Monday, April 30, 2012

Property, Preservation, Parking = Community, Constituency, Communication

Where some alliterative arithmetic may help to illustrate the comparative connections between two building brouhahas.

Those who follow news in my local area on Sewickley Patch and other media outlets are undoubtedly aware of two disputes involving the planned re-purposing of property in two communities:
  • The purchase of a historic Sewickley home by a local church, which had plans to tear it down and build a youth center that opponents believe will sully the perceived architectural and historical integrity of the neighborhood.                                             
  • The purchase of residential property in Leetsdale by the local school district, with the apparent intent of acquiring additional adjacent residences, demolish them, and pave paradise and put up a parking lot, with traffic routing changes for the nearby high school. Residents of the neighborhood, bolstered by their municipal officials, are questioning the district's actions, justifications, and planning processes.
There are numerous area stakeholders who are taking a stand regarding these projects. Some are community leaders in business and other arenas, who live in or near the neighborhoods involved. Others are elected officials, whose properties are in the proverbial cross hairs.

One of these officials, District Justice Bob Ford, asserted during a recent Leetsdale Council meeting that "they" (unspecified) were trying to connect these disputes together, when they were in fact radically different.

From a legal standpoint, he's right - one involves a private property transaction, and the other the acquisition of property by a governmental entity, possibly by force if some of the rhetoric is to be believed.

However, there are other factors that seem to permeate these two disputes, providing insight not only into the likely root cause, but also the means by which the issues have been affected by cooperation, media coverage, and community activism.

Pink House Polemic 

Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - Rebecca Droke
When the Presbyterian Church of Sewickley purchased the nearby property from the descendants of Elliott and Carolyn Coyle earlier this year, is it possible that they could not have foreseen the outrage that their obtaining a demolition permit from Sewickley Borough could have brought toward their plans and their organization?

Were they fully aware of the potential for confrontation with neighbors and other property owners, upset with what they may see as an assault on the integrity of "The Village"?

Provided that the required funding can be secured, it sounds as if the Pink House will get its reprieve. Setting aside who was right or wrong, one thing is certain - those forces in the neighborhood did not like the apparent lack of communication, and leveraged knowledge and a few other resources to influence the project's current status. 

One big factor was the amount of media attention paid to the controversy - and not just local. In late March, the Post-Gazette published several stories by Homes Editor Kevin Kirkland - you can read them here, here, and here. The last is basically a short op-ed on how Mr. Kirkland thinks the house and grounds should be reconfigured for church uses. 

That's an extraordinary amount of column inches, not counting any photos. It made me wonder why. 

I spent some time growing up in this neighborhood, albeit a couple of blocks down Grant Street. When walking into the Village, I always went behind the church to access Duquesne Way (it's now fenced off), and walked down the alley, past the rear of the Coyle house, to Walnut Street.

On Thorn Street, behind the Pink House on the other side of the alley, the Hamill kids were growing up, too. One of them, Sean, is now one of the better reporters at the Post-Gazette.

In an excellent Saturday Diary post from last year, Mr. Hamill credits his neighbors, award-winning photographers Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow, for planting the idea that led to his choice of journalism as a career. That's the same Melissa Farlow who is one of the primary motivators behind Save the Pink House, and was featured in one of the Kirkland pieces.

Another question is whether or not the neighborhood was even entitled to a voice. The church is a landmark in and of itself, as well as a fixture of the neighborhood where it sits. Many neighbors are not as enthusiastic about the church's vibrant existence - they bemoan the lines of cars parked on Beaver Street during Sunday services, especially when driveways are blocked. Ironically, the project as planned would help to address some of that.

Still, I wonder if an attempt to proactively communicate with the neighbors  - whether entitled to know, be involved, or otherwise spectate - would have resulted in a more measured, reasonable beginning to this disagreement, and prevented some of the spectacle that transpired. 

At least one local resident finds fault with the Pink House 'movement' as perhaps anti-American. In a passionate letter to Sewickley Patch, Richard Zucckero of Glen Osborne accuses the  concerned citizens of looking at the Pink House "as if its sole purpose is to pose background to the broad-stroked painting of their own presence and property". He adds that this raises the spectre of a "co-op" mentality, something akin to the fascism practiced by many condominium associations and subdivision HOA's through restrictive covenants.

Wait a minute, though - there are zoning ordinances and other devices of government already shaping the use of property. In one of the Kevin Kirkland stories, it was reported that the efforts of St. Stephen's Church to demolish what is now Henning House were rebuffed by a borough architectural review committee - if that house was saved, why wouldn't the same process apply to the Coyle property? 

Henning House, part of the campus of St. Stephen's Church

Sewickley Borough manager Kevin Flannery was kind enough to spend a few minutes to explain that the Pink House does not fall within the boundaries of the three Historic Districts established by ordinance in the 1980's. St. Stephen's, and the cavernous old duplex next door that is now an impressive example of restorative architecture, are. 

Those commenting on the Patch letter also alluded to so many other things going on in the world, and the amount of comparative energy being expended on such a seemingly trivial cause. There's some irony here, as Ms. Farlow has likely seen much of the world as a photographer for National Geographic. I can sympathize a little, but can also see something positive coming from this.

Frank Lloyd Wright, while being a true creative genius, was also a narcissist, womanizer and spendthrift. He is rumored to have said of his own life, "So long as we had the luxuries, the necessities would pretty much take care of themselves". 

Perhaps in that context we can see the Pink House as a metaphor for the gradual decay of the middle class, civility, and compassion in this country. If this solid old structure can somehow be salvaged, and then populated with those intent on carrying out some of the true mission of Christ - ministering to the poor, caring for youth and those struggling to care for themselves - then maybe there is hope for the rest of Sewickley, and our fragile society as well.

Nah - we're doomed. Let's take the Lexus down to Azul for one last margarita before it's all over.

They'll probably park in front of the house again.

Politics, Purpose, and Planning

In contrast, the burgeoning dispute in Leetsdale between local residents and the Quaker Valley School District involves other factors on top of just property use. 

Leetsdale Borough officials, led by Council President Joe McGurk (whose property is also in the area of interest), have publicly questioned the school district's assertions that they have communicated with the borough over the years regarding traffic and parking issues at the high school. The district has countered that they have had "informal" discussions with the borough, although it's unclear exactly who with. 

Other borough officials and residents have openly questioned the district's stated emphasis on student safety, while criticizing a rendering of the proposed traffic solution as not in keeping with the varying accounts of safety solutions discussed with various officials over the years. 

Credit: Sewickley Herald - Kristina Serafini
The Sewickley Herald has focused the bulk of their coverage on the student safety issue, specifically the practice of stopping in front of the school entrance to drop off or pick up students, which is prohibited. Herald reporter Bobby Cherry documented vehicles stopping and dropping off students during both school hours and evening events, with no apparent presence by either police or school district officials. 

Missing from the two Herald stories was any comment from Leetsdale Police about the issue. When contacted in mid-April, Chief James Santucci stated that his department has been conducting targeted enforcement at the high school at least 2 days per week, and had issued about 40 citations for impeding the flow of traffic. 

Display at Leetsdale Borough Hall
on Primary Election Day, April 24.
Per Chief Santucci, this type of enforcement typically takes two officers to conduct safely. Chief Santucci added that his officers were "getting carpal tunnel" from writing parking tickets for those areas adjacent to the high school where parking is prohibited.

The parking issues around the high school have also been a long-standing issue, especially during after-hours events. Chief Santucci stated that the owners of Quaker Village Shopping Center, adjacent to the high school, have given him assurances that students and event attendees may park in their lot, so long as they use the spaces furthest from the stores. He also noted that available spaces at the high school athletic complex often go unused in favor of street parking (illegal and otherwise), because "no one wants to walk up 'cardiac hill'".

Draft plan of  proposed QVHS traffic control measures.
Quaker Village Shopping Center is in the upper left .
Credit: QVSD / Sewickley Patch
This brought up several questions regarding parking, and the proposed traffic plan, that I posed to Martha Smith, QV's Communications Director. She relayed the following answers from Superintendent Dr. Joseph Clapper:
Q: Has the district had any official communication with the owners and/or managers of Quaker Village Shopping Center regarding this project? If so, what have the results been? Does the district have any other agreements with the Center ownership or management?
A: The District has had no communication with the property owners at the Quaker Village Shopping Center.  I am not aware of any agreements that the District has with the owners of the Quaker Village Shopping Center.  
Q:  I have heard reservations..regarding the proposed parking and traffic solution, and its lack of at least egress into the rear of the shopping center. This would appear to be of paramount concern in an evacuation or other emergency scenario. Would the district consider approaching the shopping center to establish the kind of relationship necessary to provide for a traffic management plan that addresses these concerns?
A: The district might have some interest in this discussion especially because it relates to safety.  However, obviously, it is premature to conduct such a discussion.  The Board is giving serious consideration to conducting another traffic engineering study.  I'm sure the topic of emergency evacuation will be a part of this study including recommendations.

I greatly appreciate the district's willingness to respond to these queries, but I'm not sure about how establishing any form of dialogue with a long-standing, major commercial neighbor to their property could be considered "premature".

As of last week, the District is still considering another traffic engineering study. That's a good idea - the first one seems to betray some thinking for which I cannot think of better terms than "isolationist" and "counter-intuitive". I'm trying to imagine what it would be like to try and get my car out of that lower parking lot in an emergency, with only one way in and out. 


1. These two conflicts seem to have at their root a fundamental lack of communication caused by two different sets of circumstances. In the case of the Pink House, the neighborhood wasn't considered a vital stakeholder in the process because there wasn't any legal justification for it. There appear to be strong opinions on both sides of that argument. 

As a consequence, Sewickley Borough may be encouraged to evaluate those areas of the borough that are designated for historic review. It's been 25 years since the last historic district was codified as part of their ordinance, and it's hard to fathom how an area that showcases examples such as the Pink House could be left out.

2. In the case of Leetsdale, the school district appeared to engage in some insular thinking here. Judging from the reactions of several borough officials (some with expertise in these areas), the draft plan for "improving" traffic flow, combined with a seemingly inexplicable lack of communication with the Shopping Center, made the entire initial exercise seem ham-handed.

District administration and the school board also appeared to fail by not taking into account some political factors - two elected officials, including the President of Council, having their properties potentially targeted without an attempt at communicating proactively with them, and other property owners,  in advance.

It also didn't help when the President of the School Board mentioned the "nuclear option" of eminent domain so early in the debate - it seemed to betray some thinking on his part that they're the big, bad school district, and they'll "negotiate" from a position of strength.  Perhaps Quaker Valley could do itself and its constituents a favor by refocusing themselves on the fact that they are, first and foremost, public servants.

3. In the process of reading, listening, and asking questions, I've found that the reaction of Leetsdale Borough appears to be justified, but that they may have also contributed to their own indignation. There seemed to be a lack of continuity in determining what kind of information the borough had, when they had it, and who was responsible for conveying it to the remainder of borough government, as well as citizens, for substantive action and follow-up.

This bolsters my opinion, expressed last year, that the lack of a 'point person' to represent the borough on a daily basis, and coordinate the relationships between governmental entities and other stakeholders, hampers the borough's ability to operate credibly and efficiently.

4. The media seemed to play a decisive role in communicating facts and information, and may have even become part of the story a bit. From the possible leveraging of long-term relationships, to "investigations" of when things are enforced and when they're not, the reporting was nonetheless relevant and enjoyable. The online presentations and user commentary cemented the value of both hyperlocal news-gathering and regional specialty reporting.

5. At the end of it all, it seems that reasoned (if at times impassioned) discourse has triumphed in creating a pathway for which the two sides in each of these disputes can navigate their differences, and perhaps arrive at a solution that is in the best possible interest of everyone concerned.

This is perhaps an example of how America functions best - informed citizens engaged in civil debate to air and resolve differences, with respect as a solid foundational value, and a free press (including the Internet) to make sure that the facts are available to everyone.

Have a great week ahead.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Great Day for Dollars

Fame...and shame. From March 2012, the new statue of Mario Lemieux in front of Consol Energy Center, with the disintegrating Civic Arena in the background.

As many of you know already, I have been a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins since I was a teenager. Some of my fondest memories of growing up involved Saturday night trips to Pens games. A bunch of us would catch the same 16A bus, walk up 7th Avenue to the Civic Arena, and go to the ticket window for a seat in the 'E' balcony. 

After the ticket and round trip bus fare, there was still enough of a $10 bill left for a popcorn or a drink. 

Pittsburgh Civic Arena, circa the 1960's. Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
I have a common feeling of nostalgia, with many others that I know,  about the 'Igloo'. I saw lots of other things there besides hockey - tennis, soccer, Roller Derby, concerts - once with the roof open. Its loss makes sense only to those who possess a greater vision for the vitality of the city and the region that surrounds it. That's a nice way of saying that the arena wasn't special enough to save because of the land it sat on. 

Like many other Pittsburghers, along with the ghost of perhaps the region's greatest architectural visionary - Edgar J. Kauffman - I politely reply, "Hogwash".  It doesn't make sense to go crying over spilled landmarks, though.

The arena's construction in the 1950's took out a large chunk of Pittsburgh's Hill District, and they want it back. Can't blame them, really. 

Consol Energy Center interior. 
In the arena's place is the Consol Energy Center, which I've been fortunate enough to visit twice since I moved back to Pennsylvania. I got to see the Penguins several times in Denver and Phoenix, and managed to to see my first home game there last month. I brought Leslie, who had never been to any Penguins game before.

Since my most recent hockey viewing experiences had been in Denver, while at the game I was comparing Consol to the Pepsi Center, and one word kept creeping into my thought process - tight. 

The Consol center's website claims that the venue has "the most comfortable seating arrangement in the NHL — seats up to 24 inches wide, with an accompanying increase in legroom". Those seats must be really expensive, because the very expensive ones I had were just the usual size, with a little less legroom than similarly sized arenas such as Pepsi Center. 

I also noticed that the hallways behind the seats were a bit narrower than what I've seen before. While there is a lot of space allocated to food courts, reducing wait times for consumers, there appear to be fewer public restrooms, increasing wait times for those who have consumed, and need to go

This is sort of understandable - they decided they had to wedge a full-size multi-purpose arena in between Centre and Fifth Avenues. Not as easy task to design and build, and equally not as easy to navigate around. 

In the larger scheme of things, these are minor annoyances in comparison to what you're there to experience - and for that part of it, Consol achieves what it was designed to achieve. It provides the capability to use all manner of multimedia tools and marketing gimmicks common to today's professional sporting event. I'm familiar with the 360-degree LED display rings and advertising blimps from watching the Colorado Avalanche. 

The audio-visual capabilities, leveraging of text messaging and Internet resources as part of the overall entertainment experience, sweet digs for the athletes, and the apparent commitment to making customer service a priority all seem to cement Consol's reputation as a first-class venue of its kind. I wonder what their evacuation plan looks like, though...

As a result, Pittsburgh is back on the map for all manner of sports and entertainment events - and the money that they bring in. The NCAA Basketball tournament, numerous high-end concert tours, and next year's NCAA Frozen Four - all will help support the hotel, restaurant, parking, drinking, ticket scalping, and related sub-economies within the city and the immediate metropolitan area. 

The Penguins are an exceptional organization, much improved over those intermittent lean years, what with multiple bankruptcies, changes in ownership, and uncertainty over whether the team would stay here. In remembering that last obstacle - getting a new arena - and reading about it from Colorado, it felt as if no one wanted to fail, but also that the Pens were going to do what was necessary to thrive - not just survive - on their terms. That attitude is a testament to the team's owner and most famous face.

Which brings us to the present day, as the Penguins prepare to begin another playoff run, this time what is sure to be an entertaining series against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Pens have displayed the same level of class and professionalism as that displayed by Mario Lemieux over his storied career as both a player and an owner. 

This does not sit well with a lot of other teams and media in other cities. The Pens' most recent visit to Denver was a lovefest for the visiting team. A friend that was there said it looked and sounded as if there were more Pittsburgh fans in attendance than Avs fans. 

The voices elsewhere claim that the Penguins enjoy special treatment from NHL management. Sidney Crosby is vilified , not only by the fans in other cities, but by national media both in the US and Canada. This includes NBC analyst and former coach Mike Milbury, and CBC commentator and former coach Don Cherry, who reminds me of Classy Fred Blassie of WWE fame.

Don Cherry is kind of directly responsible for a feature in the new Consol Energy Center that was first started in the old Civic Arena - the rigid tunnel that is slid out when opposing teams enter or exit the ice. 

Cherry was the coach of the Boston Bruins when, after a controversial 2-1 win over the Pens during the 1979-80 playoffs, he and his team were showered with beer and pelted with debris on the way to the locker room, which they had to cross the ice to get to in the old arena. I was there, watching (not participating) from above in the E seats. The Pens lost the series in Boston, and the tunnel made its debut the following season.

This is one of many interesting memories from many years of watching the Pens, and hockey in general. The level of excitement, intensity, speed, and endurance is something that doesn't exist in any other sport. 

To excel as a team, a marketing force, and as an entity willing and capable of significant charitable contributions and community good will, the Penguins need to be financially viable. This process has led to ticket prices that are out of reach for the majority of us on a regular basis. A fact of life, no more or less than that. 

I'll probably plant myself in front of a big screen at a local watering hole at least once or twice during this playoff run, and may check out the really big screen outside of Consol if the opportunity presents itself. 

Luckily, I'm also a baseball fan. PNC Park is another incredible stage for the interactive community theater that is the essence of the game. I also enjoy minor league baseball - Grand Junction would get a team the year I moved away. From what I've heard, the Wild Things and the Curve are also worth the trip. 

Beat 'em Bucs. Let's Go Pens.

See you in the cheap seats.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Fuzzy Fuel Marketing Math

I've been struggling with how to begin a post about fuel prices; it's kind of like writing about death and taxes. We all know that gasoline prices are high, and that a lot of it has to do with imported oil, production challenges, and speculation. I struggled with how to explore the issue from a more local perspective, where it makes sense to the consumer that has to deal with it every day.

When I lived in Colorado, I often passed by two competing convenience stores that were on opposite corners of the same busy intersection. While they sold the same brand name of gasoline, the price for regular would often differ as much as 12, and as high as 24, cents per gallon on any given day. No one would provide a straight answer as to why, and the local media bristled at the suggestion that they weren't doing enough to find out. 

Perhaps it's not really surprising that these price disparities exist at different stores, but what about a chain of outlets that are all owned by the same company?

In the photos below, I've documented prices at several different GetGo outlets - these are owned in part by Giant Eagle, whose parent is the Kroger Company in Cincinnati. They also own the King Soopers and City Market grocery chains in Colorado. On this particular day, a 10 cent price swing existed between the Moon, Leetsdale, and Ohio Township stores. 

University Boulevard, Moon Township - March 22, 6:47 PM

Ohio River Boulevard, Leetsdale - March 22, 7:13 PM
Ben Avon Heights Road, Ohio Township - March 23, 3:13 PM

I can also personally attest to a consistent, 4-to-6 cent price difference between the GetGo outlets in Wilkinsburg and Edgewood (Regent Square), and the store in Squirrel Hill, at Forward and Murray Avenues. These stores are all within 2 miles of each other - why should gas cost more on one side of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel than the other?

GetGo's website has links to convenient apps and pages for mobile devices, to show what the price of gas is for outlets that are close to your location, or where you live or work. This app will only show one store at a time, however - comparison requires a lot of back and forth. 

GetGo is a popular location for gas because of their Foodperks and Fuelperks promotions, which tie discounts on gas to grocery purchases, and vice versa. I've found, however, that I can often get better deals on groceries at other stores, and in the wake of the high cost of fuel I've been cognizant of better prices at other places, such as warehouse clubs, where the price difference exceeds the occasional Fuelperks discount. If you had a 10-cent Fuelperks discount on March 22, however, it would have gone a lot further in Ohio Township than it would have in Moon.

Of course, these practices and observations are dependent upon one's individual circumstances and preferences. For me, brand loyalty is often overrated.

Giant Eagle media relations staff did not return calls this week seeking comment about their gas pricing. A few weeks ago, I spoke with a representative of Roberts Communications, a PR firm under contract to Giant Eagle, who stated that the company would not discuss either their marketing practices or market areas for gasoline.

A sample screenshot from a mobile app - Credit:
As it seems to be happening in so many areas of our lives, the Internet is facilitating the ability of the consumer to make more informed choices. Fortunately, there appears to be an independent resource for this type of information in the form of, which enables consumer members to report gas prices so that many can potentially benefit. 

This information is available for the Pittsburgh area at Their mobile app will provide available price information for your geographic location. There are some drawbacks, though - no one is posting price information for the stations in Ambridge. Might just have to do that. 

A representative of the site was also willing to shed a little bit of light about the nature of gasoline pricing on a  more local basis. According to Gasbuddy's Gregg Laskoski, the following factors influence what we pay at the local pumps:

Taxes - There's a map online that shows the disparity between states. New York - whew. When driving cross country on I-70, I always know to fill up in Missouri. 

Sales Volume - Another factor, along with how much gasoline sales make up the actual profit a store makes from selling "convenience" items at "convenience" (read exorbitant) prices. 

Wholesaler - Gas stations buy their gas from a wholesale dealer - when the station takes delivery of a fresh load of gas, and how much they paid the wholesaler for it, will obviously affect the price. GetGo is owned in part by Guttmann Oil of Belle Vernon, Pa. - how does the use of a sole source wholesaler affect the price in different geographic areas? How should it?

Local Market Trends - Often as inscrutable as the wind, but sometimes predictable. In general, the closer you get to an airport, the higher the gas prices get. Is that in response to higher business costs, businessmen returning rental cars, or a perceived sense that those who need gas in this area can afford to pay more or will not care as much if they do? Then again, how does this explain that gas prices across the county line in Ambridge are comparable with airport-area stations, and nearly a dime more than just down the road in Leetsdale?

Applicable Law - Some states have laws that prevent retail outlets from selling items below cost to attract customers to buy other things from them - the so-called loss leader strategy. Pennsylvania is one such state - the Pa. Unfair Sales Act was pointed to by many retailers in response to the GetGo Fuelperks discounts, and warehouse clubs such as Sam's and Costco may be exempt because they restrict sales to their members only.

The Gasbuddy folks also keep a close watch on past trends and potential future developments that could affect gas prices across a region, or across the US and Canada. One such potential development is the threatened closure of a Philadelphia gasoline refinery that could negatively impact supplies, and therefore prices, across the northeast U.S., including the Pittsburgh region. 

It was reported today that there could be as many as 4 interested parties in purchasing this refinery, which could definitely help keep prices at their current unreasonable level, or keep their unreasonableness from multiplying more unreasonably than already anticipated.

Does it make sense to drive across the county for cheap gas? I don't think so. For my car,  a 10-cent per gallon savings is $1.50 - does that justify driving an extra 20 miles, or burning nearly a gallon of gas, to get that savings?

Most of us remain too involved in the day-to-day business of living to get too deep into the subtleties and complications that surround the oil business, or any other attempt to profit from the procurement and marketing of fossil fuels. All we can hope to do is make sure that we can find what we need at the most reasonable price we can, without going to unreasonable lengths. 

Perhaps it's not too much to ask of our "neighborhood" gas retailers to show some consistency in how they price their product, or at least be more up front and honest about what factors impact the prices they set. 

But before you set your sights on that clerk behind the counter, think twice - the answers, and those who can provide them, are somewhere else entirely.

Have a great month ahead.