury and have seen their schools literally deconstructed, with students unwanted by any other school district in the county, only to forcibly assigned by state fiat into nearby school districts. If you think Duquesne is an anomaly then go read the recent research showing Pennsylvania having the most unequal school funding in the nation.

School Districts, and municipalities such as Duquesne, or Rankin, or Braddock, all are forced to exist despite having no fiscal capacity to maintain minimal public services. I remain perplexed that there is no greater hue and cry over what is an ongoing miasma in Duquesne. Hence again, the law article focused on the hyper sensitive topic of municipal disincorporation and the greater failings of the Act 47 process in Pennsylvania which may have a counterproductive goal of keeping low functioning governments extant. Maybe they shouldn't be strung along.

If you read the footnotes to the article, and law authors do like their footnotes, there is a reference (warning, pseudo vanity alert) to a report completed long ago by former County Controller Frank Lucchino. His report titled Reclaiming Hope - Voluntary Disincorporation in Allegheny Countybrought up the topic that is like political kryptonite in Pennsylvania. Just coming out with that report was an act of political courage since similar talk has brought political careers to an end before and since. The article actually concludes by pointing out that if they were looking for new legislation to address municipal distress  then "state legislators should go back to the drawing board—the one that Frank Lucchino drafted for them years ago." Easier to talk about menus.

The Luccino article, and other sundry ephemera on this whole topic of fragmentation in local government in Pennsylvania is on my web page on the topic (minimally updated in a decade at this point).  To end I'll just throw out this illustration I put together years ago showing just how much local government there is in Pennsylvania:


Anonymous MH said...

Should probably just set up a metro-wide school district. I don't understand how what is happening in Duquesne is constitutional by either the PA or the US Constitution.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015 10:05:00 AM  
Anonymous The Wiz said...

I've long thought there should be open enrollment within any county. Let kids/parents chose which schools are best for them. Science, math, arts, whatever they excel at should decide which school works best for them.

As for our many municipalities, many should merge into more regional bodies. Cut the number in half if not more.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015 6:46:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

I agree that the rational and humane thing to do would be to allow voluntary dissolution and consolidation into a County-wide local government arm (complete with police, fire, schools, and additional taxing powers to pay for all that). But boy would that be a heavy lift politically.

As an aside, I think the main hope for Braddock (and Rankin) is a successful redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site, along the lines of the Pittsburgh Technology Center (updated with better urban planning), South Side Works, or what they are planning for the ALMONO site. The problem is there is a bit of a line forming--the PTC and SSW themselves aren't done, ALMONO hasn't even started, there is a new plan for additional development at Station Square, and of course the Lower Hill site, various Strip District sites, still a lot of the North Shore, East Liberty and Larimer . . . lots of areas are plausibly in the competitive set for such a redevelopment.

This is not necessarily a feel-good story, but the upshot may be more or less that places like Braddock have to just try to hang on and slow down further disinvestment until their time comes.

But at least Braddock has that much of a hope. The farther out you go along the Mon, the less likely it is such redevelopment will occur any time in the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 10:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two things:

1) Happy to see the uptick in recent posting.

2) Unless there are some tricks up the sleeve re: transportation access to the site, ALMONO is going to be a disaster.

Coming from the west / north, do they expect everyone to use Allies / Bates / Second to access the site? Or just get off in downtown and drive out Second Av. Either way will be a traffic choked commute.

Need something clever like slip ramps to allow eastbound 376 exit / westbound entry to / with Second av. Maybe by that gravel site.

Short of that - access is going to suck

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 11:36:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

Is that you again CFP/JVC?

Anyway, although I am sure the site would appreciate an eastbound exit off I-376 right at Bates rather than back at Forbes, the bottom line is that many successful riverfront redevelopment areas have similar, or indeed far worse, highway access, including the aforementioned PTC and SSW.

But in any event, this is a discussion about Braddock and also possible consolidation laws, not whether the ALMONO planners have miscalculated their transportation plan.

Thursday, March 19, 2015 7:25:00 AM  
Blogger joe said...

Ditto #1 above

...and I just assumed everyone would be biking into town from the ALMONO site and taking gondolas lifts up to Oakland, including all the older adults who I'm sure will be represented in the multi-generational housing planning, right?

Friday, March 20, 2015 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

Oh, joy.

Friday, March 20, 2015 2:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A funny thing I came across this election cycle: School board candidates in the City of Pittsburgh need to collect 10 signature on a nominating petition to get on the ballot; school board candidates in Duquesne and McKeesport need to collect 100 (one hundred).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 10:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to ALMONO architectural renderings and the human representations therein, no one under the age of 30 will be utilizing the site (same goes for most other new projects in the city).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 10:52:00 AM  
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