Larimer community group resistant to developers' plans
November 1, 2012 4:00 AM
The Larimer Community Garden
By Rich Lord Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Larimer, perhaps Pittsburgh's ultimate underdog neighborhood, is challenging authority even as it prepares to take off.
Loser of three-quarters of its peak population, and home to more vacant lots (around 740) than occupied homes (around 660), Larimer's proximity to booming East Liberty has helped it to attract the attention of developers, backed by the Pittsburgh Housing Authority and the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority.
But even though Larimer has seen almost no new homes built since the 1960s, developers' plans to tailor new homes to low-income families conflict with the neighborhood's emerging vision for its future. With five years of work under their belts, the neighborhood's feisty residents and advocates aren't backing off of their plans for a mixed-income, environmentally friendly community where both newcomers and natives ride the tide.
"I have no problem with building affordable housing," said Donna Jackson, a resident and member of the Larimer Consensus Group. "But I also feel the people who have lived in this neighborhood long-term, and have paid their taxes, are also due some sort of equity."
Talks between Ms. Jackson's group and developer KBK Enterprises, picked by the URA to redevelop 53 parcels, collapsed in August. Then the Housing Authority put the brakes on a process that was supposed to set the stage for broader revitalization.
Now the pressure is on to mend fences in time to agree on bids for more than $40 million in grants.
Councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents Larimer and chairs the Housing Authority board, is blamed by some for giving the neighborhood's plans short shrift, but said he's just trying to fulfill his campaign promise of economic development.
"Potentially, we could build 200 to 300 new housing units in that community. So you're looking at complete and utter neighborhood transformation," Mr. Burgess said.
And if neighborhood leaders demand fealty to their plan? Mr. Burgess said he didn't want to risk driving developers away from his neighborhoods by supporting demands that "create an unfair playing field" compared to other areas of the city.
Ms. Jackson, a retired 911 operator, inherited her grandmother's Larimer home in 1985, just in time for the neighborhood's collapse. "Through time, it began to gradually decline," she said. "Then the crime with the gangs, one particular gang [the Larimer Avenue Wilkinsburg gang], people were just like, 'Let's go.' "
Larimer started planning its comeback in 2007, and in 2010 the consensus group released a Vision Plan to turn the neighborhood into a bastion of environmentally friendly dynamism. Consultants and experienced nonprofit East Liberty Development Inc. trained residents, who then made a plan.
Turn the neighborhood's near-vacant northern and eastern flanks into a park and urban farm, their plan said. Continue to feed an embryonic green economy near the Bakery Square development. Retain longtime homeowners. Use environmentally friendly techniques to build homes and fix infrastructure.
This year the consensus group started drawing a road map for implementing the plan.
"We're trying to build a community that's built to last," said Malik Bankston, executive director of the Kingsley Association, which runs a human services center that has been the scene of much of the planning.
With neighborhood assent, the URA asked Columbus-based KBK to build on vacant lots. KBK applied last year for more than $10 million in state help, but was rejected, and plans to apply again by a Nov. 7 deadline.
The developer irked neighborhood leaders, though, with its plan to build primarily "affordable" rental housing, its perceived nonchalance about green building and talk of moving a beloved community garden.
"We understand that the community garden is not going to be there forever," said Ms. Jackson. "But we want the community garden to sit for a second."
KBK's current plans don't touch the garden, and meet state requirements for energy efficiency in subsidized housing. And the firm wants to use the state's $10 million to build 40 "affordable" homes -- with rents from $600 to $900 a month -- but also plans to build 10 to 12 market-rate rentals, said KBK assistant vice president Tisha Germany.
That mix of housing may not be diverse enough, said Mr. Bankston. The solution to the neighborhood's poverty, he said, isn't to bring in more poverty.
The consensus group also wants KBK to contribute as much as $3,000 per unit built to a fund for helping Larimer homeowners to fix up their houses.
Many Larimer residents "subsist in conditions that are far worse than any you'll find in [public housing]," said Mr. Bankston. KBK should pay to ensure that as new houses are built, owners of older homes can replace roofs and windows, he said.
The URA won't push KBK to enter into such a pact, said URA board chairman Yarone Zober, who is also Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chief of staff.
"I don't really think that's the role of government," Mr. Zober said. A home improvement fund is "something we don't endorse, but if [KBK wants] to go ahead with that, that's not something we have any problem with." He said turnaround often brings dispute. "This was a neighborhood that had not seen any investment, and now they're debating what the development is going to be."
In August, the consensus group wrote to Mr. Zober, copying Mr. Burgess, laying out concerns with KBK's plans. In a move that group members think was spurred by their stand, the Housing Authority cut off funding for consultant Perkins Eastman, which had been helping with the neighborhood's implementation plan.
Mr. Burgess would not explain the cut off, saying that action was taken by former Housing Authority executive director A. Fulton Meachem Jr. Mr. Meachem, through staff, said this week he had no time to speak to the issue.
"I don't understand why Councilman Burgess wanted to go outside of the context of this [planning] effort that had been going on so well for a very long time," said Mr. Bankston.
The Housing Authority pledged at an Oct. 23 meeting to restart the process, but hasn't provided specifics, Mr. Bankston said. "We lost two months with no communication, no anything, no activity at all." That two-month hiatus could matter, because the Housing Authority has pledged to meet a March deadline to apply for $30 million in federal money through the Choice Neighborhoods program. The highly competitive contest for those funds requires a community plan involving homes, jobs, education, transportation and human services.
The Housing Authority has set aside $3.5 million to tear down and rebuild its 28-unit, half-century-old Auburn/Hamilton-Larimer complex. That activity, plus KBK's project and a finished neighborhood plan, could help to convince the federal government that Larimer is a good investment, said Mr. Burgess.
Ms. Jackson said the neighborhood would "do double time" to complete its plan by March, but wouldn't shelve its vision. "I do understand that they have their requirements," she said of the authorities and developers. "But we have requirements that we have to meet as a community."