Editorial: Gainey foot-dragging on UPMC permits sends message to private sector: Get lost

The Editorial Board / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Revised permits for the new UPMC Presbyterian hospital are slowly working their way through the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections (PLI). But the dangerous and needless mid-construction delay should never have happened. And similar incidents must not happen in the future.

Large construction projects in Pittsburgh have continued without delay while contractors worked through any permitting issues that arose. These might include changes to the scope of work that are typical on large sites, delays within the city’s byzantine bureaucracy or technical snafus in documentation provided by contractors. This dynamic system allowed construction to occur without interruption, keeping workers consistently on the job, despite the often slow pace of the bureaucratic process.

But three Thursdays ago, the Gainey administration suddenly called an audible: Despite several months of safe construction during which some permits had been in flux, a PLI inspector — a different inspector from the one who had been at the site every day — shut down part of the site due to “lack of permits.” As a result, about 150 workers were sent home for multiple days, losing hours and income.

Besides threatening the livelihoods of these union workers, the shutdown actually caused unsafe conditions at the site, as concrete for one floor was only half-poured. This led to lopsided stress on parts of the structure that lasted longer than it was meant to, while PLI made the workers wait.

Despite early promises from the Mayor’s Office to “expedite” approvals, as of this writing only some of the relevant permits have been processed by PLI, which has asserted its right to take the maximum amount of time allowed under law to consider the revised applications. Thankfully, however, these approvals have allowed most construction to resume, and workers to get paid.

Whether this ongoing and tedious exercise of government power was targeted at Gainey administration foe UPMC, at the behest of SEIU Healthcare, can’t be said for certain. But it was unprecedented to shut down a safe job site on a project of this magnitude based on paperwork technicalities. For the sake of workers now and the people who will benefit from the project when it’s finished, and to preserve Pittsburgh’s reputation as a place to do business, it can’t happen again.

Pittsburgh city government needs a restoration of a spirit of partnership with the private sector. The city should take note of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s reforms in Harrisburg, which he describes as “government at the speed of business” and include reduced permitting deadlines for agencies. If those agencies miss those deadlines, applicants get their money back.

The Gainey administration views not only UPMC but property developers and other businesses as adversaries to be brought to heel rather than partners in Pittsburgh’s prosperity. City departments should regard their purpose as helping their partners achieve legitimate goals — including building safely and efficiently — not looking for ways to frustrate them. 

Because, eventually, people and businesses will simply go elsewhere for better treatment.