With a deal for a new hotel about to crumble, and the clock ticking, Pittsburgh planning director Noor Ismail turned to city government's chief problem solver: Yarone Zober.
North Siders were packing a Planning Commission meeting. They demanded that the panel stall the proposed Hyatt Place Pittsburgh-North Shore until developers agreed to a community benefits agreement, or CBA, Ms. Ismail informed Mr. Zober in a 2008 email.
"No CBA," he promptly responded in one of three emails he wrote over half an hour. "Push that strongly."
"See if you can take offensive with those commission members," he wrote next. "This is ridiculous. Is hotel developer there?"
Half an hour after the exchange, Ms. Ismail wrote back that the commission had approved the hotel. "I shared your email regarding the no CBA" with commission members, she wrote. The hotel approval "almost did not pass."
The episode, captured in documents obtained through a right-to-know request, shows why Mr. Zober, 38, the chief of staff to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, inspires strong feelings. Developers admire him for getting deals done. Some community activists resent him, perceiving disdain for their efforts.
"What I love is Pittsburgh, and what I've always wanted to do is exactly what I've been doing, which is helping Pittsburgh grow and thrive," Mr. Zober said on Wednesday. "It's hard work, and it's a process, and it's a struggle.
"If it were easy, then Detroit and every other city in America would be doing it."
Mr. Zober was subpoenaed Tuesday to testify before a federal grand jury. On Wednesday, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, whose board he heads, revealed that it was complying with a Sept. 4 subpoena for unspecified documents sought by the U.S. attorney's office.
That suggests that the FBI and IRS agents and federal prosecutors leading the probe are interested in the city's development activity after a year of questioning the Bureau of Police, Mr. Ravenstahl's security detail and some of the mayor's female acquaintances.
Robert Rubinstein, the URA's acting executive director since the middle of last year, declined comment about the subpoena. Asked whether the public should be concerned about the authority, he said, "There's nothing under my watch that worries me."
Mr. Zober was in the closed-door grand jury session for about an hour and 15 minutes, and is the highest-ranking official to testify.
Mr. Zober's attorney, Doug Sughrue, said prosecutors on Tuesday "had some simple questions. He wasn't in there for that long." He declined to say what federal investigators are looking at, and Mr. Zober followed that lead.
"I have not seen that [URA] subpoena, so I don't know, but I think it's reasonable to assume that to some degree that might be related" to Mr. Zober's grand jury appearance, said Mr. Sughrue. "They seem to be looking into every aspect of government. We kind of want the federal government to turn over every stone. ... We don't think they'll find any wrongdoing."
Mr. Zober oversees the city's finances and communications, and besides his URA role is the mayor's primary contact with the Sports & Exhibition Authority and Stadium Authority.
"My day never stops," he said. Even on vacation, he said, "I've gotten off planes at midnight and had to hear about how a very important project was going down."
In July, former Stadium Authority board chairwoman Debbie Lestitian testified before the grand jury. The Post-Gazette then requested communications involving Ms. Lestitian, Mr. Zober and Mr. Ravenstahl.
The emails show Mr. Zober centrally involved in thorny issues, including negotiations between the Penguins, city, Allegheny County and Hill District leaders regarding a community benefits agreement tied to Consol Energy Center. The chief of staff shepherded competing drafts of the pact between the parties.
If he were a hockey player, "he'd be like a Max Talbot. He just gets things done," said Penguins CEO David Morehouse. "He's tenacious. ... Yarone always returned phone calls. He didn't always agree with you, but he always got back to you."
Hill leaders and the Penguins reached agreement. But when other neighborhoods pushed for similar pacts in relation to other development, like the Hyatt, Mr. Zober drew the line.
"I think if you go through a process like that too often as a city, you get a reputation as a city that it's hard to grow jobs in, or hard to make investments in," he said Wednesday.
Mr. Zober was "very, very dismissive" of the push for a North Shore community benefits agreement, said Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United, which pushed for such pacts.
Told of the emails regarding the Planning Commission's vote on the Hyatt, he said he wasn't surprised that Mr. Zober was involved. "Unfortunately, doing deals behind closed doors seemed to be the operating principle of the administration," he said.
Mr. Oursler said his group and allies turned to city council to pass ordinances regulating subsidized construction. "What Yarone did is forced us to go and in fact control all development, so the opposite of what he thought would happen, happened."
Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, whose district has seen a number of URA-backed developments, called Mr. Zober an effective leader for the authority. When the August Wilson Center for African American Culture was in financial straits last year, Mr. Zober got the URA to loan the center money to keep it afloat.
"He was very instrumental in allowing me to have the mayor's ear around this ... and try to move things forward," Mr. Lavelle said.
"From my standpoint, he's been somebody who's been positive to work with in terms of moving the city and developing the city, particularly in under-served neighborhoods who had not seen that level of investment previously," he said.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, who as a city councilman in 1997 hired Mr. Zober as an aide, said the chief of staff "has led and filled a vacuum of leadership in that [mayor's] office for the last several years.
"If you want to attribute a third Renaissance to this administration, which I think it's fair to do, none of that would have happened without Yarone's leadership," Mr. Ferlo said.
Mr. Zober is slated to earn $106,782 this year, according to the city budget.
Mr. Ferlo, who is a URA board member, said he didn't know what the subpoena was about, nor why his former protege was before the grand jury.
"It just seems like there is a very broad fishing expedition going on by whatever authorities are involved," Mr. Ferlo said. "And, of course, that's their right. But I don't think the mayor, or Yarone, have been involved in any impropriety."