A hidden 91st neighborhood in Pittsburgh stretches in plain sight across the city, including everything from barren lots to vine-covered homes to park land to the seat of city government.
More than 8,000 properties owned either by the city or its Urban Redevelopment Authority are piling up in so-called hold categories, meaning they aren’t listed as available for sale, according to records obtained by the Pittsburgh Union Progress. The publicly owned land adds up to 3,100 acres, or more than 9% of land within city limits. It would form the largest neighborhood by area, at almost seven times the size of Schenley Park.
Nearly 60% of properties owned by the city, and 40% by the URA, are in one of the two largest hold categories: “Hold for Study” and “URA Transfer.” On average, the government purchased a Hold for Study property in 1971, meaning it’d be getting to retire in a few years if it were a person. Most of the URA Transfer properties were acquired within the past 15 years.
Little information is available publicly about how, why or when a property gets shunted into a hold category, or ways it could later be taken out, and that’s part of a larger system for managing government-owned properties that City Controller Michael Lamb said is a “huge problem.”
“The city is just miserably failing at this right now,” he said.
Although held properties aren’t advertised on the city’s for-sale website, they can still be purchased if someone sends in an application and it’s determined a hold is no longer needed. Gainey administration officials told the Union Progress that they are beginning a review of all city-owned land, hoping to clear holds where possible and list more for sale. The city planning department recently hired a new staffer to work on vacant properties.
Many of the held properties are in economically struggling, predominantly Black parts of the city, including Homewood and the Hill District. City Councilors R. Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess, whose districts include those neighborhoods, did not respond to requests for comment.
The city’s Hold for Study category was created so long ago that its exact origins aren’t clear, according to finance director Jennifer Gula. It was generally intended by the late “map guru” Bill Waddell as a way to save city-owned properties for a kind of mini-park called a greenway, or another public purpose, but it has since morphed into a larger catch-all.
Not all of the Hold for Study land is buildable, with about 37% of the properties carrying a hillside zoning designation that prevents most types of development. About 20% are zoned as parks.
In some cases, a hold seems to be applied incorrectly. The Union Progress identified about 700 city properties marked as Hold for Study that are almost certainly meant to be owned permanently, including the City-County Building and dozens of public safety facilities such as firehouses and ambulance stations, as well as playgrounds and swaths of several parks.
Lamb said the city should go back through its list of properties and make sure they are labeled properly.
“You would expect to see some of that,” he said. “But, boy, 700 properties, that’s a lot of properties to have mislabeled.”
The city’s database also includes several hundred properties that it does not own, the Union Progress found after reviewing property ownership information on file with the county.
Gula told the Union Progress that a committee with representatives from across the city government is being formed to review all properties, and they already held an initial meeting several weeks ago. She said that the work of reviewing properties is highly technical and time intensive.
“I’ve started doing some of it myself, but you need staff people to literally sit there and just take blocks of properties and look at the information that’s there and what the tags are,” Gula said.
Tyler Schaub, who helps organize a collaboration among community development organizations called the Vacant Property Working Group, told the Union Progress that the city should transfer properties deemed suitable for redevelopment to the land bank. The agency is designed to acquire vacant or abandoned properties and clear tax lien liabilities, then get them back on the open market for community-minded redevelopment.
“With the need in Pittsburgh right now for so many things that require land, like green spaces, green stormwater storage and affordable housing, there’s a lot of property available that should be moving forward,” he said.
M.L. Meier, the URA’s real estate director, told the Union Progress that the agency uses the Hold for Study category differently than the city. She said it reflects properties where there’s currently no “specific plan” for how they will be used.
“It doesn’t mean we won’t do something with it if there is an opportunity,” she said.
Properties in the URA Transfer category are due to be sent from the city to the URA, which takes on larger redevelopment initiatives.
The reasoning behind holds aren’t always clear, and nearly all of URA Transfer properties on the city’s books are waiting for the process of actually being transferred to begin.
Under a similar, now-discontinued program called the property reserve, community groups could ask to reserve and then purchase city-owned properties for redevelopment projects. A group could only call dibs for up to five years, while properties categorized as URA Transfer can remain set aside indefinitely.
Meier said the URA has over the years identified properties that “could be beneficial to be able to start recycling” and asked the city to acquire them.
“The idea was this was something that someday someone would want to redevelop, and that they would come to the URA and we would get that property and convey it to the redeveloper,” she said.
Lamb, who examined URA Transfer properties as part of a larger audit conducted in 2019, derided them as a “relic” of redevelopment practices from the 1940s and 1950s.
“We’re talking about properties that they’ve had in that category … for like 25 or 30 years,” he said. “It gets to the point of, ‘Let’s get serious about what’s going on here and see if there’s something legitimately moving forward.’”
Gula said the city and URA are working to improve the URA Transfer process going forward, including by requiring paperwork clearly outlining why a property should be acquired and the intended end use.
Kyle Chintalapalli, the city’s chief economic development officer who also chairs the URA board, told the Union Progress that those improvements are part of a commitment to build a system that “efficiently and effectively” processes properties.
“We have to do it at scale, given the number of properties we have,” he said.
Some city-owned properties are now attracting more attention from officials after lawsuits were filed in county Common Pleas court to try and take over about 80 of them. A review of city and court records by the Union Progress found most are categorized as Hold for Study, URA Transfer or “Unknown Public Use.”
Among those seeking to become court-appointed conservators, charged with fixing up the properties and potentially selling them, are private investors, such as Penn Pioneer Enterprises and Wholesale Properties, but also the development group East Liberty Development Inc.
Lamb said he found the lawsuits to be a “natural conclusion” after decades of the city using tax sales to acquire properties, often without a clear plan for maintenance or eventually restoring them to the tax rolls. He added that he’s concerned some of the lawsuits may have been filed by people looking to fix and flip properties, rather than hold on to them for the long term or community-minded purposes.
“If the government and the agencies who are responsible for this are not moving properties, at some point somebody’s got to do something,” Lamb said. “For the URA or anyone else to be surprised by this shouldn’t be the case.”
Chintalapalli declined to speak directly about the lawsuits, but he reiterated that a fresh look at city-owned properties on hold could free up more of them to be sold.
“The hope is by setting up a structure and a system that is clear and easily accessible, that folks will avail themselves of acquiring properties through those avenues — again, be it through the city, be it through the land bank, be it through the URA — in order to advance projects that are in line with what communities and what local neighborhoods want to see,” he said.