Power Shift
Dozens of the Pittsburgh-area’s top institutions are going through leadership changes. The turnover could echo for decades.

Pittsburgh has undergone uneven redevelopment since industrial decline, and that history leads some residents to look upon development suspiciously — a challenge that has new civic leaders rethinking the way projects are created.

In the Hill District, for instance, residents voiced skepticism during an October community meeting on a proposed concert venue on the grounds of the former Civic Arena, where the homes of some 8,000 people and community institutions like the Bethel AME Church were destroyed in the 1950s and ’60s in the name of development.

Residents wondered why they should endorse plans by the Buccini/Pollin Group, known as BPG, of Delaware, with one asking: “Why should we be mixing with these people that have been raping us?”

Development of the former Civic Arena site involves three organizations that have experienced leadership changes in the last year: The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] and the joint city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority [SEA] must approve any transfers of parcels to BPG, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ development partners.

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“We’re fully embracing our obligation to the growth of the city, economically and socially,” said Kevin Acklin, who assumed leadership of the Penguins in June after David Morehouse stepped down following 15 years as the team's CEO.

“Every day I come in here, dealing with sports issues, but also our community impact to make Pittsburgh a more welcome, open and inclusive place,” said Acklin, the team’s president.

New leaders of the Penguins, URA and SEA will have to contend with the errors of the past.

“We are definitely a city in transition and have experienced exponential growth over the last few decades,” said Diamonte Walker, the URA’s previous deputy executive director, who stepped down in April. “With that growth, there was a period of preparation that needed to happen and Pittsburgh missed preparing indigenous and native residents.”

The URA declined to make its new executive director, Susheela Nemani-Stanger, available for an interview by deadline for this story. 

In November, the URA announced the departure of Executive Director Greg Flisram from the organization.

Walker said the new civic leaders must determine who their work benefits. The URA has come a long way since demolishing Bethel AME and the neighborhood using eminent domain. But the repercussions of such decisions continue into the present.

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“On the authority side, we need to upgrade the way we engage,” Walker said, instead of approaching communities late in the process and “just coming in now with this big project, and you haven't heard about it really, until now.”

She asked: “If all your life you grew up mistrustful of those authorities, then why should you trust them now?”

Acklin said he and others are willing to work toward gaining the community’s trust.

“We’re at the table to have difficult conversations and create projects that empower and invest in the Hill District,” Acklin said. “We're sharing half our tax abatement in the neighborhood and investing in affordable housing. It's never easy. Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets. But we’ll keep showing up.”

Some of the new development leaders inherit organizations that have succeeded in spurring progress — some of it very pricey.

Twenty years ago, the Strip District was an industrial waterfront, but now the Cork Factory Lofts charges $5,200 a month and up to rent an apartment. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust boasts that, over the last few decades, it turned “a seedy red-light district into a magnet destination for arts lovers, residents, visitors and business owners,” and rent there can reach Manhattan-level prices and luxury. It’s little surprise that many of the Hill District residents at the Oct. 18 meeting worried new development would continue a legacy of displacing lower-income residents.

Balancing economic progress and community inclusion

The region’s new development leaders say they’ll maintain a steady focus on economic growth, building on achievements made in the last two decades while trying to meet the challenge of engaging the communities they work in.

As Aaron Waller learns his new role as the executive director of the SEA, he said his focus is on meeting with community leaders and keeping an eye on booking the David L. Lawrence Convention Center all 365 days of the year.

“We’re trying to sell as many events as possible. It’s definitely an effort,” said Waller, a former vice president of the Washington Commanders football team. “You’re competing with every city in America. Event planners know that so you try to leverage all the amenities of the city to convince people to come here. Why should we come to Pittsburgh? So we have to sell it.

Aaron Waller. (Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock/Pittsburgh Magazine)
Sports & Exhibition Authority Executive Director Aaron Waller (Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock/Pittsburgh Magazine)

You try to tell them about the changes over time here — the build-up of Downtown, the Cultural District.”

He said recent developments help boost Pittsburgh’s appeal to visitors, “When you have folks come into the convention center, they want other activities. They want restaurants, they want sports. It makes the whole engine run. … If you can execute these events, and the convention center always has work, it brings more money in for everyone.”

Waller’s commitment to involving “everyone” could be tested in the Lower Hill, where the SEA owns most of the site of the former Civic Arena. Waller noted that he continues to meet with stakeholders, communities, businesses and others.

“We all have to be involved in development,” he said. “When you get those developments going, it brings about economic activity and success for everyone.’

Waller’s efforts build on his predecessor’s in some ways. In 2004, Mary Conturo became executive director of the SEA and the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority. At the end of her 18-year tenure, she oversaw the completion in 2021 of a $32.3 million Urban Connector, or “Cap” project, relinking Pittsburgh’s Hill District to Downtown. The areas were divided in the 1950s when the state built a portion of Interstate 579, better known as Crosstown Boulevard.

“My burden now is a mission to make Pittsburgh a livable city for all. A city that moves Black people from surviving to thriving. And not just Black people, all marginalized communities. We’re not your grandma’s Urban League.”

Carlos T. Carter

Then-Gov. Tom Wolf described the “Cap” project as righting an injustice committed against the Hill District residents.

Waller said he hopes to continue to work with community leaders in the Hill District. He noted the “Cap” project was a good first step along with the FNB Financial Center, a 26-story mixed-use tower.

“All of that will bring some great development for the Lower Hill,” Waller said. “As that progresses, we should see a boon in that area like we’ve seen on the North Shore and the Strip District.”

Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Carlos T. Carter (Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock/Pittsburgh Magazine)

Similarly, Kendra Whitlock Ingram — who takes over for Kevin McMahon on Feb. 1 as president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust — hopes to strike a balance between keeping the nonprofit arts organization an economic engine while also putting on performances that are more inclusive and accessible to minority populations.

“I also think this organization should be in service to the community, inclusive and welcoming space for everyone to see that they're being represented and there's something for everyone,” said Ingram, the first person of color in the role. “It’s important that the diversity of the community is reflected on the stage, and they've been great about that.”

She said to move that mission forward, the trust needs to evaluate who is not being served by their programming and reach out. “It's important, the connection to the community and understanding what their motives are and feeling like you're a part of the community.”

Esther Bush led the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh for 27 years before stepping down in 2021. Her replacement, Carlos T. Carter, said he respects Bush’s legacy and work but looked forward to pushing the Urban League to meet the current challenges of rising rent and the resulting displacement of lower-income residents. The agency recently received a $6 million gift from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott as it begins strategic planning for the future.

“My burden now is a mission to make Pittsburgh a livable city for all,” Carter said. “A city that moves Black people from surviving to thriving. And not just Black people, all marginalized communities. We’re not your grandma’s Urban League.”

Eric Jankiewicz is Rtvsrece’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at ericj@rtvsrece.com or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

This story was fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.

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Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for Rtvsrece. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even...