Pittsburgh city planning flows from neighborhoods up

There are 88 officially-designated neighborhoods here, each one keenly interested in having a say in what might affect it. To this end, community development groups have sprung up. The key to their success? A close partnership with both city and private concerns. FROM her aging, red-brick headquarters, Sandra Phillips can glimpse the University of Pittsburgh's soaring ``Cathedral of Learning'' a couple of blocks away -- a fitting backdrop as she recounts how her agency, the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC), came into being.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, says Ms. Phillips, the university shifted into an expansionary phase that threatened to ``smash'' the surrounding neighborhood. Then a graduate student in urban planning, she recalls being struck by the irony of it all -- a school preaching sound planning in its classrooms but ``botching'' the job right next door.

She became active in organizing local people into ``block clubs'' to give them a voice. Soon, a small social agency called People's Oakland was in place, and eventually she and others devised the ``Oakland Plan,'' which set forth long-range recommendations for development in the neighborhood, as well as procedures by which those recommendations could be tested and carried out. The OPDC, set up to guide and coordinate development in the neighborhood, sprang from that 1980 master plan.

For Phillips, the experience of the Oakland neighborhood simply proves a fundamental point about planning and development in this city or any other: ``Everybody has this top-down idea -- that the city can do it -- but it has to come up from the community.''

A key element in the master plan was the ``fixed-areas concept,'' which set boundaries for development, and particularly for institutional expansion. Bridges of communication were built to the university and, bit by bit, teamwork replaced conflict. Today, says Phillips, what used to be a glaring ``town-gown'' split is ``not nearly like it used to be.'' In fact, she says, ``I think we've put together one of the best models of neighborhood and institutional planning and cooperation.''

That point is heartily seconded by Bernard Kobosky, vice-chancellor for public affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. He speaks of a 15-year process during which institutions, including his own, learned about ``their rather serious responsibilities to act as good citizens and good neighbors for the betterment of the environment where we all live and work.'' He and Phillips meet regularly to discuss neighborhood issues, and the university now helps fund some neighborhood projects.

One area of continuing concern is housing and jobs for the former mental patients who were deinstitutionalized in the early '70s. Phillips vividly recalls homeless, hungry people wandering into the People's Oakland offices, downstairs from her OPDC office today. Most were former patients at the nearby Western Psychiatric Clinic; the only lodging available for them was run-down rooming houses, and jobs were nonexistent.

``We felt that the mentally ill had a right to organize,'' she says. People's Oakland targeted the landlords who owned the dilapidated rooming houses, and who were known to kick tenants out on a whim. ``We worked with the city to bring the buildings up to code,'' says Phillips.

Eventually an ongoing vocational training program was formed to ``fix it up so as many people as can are able to get out there with real jobs,'' she explains. With the help of the university, foundation money was found to fund a sidewalk cleaning project that employs six or seven men every day of the week. Given the fast-food outlets and other sources of rubbish along the neighborhood's commercial streets, ``if it wasn't for that [the cleanup team], we'd be seven feet deep in debris,'' Phillips says.

OPDC recently took an important step toward its goal of upgrading housing in the neighborhood with completion of Saybrook Court, a condominium development for low- and moderate-income tenants. A second, similar development is under way.

These projects illustrate the ``public-private'' partnership which is at the heart of the work being done by community development corporations such as OPDC. Cranshaw Construction Inc., a subsidiary of the National Development Corporation, has been OPDC's partner in the town-house project -- a partnership facilitated by federal tax provisions that allow cities to sell bonds to ``write down'' the interest on loans to low-income buyers. Those tax provisions, notes Phillips solemnly, are now threatened by President Reagan's proposed income-tax reform package.

That's a concern echoed by planner Jane Downing, who heads the city office that oversees neighborhood-based development. ``If the proposal that affects sale of tax-exempt bonds goes through, it could undercut the city's ability to raise money for housing projects,'' she says. She points out that community-development corporations (CDCs) first came into being during the Kennedy years in the early '60s, then faded as direct federal funding dried up. They've revived in recent years, she says, and Pittsburg h itself has ``a strong neighborhood community-development movement,'' with five active CDCs.

The strength of these neighborhood agencies springs from their closeness to the community, explains Eric Holmes, director of the Manchester Citizens Corporation. The Manchester neighborhood, largely black, is filled with ``really big old homes'' that have been progressively rehabilitated over recent years with the guidance of Mr. Holmes's organization. ``Virtually all the members'' of the development committee that oversees this activity are ``people from the community,'' Mr. Holmes says. ``We're exer cising to the hilt our power to control what goes on here,'' he adds.

The effectiveness of agencies like those run by Ms. Phillips and Mr. Holmes, explains city planner Downing, depends on close teamwork among neighborhood representatives, city government, and the private sector. The people who run them, she says, need to have a ``very complex'' mix of ``development skills and interpersonal skills.''

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