One of the city of Pittsburgh’s most important departments, urban planning, will have a new director in early February, WESA has learned. It is unclear whether current director Andrew Dash will remain with the department in another role. He did not respond to a request for comment.
The move will be one of the first high-level personnel changes in former Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration in the era of Mayor Ed Gainey: Director of Public Safety Wendell Hissirch revealed he had received his own walking papers at the end of last year. The change in town planning is an early sign that Gainey will approach development differently from his predecessor.
The city had no comment at this time, a spokesperson said Thursday afternoon.
And while city planning is a less visible function than public safety, the department is “integral to how the city works…to accomplish what we want to see and what neighborhoods want to see,” Councilman Bobby Wilson said. , who leads the Land Use Planning and Economic Development Committee.
Beyond updating and managing the city’s zoning code, which ultimately determines what can be built where, the department is responsible for building long term projects and collecting the data needed to do so, Wilson said, “Green infrastructure, sustainability, affordable housing, equitable access to public transit.” And then: “How can we make informed decisions about this data?”
Peduto appointed – and the city council confirmed – Dash as director of urban planning in June 2020: he had served as interim director after Ray Gastil left the top job in 2019 for a post at Carnegie Mellon University. Dash himself joined the department in 2008 as a senior planner and was named deputy director in 2014, according to his LinkedIn page.
During her time with the department, Dash helped push for inclusive zoning, a tool to create affordable housing. He also helped lead an effort to expand the city’s housing supply with a pilot project that allowed people to build additional units, called secondary suites, on their properties.
When informed of Dash’s impending departure from the department’s leadership position, Wilson said he would be sad to see him no longer lead it.
“I had a great working relationship with him. Andrew Dash is awesome,” he said. But “I hope [the administration] will make the right decisions, and I hope to have a solid working relationship with the new director.
Wilson said he hopes the future of the city’s vacant and derelict lands will be a bigger priority for the department going forward. While he acknowledged that the mission also falls under the city’s land reserve, he said city planners can play a role in creating a strategic plan.
The planning department is also working directly with neighborhoods to help guide their change, said Joanna Deming, executive director of Citizens Councils Fineview & Perry Hilltop.
Deming likened the city of Pittsburgh to a board game, where city officials set the rules and serve as the bank.
“Urban planning is the architect and designer of the game,” she said. “They determine what the roster looks like…and they also qualify the players.”
For example, city planning plays a key role in determining which neighborhoods are next to create a community plan that will then be adopted by the city.
“These plans are meant to inform investment” and guide development projects that gain city approval, Deming said. “If there is to be a fair investment, there must be a fair distribution of plans and commitment.”
Most community organizations are understaffed and under-resourced, so they rely on city planning for advice on how to get projects through complicated approval processes, said Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.
“Development is controversial,” he said, and planning is at its best when it comes to a neutral arbiter. “We are trying to decrease the level of distrust that exists towards the government in our community.”
Swartz said a new planning director could help change people’s perception of where the city is headed. This, he said, could “reduce the level of suspicion that rich neighborhoods are going to stay rich forever and poor neighborhoods are going to stay poor forever.”