NAIOP: On May 21st NAIOP is hosting a delegation of city officials as part of series of programs featuring city leadership. What can we expect to hear?
Kevin Acklin: We’ll be providing an update on development projects around the city, especially the larger projects like the Lower Hill, ALMONO, Lawrenceville and the Strip District. Those seem to be the hotter developments and the ones we’ve been working the most on. We’ll also provide an update on the Innovation Districts.
NAIOP: What are Innovation Districts?
KA: It varies in the city where this new economy can be sited, but for instance Carnegie Mellon issued an RFP and last week I spoke at the developer kick-off. They are looking to build a building between CMU and Pitt to house some of CMU’s innovation. We want to take the temperature of the development community regarding whether it makes sense to centralize an area of the city where we foster innovation or should we let it happen naturally. Cities have taken different paths and we are at that decision point in our city’s history.
I also want to mention that we just completed the P4 Conference that the mayor led with the Heinz Endowments. It was an international conference looking at four areas where we want to raise the bar on development in the city: People, Planet, Performance, and Place. From a planet perspective, how do we promote sustainable development? From the people perspective, how can we encourage development that builds family sustaining jobs and rebuilds neighborhoods? With “place”, how do we use our reorganization at City Planning to dust off community plans in neighborhoods to make sure development happens in a community driven manner? In “performance”, what we’re really looking for is to make data-driven decisions and to hold ourselves accountable; everything from how we operate on our permitting process to how we make subsidy decisions. I chair the URA, and our decisions on investing in projects will be driven in the future based on these goals – the P4 index.
NAIOP: We’ll be meeting two new faces at Thursday’s meeting – Ray Gastil and Maura Kennedy. Can you talk about their roles and responsibilities, and has their experience helped shape this vision?
KA: Ray Gastil, our planning director, came from the same role in Seattle. Prior to that he was planning director for Manhattan. His experience is valuable to our Innovation Districts and to our vision for connectivity. You can look at some of the investments we’re making in multi-modal transportation to provide for a more connected city; which is not only about improving the quality of living, it’s about remaining competitive. Maura Kennedy is our chief of PLI – Permits, Licensing, and Inspections. Her job over the last year has been to catch up the permitting function of the city from 1986 – when we took office [the Bureau of Building Inspection] didn’t have email, they were still printing on dot-matrix printers and issuing permits on carbon copy paper. She has overseen the efforts to cross-train city personnel so that we avoid the gaps and delays surrounding the inspection and commit to faster turnarounds during the permitting process. We’d like to take advantage of the growth the city is experiencing and eliminate the friction of doing business with the City of Pittsburgh.
NAIOP: You spoke at another NAIOP event about some of the technology improvements you would like to see implemented. Can you give an update?
KA: Now we have single operating system used by Public Works, PWSA, PLI, and City Planning. They are plugged in to the same pipeline, so to speak. Over time this should eliminate the “ping pong” effect, where developers are going to one city agency and being told something, and then hearing something different from another agency. We’ve been working to minimize those silos and great progress has been made.
NAIOP: How can NAIOP’s membership assist your team as changes are made and policy is set?
KA: One aspect of development we are trying to impact is “visibility”, and we want to hear feedback from developers in that regard. We want the development process in the City of Pittsburgh to be one of the most visible and transparent in the country. We don’t make decisions based on politics, nor do I want there to be a labyrinth in terms of working with the various agencies that interact with development. The process should be open, transparent, and predictable. The lack of transparency and predictability not only loses opportunity cost to projects but also creates uncertainty which inevitably kills transactions. We want to have more of a collaborative effort as we make changes to the city. We want to take the advice and feedback from the development community because we ultimately are trying to change the way we do business with developers and create economic growth.