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Firm hired to create Hill District plan has little to show

Tribune-Review
| Monday, October 4, 2010 12:00 a.m

A Philadelphia firm hired to create a comprehensive plan for the Hill District has little to show for it after nine months and $75,500 in payments from Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.

CHPlanning Ltd. edged out 24 other companies that competed last year to conduct a “master planning” process to guide how public officials and private corporations develop land around the new Consol Energy Center and elsewhere in the economically depressed neighborhood.

The firm’s contract with the URA began Jan. 7 and authorized spending up to $350,000 to produce — by Thursday — “no more than 10 bound, two-sided copies of the Final Master Plan” and present its recommendations at a public hearing.

That won’t happen, said Charnelle Hicks, CHPlanning’s president.

She’s not sure when the master plan will be finished because CHPlanning is stepping down as the prime consultant.

“The approach that we had undertaken just didn’t seem to fit with what the URA was going for,” Hicks said. “So it’s been about trying to tinker and rework it.”

Her firm organized two public hearings, she said. Its contract calls for four public meetings by October.

“We have not moved forward on the actual work in the last couple of months,” Hicks said.

CHPlanning was too small and inexperienced to handle the demands of the project, said Tonya Payne, a former member of both City Council and the URA’s board of directors.

Payne was initially skeptical about hiring CHPlanning but ultimately voted in favor of the contract because she had lost her re-election bid and could not persuade board members — including state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, and Yarone Zober, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s chief of staff — to join her in rejecting CHPlanning.

Hicks, who’s from the Hill District, rejected the notion that her 15-member firm wasn’t capable of handling the project. She said she has done projects of similar scope, including disaster recovery work in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana and work for the city of Chester in Delaware County.

Asked to provide a list of tasks that her firm completed during the past nine months, she declined and referred other questions about how much she was paid to URA Executive Director Rob Stephany.

Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, said his constituents generally supported CHPlanning and wanted to see a business owned by a female minority succeed.

However, he questioned the need to earmark $350,000 for a planning effort.

“I’m baffled that it took this long,” Wheatley said. “There’s been so many studies of the Hill District that I think we could have collected them and had this done six months ago.”

Work on the plan could be finished by year’s end, said Carl Redwood, founder of the Hill District Consensus Group.

Redwood and Wheatley said the URA is negotiating with the Boston-based urban design firm Sasaki Associates to complete the project. Sasaki has been assisting CHPlanning.

Redwood said a professional consultant will be needed to raise money and create “initial drawings and renderings” of potential developments in the Hill District.

The URA’s Stephany declined to be interviewed for this story, but he said in an e-mail that he couldn’t discuss a “settlement agreement” because it’s still being negotiated with CHPlanning.

Stephany said the plan won’t be ready on time. He doesn’t know when it will be done.

“We continue to be really excited about the prospect of working on this community plan,” he said.

To cover the potential cost of the $350,000 contract, the URA and Allegheny County contributed $100,000 apiece; The Heinz Endowments and Pittsburgh Foundation each chipped in $75,000.

Heinz Endowments spokesman Doug Root said such setbacks are not unusual. He said the nonprofit is pleased the URA recognized a problem with the consultant and began to shift the work to someone else.

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