Ravenstahl envisions a city that's affordable, fun, smart

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Mayor Luke Ravenstahl would love to be the guy who reverses the city's six-decade population plunge. His formula for doing that includes affordable living and merrymaking Downtown, more fun development like the SouthSide Works, and engagement between the city and its school district.

Those were the broad visions the mayor laid out yesterday to Post-Gazette editors and a reporter. His 100th day in office passed Sunday, and he asserted that he has gone beyond being a steward for the late Bob O'Connor, and offers a distinct vision for the city's future.

In the near term, it may include tax breaks for housing, free parking some days, and a joint effort with the Pittsburgh Public Schools to improve education that is to be unveiled today.

After Mr. O'Connor's Sept. 1 death and Mr. Ravenstahl's ascent from City Council president, the latter focused mainly on finishing things started by the former. The 311 service line, creation of a second redd-up crew, a deal to collect trash for Wilkinsburg and the buyback of old tax debts from a private company were efforts started under Mr. O'Connor, or even earlier.

Now, with a mayoral election looming next year, some of what Mr. O'Connor started is getting a Ravenstahl twist. Take the Downtown housing surge.

Post-Gazette
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl
   
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Hear sampling from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's meeting with the PG editorial board:

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl addresses the demotion of former police Commander Catherine McNeilly.

Will a new Downtown bookstore follow the closing of Barnes & Noble?

The mayor says jobs, housing and marketing will lead young people to Pittsburgh.

Mayor Ravenstahl sizes up the greatest difficulty of his first 100 days.

The Isle of Capri casino plan is still the mayor's preference.

The mayor reflects on Pittsburgh's quality of governance.

How long will Pittsburgh have a mayor?

Does Philadelphia have any lessons for Pittsburgh?

The mayor takes on parking lot operators who refuse to cut their rates.

   

The mayor and his wife, Erin, toyed with moving Downtown, but determined that on his $96,511 salary and her earnings as a beautician, they'd be hard-pressed to afford it. The lower-end condominiums are coming on the market at around $200,000.

The mayor wants people earning even $50,000 to be able to consider the center city.

"It's definitely a challenge, and one I'm well aware of, and one my administration is looking at in terms of making that more affordable," he said. "Philadelphia has been very successful with a 10-year tax abatement for Downtown, something we're looking at internally."

Philadelphia's 10-year tax abatement on residential construction citywide, launched in 1997, spurred $375 million worth of new housing that wouldn't have otherwise happened, said Joe Grace, spokesman for Mayor John Street. It has been used mostly by Center City developers, pushing the downtown population to 88,000 now, and a projected 100,000 in a year, he said.

"By any standard, the tax abatement in Philadelphia has been a success," Mr. Grace said.

A property tax abatement for new Downtown housing here would be helpful, said Lucas Piatt, vice president of real estate for Millcraft Industries, which hopes to spearhead a Downtown redevelopment. He said the firm hasn't studied its likely effect on price but is striving to keep all costs down.

He said he's responding to the mayor's call for less expensive Downtown digs and will present a plan to the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority tomorrow that "will show that work force housing is possible Downtown." The plan deals with the former G.C. Murphy building, which would become Market Square Place and the Market Square Lofts.

Mr. Ravenstahl said he's looking for creative ways to keep Downtown parking costs from scaring away visitors. Lot operators have said they won't reduce rates next year, even though the city's parking tax is set to dip from 50 percent to 45 percent.

The mayor said he met last week with Pittsburgh Parking Authority officials and urged them to consider giving something back, maybe in the form of a dozen or half-dozen days of free Downtown parking next year. Festive days like the Fourth of July and Light Up Night would be candidates.

Free parking would create "opportunities for people to come Downtown on days when they might otherwise not be able to afford it," he said. That could boost retail activity.

And what if those visitors want to buy books? Barnes & Noble announced in October that it will close its Downtown store next year.

"Symbolically, it is not a good thing for the Downtown," the mayor said of the loss of the only large bookstore there. Millcraft's effort, though, brings new hope. "I am confident that a bookstore will be in that mix in some way, shape or form."

Mr. Ravenstahl said he recently visited Baltimore's Inner Harbor and came across an accounting firm that moved there from the suburbs, in spite of higher rents and taxes. Why? "That's where their young [employees] wanted to be."

SouthSide Works has the same effect on young talent, he said of the development that lured American Eagle Outfitters from a perch in Marshall. He wants to replicate that development's style elsewhere, and intends to tap Gov. Ed Rendell for dollars to get that done.

The works has "the cool factor" because it combines homes, stores, jobs, places to party and outdoor amenities like trails, said Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project Executive Director Erin Molchany. "What makes it cool is all of those amenities. [Living or working there] is a lifestyle change."

Surveys of PUMP's youngish membership indicate that they want good education -- and not just grad schools. "Good public schools are definitely something that's of interest to our members," said Ms. Molchany.

Schools don't just educate kids but also affect the stability of neighborhoods and the value of property, she noted.

Mr. O'Connor increased the level of cooperation between the city and the Pittsburgh Public Schools, working with Superintendent Mark Roosevelt to create safe zones around schools. Mr. Ravenstahl said he'll expand on that collaboration.

He and Mr. Roosevelt are scheduled to announce a multiyear, multimillion-dollar joint initiative today, about which neither the city nor the district would provide details yesterday.

"I'm a firm believer that if you feel safe in your community, and if you feel confident that your children are getting a good education, you're not going anywhere," Mr. Ravenstahl said.


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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