Community groups call for city to release Amazon bid


Garrett Aguilar

(TPN file illustration)

Members of nine community groups gathered at City Hall Thursday morning in front of a sky-blue banner declaring “The City of Pittsburgh Welcomes You.” The crowd demanded that the City release the conditions of its proposal to Amazon.

Jules Lobel, Chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Law Department, was part of this crowd. He filed an amicus brief Thursday morning on behalf of the Community Power Movement, the ACLU, The Thomas Merton Center, The Hazelwood Initiative, Urbankind, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, the Pittsburgh Human Rights City Alliance and the Penn Plaza Tenants Association to request that Pittsburgh city officials release the bid they sent to the electronic commerce company on October 19, 2017.

An amicus brief is legal document written by someone who is not a party to a case — and may or may not have been solicited by a party — who assists a court by offering information, expertise or insight that has a bearing on the issues in the case.

“We think that the community perspective should be transparently presented to the public,” Lobel said at the press conference during the event.

Protesters against Amazon stood behind him while he spoke, holding signs that read “Our Families Can’t Move into Your Empty Promises,” “Don’t Drive Us Out,” and “Seattle Median Home Prices Up $43,000 Last Month.”  

Pittsburgh is one of 238 cities that submitted a bid for Amazon’s HQ2 during the fall of 2017. The tech giant has promised the winning city an estimated $5 billion in capital investment and 50,000 jobs that would pay an average of $100,000 in exchange for incentives. City officials in favor of Amazon argue that the investment will stimulate the city’s economy, while those against the bid argue that the tech giant will gentrify Pittsburgh and drive low-income residents out of the city.

Laura Reed of Pittsburghers for Public Transit claimed that transparency is essential as Amazon’s move to Pittsburgh would intensify Pittsburgh’s affordable housing crisis.

“If Amazon makes a decision to come here, hundreds of developers will call the next day and offer to buy houses so they can flip them later on,” Reed said. “Amazon will exacerbate our affordable housing crisis a hundred fold.”

Helen Gerhardt of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations agreed.

“This city has a solemn duty to affirm Fair Housing,” Gerhardt said, citing the recent 50th Anniversary of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which promises equal housing opportunities for all regardless of race, religion or national origin.

Pittsburgh’s Open Records Officer Celia Liss rejected PublicSource’s Right-to-Know request for the Amazon bid on November 27, 2017. Community Power Movement Co-Chair Jackie Smith also spoke about her anger at the opaque bidding process during the conference.

“The secrecy of the bidding process is a fundamental threat to our democratic rights,” Smith said. “When Mayor Peduto ran for office, he promised that this would be the most transparent administration in the history of Pittsburgh. He has not kept that promise.”

Part of PublicSource’s Right-to-Know request includes emails exchanged between Mayor Bill Peduto, his chief of staff Kevin Acklin, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Allegheny Conference CEO Stefani Pashman between Sept. 1, 2017 and Oct. 19, 2017.

Peduto, Acklin, Fitzgerald and Pashman presented themselves as leaders of the city’s effort to attract Amazon at a press conference on October 19, 2017. According to a recent report, Pashman, Acklin, and Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Robert Rubinstein signed Non-Disclosure Agreements that grant them the right to keep information about Pittsburgh’s request for HQ2 under wraps for up to five years. Timothy McNulty, a spokesman for Peduto, declined to comment on the NDAs.

Vic Walczak, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania, also spoke at the event. He said the ACLU would not take a position on whether Amazon should move to Pittsburgh but was there personally to support the group’s effort to make Pittsburgh’s bid transparent.

“This bid is going to create an earthquake,” Walczak said. “There are not legal reasons for the suppression of this information.”

The Right-to-Know Request also included the responses the city got when it called for property owners to submit their sites for consideration in the search for Amazon sites as well as a detailed list of all of the partners, paid or unpaid, who worked to prepare the bid to Amazon. City officials have touted Hazelwood Green as a site for HQ2, where a number of homes sold for under $10,000 in 2010.

“If Hazelwood is chosen as the site, it will bear a large part of the burden,” Lobel said.

Mel Packer, Co-Chair of the Community Power Movement, doesn’t enjoy the thought of Amazon being anywhere in Pittsburgh due to the company’s violation of workers’ rights at its warehouses across the world.

“Amazon is terrible to workers,” Packer said. “They’re giving away the city without telling us how they’re giving it away.”