Mayor O'Connor's ex-aide Leber to leave URA

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Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
B.J. Leber, the mayor's former chief of staff.
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Mayor Bob O'Connor's deposed chief of staff, B.J. Leber, is expected to resign her seat on the Urban Redevelopment Authority board, and speculation has begun about her successor in the powerful role as board chair.

URA Executive Director Jerome Dettore said yesterday that he has talked to Ms. Leber and she "led me to believe she will be submitting her resignation."

It would come as the board entertains a proposal by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to rehabilitate three buildings in the Fifth and Forbes retail corridor, Downtown. Revitalizing the corridor has been one of the mayor's top priorities.

Although Ms. Leber was fired as chief of staff last month as part of Mr. O'Connor's purge of top staffers, she legally could retain her board seat until her term expires Dec. 2, 2010. Former city councilman Sala Udin remained on the board after he left office at the end of last year. He did not resign until March.

Mr. Dettore said he doesn't expect Ms. Leber to attend tomorrow's meeting.

"I think she's going to respect what occurred and step away," he said. "I think she believes the seat should be given to someone the mayor wants appointed."

Ms. Leber could not be reached for comment. If she does resign, her seat on the five-member board cannot be filled until Mr. O'Connor resumes his duties as mayor.

Yarone Zober, the mayor's policy and general services director, was appointed deputy mayor Sunday as Mr. O'Connor underwent surgery to relieve fluid buildup in his brain, a complication of his battle with primary central nervous system lymphoma.

While Mr. Zober has many of the same powers as the elected mayor, he cannot hire or fire or make appointments.

URA board vice chairman William Rudolph is expected to move into the role of acting chair at tomorrow's meeting. But some already have started to speculate as to who will take the chair permanently, with Mr. Zober and state Sen. Jim Ferlo, who is close to the mayor, mentioned as possibilities.

Councilwoman Tonya Payne, a URA board member, said Mr. Ferlo, a former City Council president and a frequent critic of the URA when Tom Murphy was mayor, could end up with the post. Mr. Zober served as an aide to Mr. Ferlo when he was on council.

Mr. Ferlo said he's not interested. He said the chair should go to someone on the mayor's staff who can devote full attention to development efforts and serve as Mr. O'Connor's agent.

He noted that in the recent past the chairmanship typically has gone to a top member of the mayor's staff. "I think it's important that [Mr. O'Connor] be there and he is best there by a high-level appointment from the administration," Mr. Ferlo said.

Councilman Doug Shields, a former top aide to Mr. O'Connor when he was on council, also believes a member of the mayor's administration should serve as chair but refused to speculate on the replacement.

He did say Mr. O'Connor's current chief of staff, Dennis Regan, may already have his hands full as board chairman of the city Housing Authority.

The board is expected to move forward tomorrow with a proposal by the History & Landmarks Foundation to renovate three vacant buildings at Fifth Avenue and Market Street for retail and housing.

The URA plans to purchase a deteriorating building at 439 Market from the city for $40,000, plus costs, and then sell it and two adjacent URA-owned structures to Landmarks Development Corp., a History & Landmarks subsidiary, for $257,000. The price would have been $300,000 were it not for a $43,000 credit History & Landmarks is getting to complete demolition on the city-owned building, which adjacent property owners have described as a hazard in danger of collapse.

One of the URA-owned structures involved is the old Regal Shoe Co., a favorite of preservationists. Mr. Dettore said History & Landmarks intends to keep the facades of all three buildings.

He said the foundation is considering either apartments or condos for the upper floors of the buildings and retail on the ground level. He views the project as a complement to much larger Fifth and Forbes initiatives, including the new PNC skyscraper, which will include housing, a hotel, and offices.

"It's a neat project. It's another piece of positive stuff happening Downtown," he said.

Mr. Dettore said the foundation hopes to begin construction by the end of the year, with completion expected next fall.


Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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