Speaking truth to dubious public policy

Speaking truth to dubious public policy

There’s a quite provocative (and necessarily so) assessment of some of contemporary Pittsburgh’s misguided public policies in the summer 2019 edition of The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

And it comes from ex-Pittsburgher John Tierney, long a national scribe of impeccable repute.

Tierney, now a contributing science columnist for The New York Times, sets the stage perfectly in his opening line:

“If you want to see how to revive a city – and how not to – go to Pittsburgh.”

You can find the full article at https://www.city-journal.org/pittsburghs-comeback.  (And, yes, Tierney is positive about of number of Pittsburgh developments.) But it’s worth commending for your attention one of the piece’s key narratives here (with additional paragraph breaks for ease of reading):

“In East Liberty’s heyday a century ago, market forces provided a wide range of housing options without the guidance of activists. It still has a high percentage of affordable housing, and there’s plenty more in nearby neighborhoods.

“The anti-gentrification movement is misguided everywhere, but it’s especially absurd in a city that has lost half its population. Pittsburgh has such a glut of cheap housing that the city owns 17,000 vacant homes and lots.

“But the city’s voters—especially those new arrivals—have elected a mayor and city council committed to the full progressive agenda. Mayor Bill Peduto is a friend and admirer of Bill de Blasio, and he’s importing the same policies that have made New York so expensive.

“Pittsburgh is planning to introduce ‘inclusionary zoning’ around Robo Row, forcing apartment developers to set aside 1 percent of their units for low-income tenants paying below-market rents, and Peduto hopes to extend it to East Liberty and other popular neighborhoods.

“Peduto has also proposed a progressive checklist of requirements for future real-estate projects. It’s called P4, which stands for People, Place, Planet, Performance. ‘It’s not the Adam Smith supply-and-demand model,’ he explained to me. ‘It is a quadruple- bottom-line model.’

“Developers in New York are accustomed to this sort of red tape, and they can charge high enough rents in Manhattan to afford it. But Pittsburgh doesn’t have New York’s money, and it will lose its comparative advantage if it drives up the costs of doing business.

“Developers in East Liberty already have a hard-enough time financing projects, contending with the vagaries not only of the market but also of the existing zoning-approval process, which can drag on for years.

“The last thing they need is the new set of hurdles called ‘P4 performance measures.’ To get a project approved, they’ll need to demonstrate that it ‘generates wealth and ownership positions for disadvantaged populations,’ while reducing ‘climate impacts by improving building performance and providing renewable resources.’

“And those aren’t even the vaguest of the dozen metrics. The project must also ‘advance and foster new ideas to drive market leadership and stimulate creative solutions to complex challenges,’ which seems an awful lot to ask of an apartment building.

“Will this new master plan be enough to choke the city’s revival? The Pittsburgher in me hopes for the best. Perhaps developers will find ways to deal with it (like increasing campaign contributions). Perhaps the plan will be discarded before it’s too late.

“But if people start fleeing East Liberty once again, we can all rest assured of one thing: Pittsburgh will get to work on another renaissance,” Tierney concludes.

Tierney’s assessment, an ex-pat’s review from afar, should be considered a valuable addition to the public discussion of Pittsburgh’s many public policy failings (many of which Tierney did not have time or space to include).

Sadly, those prosecuting their government-knows-best “progressivism” – the new central planning looks a lot like the old central planning because the hubris of the central planners know no bounds – will dismiss Tierney as a purveyor of “old think,” if not a “naysayer.”

But speaking truth to public policies that produce the same damaging results repeatedly must be called out. As, too, should be their purveyors.

It was essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote that “Every line of history inspires a confidence that we shall not go far wrong; that things mend.”

But “things” cannot be mended when the mistakes not only go uncorrected but are repeated ad nauseam — allowed to multiply and do irreparable harm to the body politic.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).