Thursday, March 25, 2010

Re-imagining Pittsburgh (Part 2)

As alluded to in Re-imagining Pittsburgh Part 1, this post will be how I would propose consolidation among Allegheny County's municipalities.

Currently, there are 130 municipalities in Allegheny County ranging in size from the City of Pittsburgh (334,563 pop. as of Census 2000) to Trafford (pop. 25...yes, 25). Each of these municipalities has a Manager, a Tax Collector (at least until 2012), a Police Chief, a Public Works Director. And some of these places are as a big as a good sized suburban housing development. Actually, one of them IS a suburban housing development (Pennsbury Village, pop. 741). All of these places are fighting over the same, small piece of pie in terms of many park upgrades, recreation centers, and police department renovations can we sustain?

Test yourself for 12 minutes on how many of the 130 you can name with this addictive Sprocle quiz...go ahead...I'll wait.

How many did you get? Probably a lot less than you thought you would get (I got in the mid 60's).

Take a look at this map and you can see the size discrepancy by some of these boroughs and townships....

There's too much waste of salaries being spent in the little municipalities. There is a saying that every crisis is an opportunity. Well, this recession is the opportunity to help consolidate some of these municipalities that are struggling and attempt to make the services better for their residents. There are quite a few that are in Act 47 bankrupt status, or very close to it.

Dan Onorato has proposed a consolidation plan solely on school districts. I believe his plan takes the number of municipalities down to 27. That's a good start, but I believe that consolidation should happen with equivalent economic-level communities as much as possible. However, even under my plan, some "big brother communities" have to absorb a struggling neighbor. You'll also seem some groups of struggling municipalities lumped together. At least then they may have a puncher's chance of making it.

There should also be some consideration to communities that share common transportation links. Major roadways/interstates could be used by the police and public works to access the span of these newly combined communities more efficiently.

To that end, here is my proposal for consolidation:
1. City of Pittsburgh + Dormont + Mount Oliver + Homestead + West Homestead + Wilkinsburg + Rankin + Braddock + Swissvale + Millvale + Etna + Reserve + Sharpsburg (est. pop 420,950)
2. Marshall + Bradford Woods + Franklin Park + Pine + Richland (est. pop 35,423)
3. McCandless + Ross + West View (est. pop 68,850)
4. Shaler + Hampton (est. pop 47,283)
5. West Deer + Indiana (est. pop 18,372)
6. Fawn + Frazer + Harrison + East Deer + Tarentum + Brackenridge + Cheswick + Springdale Township + Springdale Borough + Harmar (est. pop 35,404)
7. O'Hara + Fox Chapel + Blawnox + Aspinwall (est. pop 18,791)
8. Avalon + Bellevue + Ben Avon + Ben Avon Heights + Emsworth + Kilbuck + Glen Osborne + Aleppo + Haysville + Glenfield (est. pop 21,602)
9. Sewickley + Sewickley Hills + Sewickley Heights + Bell Acres + Ohio + Edgeworth + Leet + Leetsdale (est. pop 14,544)
10. Moon + Crescent + Coraopolis + Findlay (est. pop 35,880)
11. North Fayette + McDonald + Oakdale + South Fayette (est. pop 26,490)
12. Oakmont + Verona + Plum (est. pop 36,975)
13. Penn Hills + Monroeville + Pitcairn (est. pop 79,847)
14. Glassport + Liberty + Port Vue + Lincoln + Elizabeth Borough + West Elizabeth + Dravosburg + Clairton + Forward + Elizabeth Township (est. pop 43,399)
15. Mt. Lebanon + Upper St. Clair + Bethel Park (est. pop 86,666)
16. Jefferson Hills + South Park + Pleasant Hills (est. pop 32,403)
17. Robinson + Pennsbury Village + Collier + Bridgeville + Kennedy (est. pop 31,140)
18. Crafton + Ingram + Thornburg + Green Tree + Rossyln Farms + Carnegie + Scott + Heidelberg (est. pop 42,912)
19. Baldwin Township + Baldwin Borough + Castle Shannon + Brentwood + Whitehall (est. pop 55,709)
20. West Mifflin + Duquesne + Whitaker + Munhall (est. pop 43,398)
21. North Versailles + Versailles + East Versailles + White Oak + McKeesport + East McKeesport + Trafford (est. pop 48,038)
22. Churchill + Wilkins + Chalfant + Turtle Creek + Wilmerding + East Pittsburgh + North Braddock + Braddock Hills + Forest Hills + Wall (est. pop 37,570)

Wow...Pittsburgh picked up 12 municipalities, most of them struggling, in bankruptcy, or on the verge of bankruptcy. This plan takes us from 130 municipalities down to 22. Way, way more manageable.

For the most part, the Rule Of Thumb Of 30,000 residents for a normal-sized municipality idea worked out. There are some exceptions. For instance, I think those scrappy kids in the Sewickley configuration will make it with just over 14,000 people.

It's not a perfect idea. But it is an idea. An it's an idea that is long past due. It is time to re-open the Pennsylvania State Constitution and make it way more easier for municipalities to consolidate than it is today.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Kous Kous Cafe - a claustrophobic treat in Mt. Lebanon

Last night, DB~ had to work late so we agreed to meet somewhere in the Mt. Lebanon area to eat. After much list-making and brainstorming, we decided on Kous Kous Cafe at 665 Washington Road (main drag through Mt. Lebo).

Kous Kous Cafe is a Moroccan restaurant that has been open for roughly 7 or 8 months. We think it is in what used to be the old Enrico Biscotti storefront. There are roughly 12 tables in the restaurant, which is about 4 too many. At one point in the meal, I stood up to let two people next to us leave. The servers are deft at manuveuring through the narrow aisle to deliver people and food to their destinations. With all of you jammed in to a small place, it gets loud.

But it's worth it.

Some of you may be wondering "So what is Moroccan cuisine?". Restaurants like Aladdin's (up the street from Kous Kous) have opened the door for usually non-adventurous eaters to try a nice, safe entry into Middle Eastern cuisine. Kous Kous has elements of the foods you would find at Aladdin's, but is a very authentic homemade style of its own.

Moroccan cuisine involves some of the more esoteric spices that many of us do not use on a daily basis, such as saffron, cumin, and turmeric. These give the rices and other dishes a more aromatic and fuller flavor that what you may be used to.

We overheard during our dinner there (not hard to do!) that the chef and his mother prepare the bases to the dishes fresh each day. After you order, everything is assembled and cooked for your meal.

One of the staples of Moroccan cuisine is the tagine. A tagine is a clay, conical pot that is not only the cooking vessel, but also the serving dish. Its' shape allows the food to cook as a stew-type of meal, while pushing the condensation off to the sides.

DB~ chose the salmon tagine. (Side note - I'm starting to think that I'm dating a kodiak bear. Her salmon consumption is off-the-charts. As long as there is either salmon or a portabello mushroom dish on the menu, I know she'll be happy wherever we go. Last year, she visited a salmon spawning ladder ground. I was concerned she was going to reach in and grab/eat one raw. She didn't.) was fantastic. When you remove the top of the tagine, you were greeted with a flavorful waft of spices from the grilled vegetables and rice. The pieces of salmon were delicate and interwoven with the wide variety of vegetables (red pepper, green pepper, onion strands, carrot chunks, potatoes, squash, and zucchini).

I went with the namesake of the restaurant...a vegetable cous cous. I don't know why I didn't go with the lamb cous cous. I'm not turning into a damn, dirty hippie, I hope. The vegetable cous cous was served in a shallow dish with a simple yet flavor-packed tomato-based sauce. A mound of delicious cous cous sat on top and placed around the perimeter were the same series of grilled vegetables as described above.

As an appetizer, we went with the Moroccan platter of hummus, roasted eggplant, and grilled peppers. This was served with pita chips for dipping.

All in all, it was a fantastic meal. Minor complaint -- it seemed as if everything was $1-2 dollars more than it should have been. For instance, my vegetable kous kous was $16...that seems a little high for a non-meat dish. The platter was $9...again same concept. However, as I said, it was worth it. It's not as if there are a lot of other Moroccan restaurants to try in the city of Pittsburgh, so give it a shot.

Just wear your deodorant and hope that your other adjoining patrons did the same.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Re-imagining Pittsburgh (Part 1)

And now for Part 1 of an infrequent and open-ended series that I would like to call:

Pittsburgh in a Perfect World

I love the city of Pittsburgh. I love cities in general, but Pittsburgh in particular. The downtown is walkable and safe. Pittsburgh is full of interesting neighborhoods like the Strip District, South Side, Shadyside, Bloomfield, and Oakland, to name just a few.

But it has its quirks. Hey, don't we all.

If you had the chance to change something about waving a magic wand over the city...what would you do? That's what I would like this post and subsequent ones (and your comments) to focus on.

For this first post, I wanted to discuss my thoughts about transportation in and around the city...
Make an Light Rail System out to the North Hills
I always used to refer to the HOV lane of I-279 as the "HIV" lane...It's there, but nobody wants it.

If this financial boondoggle of a multi-modal transportation center is going to be shoved down our throats on the North Side (complete with our own tunnel!), let's put it to good use. The HOV lane is criminally under-used, so let's re-purpose it to good use by making it a Light Rail line out not only to its current terminus, but extending it out to the intersection with I-79.

It would have limited stops along the way, perhaps only 3 or 4 at the key population nodes: McKnight Road, Camp Horne Road, and Wexford (and North Shore of course). The North Hills is already the easiest direction to travel into the city, but imagine the usage a Light Rail would get in the North.

Dissolve the Port Authority and make it a privately-owned entity
I'm not exacting breaking new ground here, but it needs to be said. There are many facets of why the Port Authority does not work, but the bottom line is that it is a beached whale. A large part of the problem is the current union structure, the pension problem, and insurance costs.

Port Authority needs to be torn down and started over. This time, make it a privately run enterprise with either a more favorable union contract or a non-union entity. It needs to be sleeker, more efficient, less stops and perhaps less routes. It should encourage more park and rides in the suburbs to concentrate pickups. It should work with planning departments to create more walkable neighborhoods in the city for urban users.

I would even like to see the new Port Authority explore water transit. Some entreprenuers are giving it a go in the Strip District during summer time months, but get serious about it with decent sized, powerful boats. There are plenty of marinas that would probably love a little extra revenue by acting as a daytime park and ride facility.

Make all planning and land development be completed at a county-wide level
There are too many municipalities in Allegheny County. Again, no surprise to many, but that will be a subject for Re-imagining Pittsburgh Part 2 probably.

However, not even discussing municipal consolidation, I'm proposing that we handle land development and land use on a county-wide basis. It can eliminate the urban sprawl and "me-first, gimme-gimme" attitude that suburbs have right now. Everyone is grasping to find tax revenues to keep their municipalities afloat, so they will develop any piece of land no matter how detrimental it may be to the greater region around them.

Case in point: Pittsburgh Mills in Frazer.
When it was proposed, it was going to be a regional mall that would attract a wide range of shoppers because of its unique-to-the-region stores. To that end, millions of taxpayer dollars were committed to adding new lanes to Route 28, new on and off-ramps at the mall's entrance points. Multiple acres of prime wetland, vital to the recharge and filtering of pollutants, were destroyed in the process.

The end result? A white elephant of a mall that was Dead on Arrival. The developer went bankrupt right before the mall opened. The unique stores proposed did not come. Today it is just another homogenous suburban mall, with the same restaurants and stores that you can find anywhere in the Pittburgh region.

Why was it a bad idea from the start? If you want to build a regional mall, you need to have a corresponding increase in regional population to support it. Pittsburgh's region does not have that. As a result, the Mills was like a shell game with a street hustler. You're just shifting the same money around from the Waterworks mall and Ross Park Mall and Monroeville Mall.

The ironic part is that Ross Park Mall, in order to compete, had to re-imagine itself as an upscale mall. Now, Nordstrom's, Burberry, Kate Spade, LL Bean, Tiffany's and other either unique or high-end stores occupy this mall, with Crate and Barrel on the way. In other words, it is exactly what the Mills was billed as being.

County wide planning would have potentially steered this development in a different direction. By taking a wider picture, it could have seen that this region did not need another milquetoast mall to suck the life out of the existing retail centers.

Please feel free to leave your comments about this topic or other future topic ideas in the comments.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bold and semi-bold predictions for the 2010 Pirates and the minors

One of the reasons I started this blog is so that I can go back periodically and re-read my stuff to see what level of idiocy I may/may not have been espousing. No one seems to back-check their opinions on the Interwebs, but I intend to go back and grade these predictions:

1. The Pirates will win 76 games -- OK, I've covered this one in my WAR-based analysis of the team. Give me a +/- of 2 wins on this one. I think the makings of a winning team will start to materialize this season.

2. Robbie Grossman's LH-hitting struggles will continue and he will give up switch hitting -- As a RH hitter his OPS was 897 and his K-rate was 24%. As a LH hitter his OPS was 679 and his K-rate was 40%. I think if the trend continues up to mid-season, he will abandon switch-hitting.

3. Quincy Latimore will continue to show that he is not a prospect -- Admittedly, I seem to have an ax to grind with Latimore. I think it's just that people want so badly for him to be a prospect when in reality he is not even close. His K/BB rate last year was 25%/5% with a .251 BA, 3 steals, and poor defense as a LF. The BB rate will not play as he continues to move up. He is already low on the defensive spectrum. He doesn't make great contact and he's not fast on the bases. Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

4. Pedro Alvarez will hit .260 with 20 HR's but a 30% K rate in the majors -- Pedro will show us enough to warrant setting the Excitement Meter to 10 in 2011. Cutch-22 spoiled us last year with an electric debut. I think Pedro will be more of a rookie with his struggles, but ready to explode in 2011. Speaking of Cutch-22....

5. Andrew McCutchen will more or less consolidate his gains in 2010 -- I'm not saying he'll have a Sophomore Slump, but rather he will put a similar line to his .286/.365/.471 2009 season. His counting stats will increase proportionally, not exponentially as some are hoping/predicting.

6. Tony Sanchez will put up a season in 2010 that will make Ryan Doumit expendable -- I think Sanchez ends 2010 in Altoona and has a season significant enough to warrant Huntington trading Doumit in the 2010 offseason. Jaramillo will hold the fort in 2011 until Sanchez is ready to come up.

7. Zach Von Rosenburg will fail to live up to the lofty expectations in 2010 -- It actually semi-pained me to type that, but I think his present stuff (high 80's FB, shaky secondary stuff) will get him lit up in full-season ball in 2010. He was always more of a projection than a present-day stud, so I think folks will see sub-par numbers and write him off. Similar to Quinton Miller last year.

8. Diego Moreno and Brock Holt are going to have breakout seasons in 2010 -- Holt seems like a slightly lesser version of Chase D'arnaud to me and you saw how his 2009 season went. I think Moreno is going to be a fast-mover this year and put himself in the prime discussion for a bullpen spot in 2011.

9. John Russell and Neil Huntington both get extensions -- I think NH deserves 3 more years to see his work through. It usually takes 3-4 years to see a draft class come up to the surface so he needs AT LEAST 2011 to see his 2008 class, right? Plus, I have agreed with the concepts of his trades, if not all the pieces received. As for Russell, I'm not thrilled about this part of the prediction, but I think they will give him 2 years (2011/2012) to actually have some impact players to work with and make a go of it. 2 more years of wanting to use a defribrulator on him during his press conferences.

10. Nutting brings in a minor partner to the ownership group -- Unless his will is made of complete iron, I think Nutting hears the natives beating the drums. He will try to appease them by finding a partner willing to infuse a small percentage of cash into the enterprise. It will be a local businessman, not Lemieux/Burkle, that has been out of the public's radar screen.

OK, there you go. 10 predictions. We'll see in October how I did.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Pedro Alvarez v. Alex Gordon - something to give you pause

I've always felt that the Royals are the "doppleganger" to the Pirates in the American League. I've been reading lately about the frustrations that some fans are feeling regarding the heretofore unimpressive career of Alex Gordon, their "3B of the future" who was going to come in and anchor their lineup for a decade.

Now, he has broken his thumb and will miss the next 3-4 weeks. He has already missed time with a variety of injuries during his first 3 seasons.

Alex Gordon was seen as a sure-thing when he was drafted and during his 1 year in the minors that he annihilated. He was also said to be above-average defensively (something not said about Pedro).

Then I looked into the numerology of it and had to suppress a little dry heaving.....
Alex Gordon drafted 1-2 in 2005
Pedro drafted 1-2 in 2008

Alex Gordon's first season in minors --- .325/.427/.588 (1.016 OPS) with 29 HR/101 RBI
Pedro's first season (combined) --- .288/.378/.535 (914 OPS) with 27 HR/95 RBI

Alex Gordon born February 10
Pedro born February 6

Alex Gordon pre-debut rated 13th best by BA
Pedro pre-debut rated 12th best by BA

Alex Gordon after debut season rated 2nd best by BA
Pedro after debut rated 8th best by BA

By all accounts, although the stats are similar, Gordon had more hype going into his debut MLB season and better numbers to back him up. To date in the majors he has hit 37 HR TOTAL with a 746 OPS.

Just gave me a little pause as to what can happen to "sure-thing" prospects.

We sort of need Pedro to be better than that. It would, you know, help things a lot.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Mojo Bistro - hidden jewel in Bellevue

Last night, DB~ and I had dinner with 4 other people at Mojo Bistro in Bellevue. It was my 3rd time eating at this place, but last night may have been the best.

It's a small, uh...bistro, I guess at the tail end of Lincoln Avenue in Bellevue before you descend into the Ben Avon/Ben Avon Heights area. The food leans Cajun-influenced, but it's not a New Orleans-style of place...there's just hints of it here and there in the dishes.

It is very small, with probably only 8 tables or so, but definitely worth checking out. I believe it is only open for dinner (5-9:30).

Last night, among the six of us, here's what we ordered:
Shrimp and Grits (2 of us) - don't turn your nose up at the word grits. These are cheesy, very fine texture grits, with a hint of bacon. The shrimp are seasoned and chargrilled on top of them.
Lobster Ravioli (2 of us) - I tried one of DB~ and the sauce was fantastic. They're served on a skinny rectangular plate and you get 4-6 of them, I think.
Roasted Pork Tenderloin - I've had this before and it is fantastic. The pork is served in 3 medallions, each resting on a bed of rice and surrounded by sweet potatoes that are the best you will ever have. These are the sweet potatoes that I tried to reverse engineer on New Year's Eve.
Mojo Crabcakes - You get 2 crabcakes rakishly piled on top of each other with a delicious aoili drizzled over top. I don't remember what the sides were as the person eating it was across the table from me.

I also had a cup of creole gumbo at the start of the meal, which consisted of crawfish meat, andouille sausage, shrimp, rice, and the broth. It was fantastic.

We finished the night (and 2 bottles of wine, it's BYOB) with 3 desserts that we all shared. One was a ridiculously good Bailey's soaked cake of some sort, the other was Coconut Cream Pie, and the third was a pecan pie.

If you are looking for something different, check out this diamond in the rough in Bellevue.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Compare and Contrast - Being a Pirate fan to being a Pens fan

This may sound strange coming from a guy who is so in tune with the minor leagues of baseball and passionate about the inner workings of MLB, but my favorite pro sport to watch is hockey. Specifically, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It's a weird dichotomy being both a Pirates fan and a Pens fan. Right now, they are on completely opposite sides of the competition spectrum.

Last night, the Pens made their second trade deadline deal in as many days, this time getting Ponikarovsky from TOR for minor leaguer Luca Caputi and spare part defenseman Martin Skoula. It is clear that Ray Shero (top 5 GM in hockey) has set the Pens up for another hopefully-protracted march to the Stanley Cup.

But think about it from Toronto's perspective. They traded a soon-to-be-free agent for a bench player and a prospect. Wow, in this case the Toronto Maple Leafs are the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Leafs are trading anything not bolted down to the Air Canada Centre for draft picks and young players. They are building the farm, the same way the Pirates are trying to build theirs.

As a Pens fan, they can burn the whole farm system down and trade as many draft picks as they want...Flags Fly Forever. It's weird being on the other side of the argument in this sport. Here, the Pens are pretty much like the Yankees or Red Sox. Perennial contender, talent envied (and at the same despised) by the rest of the league, wealthy owner, soon a new arena, and willing to empty the farm to make a run at a title. By getting players from the have-nots of the league.

Recently, I found the site It's like the Baseball America for hockey. At the beginning of this season, they ranked the Pens' farm 28th out of 30. And I don't care. I look at our prospects and think "That guy can fill a role on the 3rd line. That defenseman can be our 4th, 5th, or 6th d-man." It's because we don't NEED our farm to produce stars. The stars are already on the roster and locked up for good cap numbers for long times. We just need to fill the supporting cast around them for the next 3-4 years. And that's all our farm needs to do.

I hope that in the coming days, perhaps in 2011, the Pirates can stop being like the Maple Leafs and start being like the Pens. Use our farm to obtain the missing pieces we need to make a run at a division title or a championship.

Maybe then my "sports brain" won't be so schizophrenic.