Did You Miss the Candidate Night? Here’s a Roundup of Their Comments

We had a great showing on Thursday’s Meet the Candidate Night. Thank you to all of the candidates who participated and all of our neighbors who joined. For those who couldn’t attend, we’re providing a roundup below of comments from the candidates. 

A reminder that the primary election is on May 16. If you aren’t registered, the deadline to do so is May 1. The Allegheny County Voter Registration website has more information about registering and applying for a mail in ballot. 


Incumbent Deb Gross is running against Jordan Botta. Jordan was sick and unable to attend the meeting but he sent a statement highlighting some of the issues that are important to him. Part of Botta’s statement follows: 

“I have heard many concerns of residents of Highland Park and I sincerely hope to help you with them. The open air firing range, stadium lights which keep neighbors awake at night, small business and rent issues, a lack of engagement and infrastructure in your beautiful park, mudslides in the pool – I have heard so many frustrations and I deeply feel for you as residents of Highland Park and District 7. I am taking all of these issues very seriously, and have given them my full attention. I have already, as a candidate, held multiple conversations and attended several meetings with residents and stakeholders, the vast majority of which have been productive. 

What I can promise you is that should I be elected to serve you, residents of Highland Park and all of District 7 will see an administration that is more accessible, more accountable, and more proactive than any in recent memory. Civic service is my background, and it is where my heart resides as well. It is the job of a councilperson to advocate directly on your behalf and I promise fully to do so should I be fortunate enough to serve you.”

Botta shared his email address and phone number (412-206-9294) and invited community members to reach out with questions or concerns that he might have addressed during the candidates’ night. 

Deb Gross

Gross, who has served Highland Park and neighboring communities as our city council person for nine years, emphasized that she aims to bring the voice of the people she represents to City Council. Many of the priorities she discussed are oriented around the topic of affordability, with housing affordability a particularly prominent issue. Actions she touched on include:

  • “Operationalizing affordable housing:” One example of operationalizing affordable housing is inclusionary zoning, where a portion of units are required to have lower rent. Lawrenceville, Polish Hill and Bloomfield have adopted these policies for companies that are building large developments. Gross supports bringing inclusionary zoning to neighborhoods that are experiencing building booms. 
  • Restricting corporate ownership of housing: Seventy percent of recent home sales in Pittsburgh were to institutional buyers, according to Gross. While some of those buyers will be house flippers, others may be corporations that plan to rent the houses as short-term rentals, on sites like Airbnb. “If you don’t want corporate ownership renting out party houses in your neighborhood, you can change that by zoning,” she said. She is helping to draft legislation right now, while doing research on how other cities have limited what she described as Airbnb cannibalizing the housing stock. 
  • Accessory dwelling units: ADUs are typically small houses that are built behind a house. Currently, it’s illegal to build ADUs in Pittsburgh, according to Gross. Allowing for these small homes to be built, “with control,” could help people age in place and potentially boost the amount of affordable housing in the city, she said. 
  • Cooperative and collective ownership: These systems allow people to buy shares into housing, gradually building equity in home ownership. Gross hopes to make this type of plan easier to implement. 
  • The Land Bank: Gross is in favor of streamlining the process of making available land that is owned by the city but she wants to make sure that any change in the process ensures people in the community have a voice in the process. 

Other topics Gross mentioned include:

  • Parks: She personally voted against the parks tax because she didn’t support the idea of a nonprofit being the allocator of funds and she’s pleased with the legislation that requires the tax revenue to be budgeted like any other capital expenditure. More broadly, Gross wants to double the park system budget to support parks and recreation centers, programming for kids after school and summer programming for kids — all of which were cut when the city was near bankruptcy, she said. 
  • Reducing cost burdens on lowest income households: Gross said she has been involved with utility affordability by, for instance, preventing PWSA from cutting off water, supporting investments in childcare businesses and supporting small businesses. 

Finally, Gross said that she’s working on a visit from Mayor Gainey to Highland Park to discuss hot topics of concern. The event will likely be April 11, potentially at the Union Project. 


Devon Taliaferro

Taliaferro is our incumbent school board member, having been in place since December, 2019. Her priorities center on student and staff health and safety and mental health. She also responded to questions on two important topics: 

  • Possible school closings, including Fulton: Taliaferro said she was the board member who made the motion to table the school closure decision that was announced during the pandemic. “The reason why I made that motion is because there wasn’t community voice and input,” she said. “If we aren’t including the voices of parents, of students, of staff and other key stakeholders, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.” While she acknowledged that there’s a discussion that has to be had about school closures given dropping enrollment, that discussion should include the perspective of schools being a community asset, not solely centered on the age and cost of buildings. 
  • Charter Schools: “Charters are bleeding public schools dry right now,” Taliaferro said. She wants to advocate for charter reform so that so much of the school budget doesn’t go to charter tuition and potentially to reinstate a charter reimbursement. 

Ron Sofo

A resident of Morningside since 1985, Sofo said he has worked as a school superintendent, school counselor, high school principal, middle school assistant principal and charter school CEO. He said despite being at the high end comparatively in terms of spending on schools, Pittsburgh ranks low when it comes to educational results, and he wants to change that. In response to questions, he touched on the following topics:

  • How to close the gap between Black and white kids: Sofo believes that kids require a better start at a younger age. His ideas include offering quality childcare for kids starting at age three, making the Head Start program available to all kids, and creating a system for ensuring that teachers have relationships with individual kids for multiple years. Understanding a student’s family situation and using that information “as assets, not liabilities,” is an approach he supports. 
  • Possible school closings: “Those discussions should be transparent from the beginning,” he said. However, Sofo said the focus should be on modernizing and growing the district such that students want to not only stay but come back when they have kids of their own. “Now, we’re managing it for decay,” he said. Any discussions about closures should start with conversations about goals and priorities, with children at the center of the decision making. 
  • Charter schools: Sofo said that charter schools have not lived up to the goal for them to be laboratories for innovation. Before deciding to run for a school board seat, Sofo said he offered to lend his experience as a charter CEO to help create a culture of innovation at Pittsburgh schools “so they never have another request for a charter,” he said. He also thinks that charter schools should be required to show a positive impact and if they don’t, “be put on notice or closed.”


There are six people running for the magistrate position to replace Mik Pappas, who is not running for reelection. Five of them spoke at the meeting; HPCC was not able to find contact information for Anthony Vaccarello so he was not invited to attend. 

Kate Lovelace: Lovelace has 18 years practicing as an attorney, including five as a public attorney. She believes there aren’t enough liberal, progressive magistrates in the city and that judges tend to get desensitized. She wants the people who come in front of her as a magistrate and feel that they have a chance at winning. She also said she recognizes that the fees and fines are significant for some people. She also said she hoped to have hours outside of regular business hours to accommodate parents and students. 

Potential for the magistrates office to serve as a community space: Lovelace noted that the space can’t be used for political events but she thinks it’s possible for it to be used as a community space. 

Philip Roberts: Roberts grew up on Negley Ave., was a life guard at the Highland Park pool and participated in the Pittsburgh Promise program. He’s involved with a number of community organizations including EECM and Open Hand Housing Ministries. He thinks of being a magisterial district judge as a way to serve the community. He said his law experience includes housing law, civil law, criminal law and issues related to the education system. Roberts emphasized the importance of a court system built on fairness and impartiality, and seemed to criticize that there are no limits on contributions to judicial races, with some candidates receiving money from law firms. 

Potential for the magistrates office to serve as a community space: Roberts said he has a plan to make the court more accessible and engaging including building a website, holding night court once a week, creating easily accessible scheduling and offering online access to forms. He envisions the court engaging with the community potentially via town hall meetings and quarterly legal seminars and clinics, potentially on topics such as livable housing conditions. 

Casey Mullen: Mullen currently has a law practice focusing primarily on criminal defense. Growing up in Lawrenceville and currently living in Morningside, Mullen described himself as a unique candidate due to his background. He was arrested at 19 for drug delivery and found recovery in jail. Once released, he got into law school after four tries, ultimately graduating near the top of his class. He believes his background offers him a true understanding of the challenges of many of the people who appear before the court. 

“Magistrate district courts are extremely important,” he said, since it is the only exposure to the court system for a lot of people and is also the first step in criminal proceedings. “I think the court should be empathetic and take time to understand the facts and render an appropriate decision. It’s a difficult job if you do it well,” he said. 

Mullen said he wouldn’t label his approach as progressive. “My approach is everyone who comes before the court should know they have a fair hearing regardless of who they are and… what stature they have in the community,” he said. “I believe in defendants’ rights, I don’t believe in cash bail but I don’t believe everyone charged with a crime should be released. It’s important that the public is safe. That’s what makes this job difficult.” 

Potential for the magistrates office to serve as a community space: Mullen said it’s important to host events that support ensuring the community understands their rights, how courts function and how the courts impact every day life.

Rachel Rosnick: Rosnick is a full-time legal aid attorney representing juveniles and young adults in magistrate courts. She’s been in front of every magistrate in the city. “I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, what usually does and what never does,” she said. Rosnick emphasized how dramatically the “cycle of fines” that often is kicked off through a magistrate hearing can derail someone’s life. She has three priorities:

  • Ending the school to prison pipeline: Rosnick thinks that the current process when a young person ends up in front of the magistrate often essentially makes matters worse because it requires the young person to return and essentially be punished repeatedly, even in circumstances when the initial issue has long since been resolved. 
  • Cycle of fines and fees: “For most of my clients, a $450 fine might as well be a million dollars,” she said. Once someone can’t pay that fee, penalties and other costly repercussions stack up, only making matters worse. Magistrates have the ability to require a person to pay what they can or if they can’t afford it to waive some of the costs. 
  • Make the court less traumatizing and more respective: Rosnick has seen magistrates schedule multiple people for 8 a.m. and then stroll in at 9 a.m. She would treat people with respect. 

Potential for the magistrates office to serve as a community space: Rosnick envisions holding events for landlord/tenant issues, expungement clinics and bail reform town halls. 

Richard McCague: Born and raised in Pittsburgh, McCague has 30 years experience as a lawyer, including 14 years as a public defender. “I know what you end up having to do to run a good magistrates office,” he said. 

When asked, McCague acknowledged that his license was suspended around 17 years ago. He was without his license for a while but it was reinstated. However, when pressed, McCague also noted that his license was suspended again in 2021 because he was held in criminal contempt. He’s currently in litigation related to the suspension. 

Potential for the magistrate’s office to serve as a community space: McCague said he thinks it sounds like a good idea to be able to allow the space to be used for community events. He noted that the there are likely some regulations about what the space can and can’t be used for but that he’s supportive of uses that are allowed by law. 

HP neighbor plans to conquer invasive vines, and you can help

By Diane Averill

They’re creeping all over the place and no doubt, you’ve seen them: those drooping masses of invasive vines that strangle our public trees.

HP resident Karen Toole plans to do something about it and she’s counting on community volunteers to join her, in celebration of Earth Day. A floral designer and Penn State master gardener, Karen has secured DPW permits for vine cutting and removal from the area around the Highland Park Reservoir on two Saturdays, April 15 and April 22, from 10 a.m. to noon. (Similar events will take place at the Spring Hill Greenway on the North Side.)

But it won’t be all work and no play. On the succeeding Sundays, April 16 and April 23 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, and April 23 at Phipps Garden Center participants (including children) will be led in making vine spheres which they can then take home or contribute to a still-in-the-works public art installation. Tools and materials will be provided for all events, purchased with the proceeds of the GoFundMe that Karen has set up.

At each vine-cutting site, Karen will have fellow master gardeners on hand to answer questions and be on the lookout for the destructive spotted lanternfly, ready to direct isolation and disposal of the invasive pest. Of critical importance, open-bed trucks will be needed to transport the vines from the park to the workshop sites. Karen hopes that local business owners and contractors will step up to provide this vital service.

A Tree Pittsburgh study found that from 2010 to 2015, Pittsburgh lost 6.2 per cent of its tree canopy. While much of that loss accrues to development, it nonetheless makes every remaining tree more valuable.

Vines destroy trees not just by blocking sunlight to prevent leafing out, they can trap moisture that leads to disease and bug infestations. Some vines will girdle a tree so tightly that circulation of water and nutrients is choked off.

On frequent walks with her Australian shepherd, Cruz (named for his birthplace of Santa Cruz, CA), Karen has paused to pull down some vines from time to time. The city does what it can, she says, but the problem is too big for any one entity to solve. Thus, she hopes that this initial “conquering of the vines,” as she calls it, will be become an annual event reaching a larger area. “We have more control,” she said, “if we work together.”

To volunteer or for more information, go to Karen’s business website or Instagram.

Tonight Is Light Up Night!

Check out details below on which shops will have specials and where to find the best light displays. You can also download the map or pick up a printed one in select locations while supplies last.

Super Shops (with Light-up Night Specials) & Sparkle Spots

Numbers in “( )” correlate to numbers on the Light-up Night map

*Hard copies of Light-up Maps available at these locations, while supplies last

*(1) Bryant Street Parklet:  Winter wonderland photo-ops

(2) Casa Brasil: 5% off take-out with the code “light-up” or 10% off dine-in orders of $50 or more with a paper copy of the Light-up Night map (5904 Bryant Street)

*(3) Panache:  30% off any purchase (5910 Bryant Street)

*(4) Gallery Ama:  Free holiday ornaments (1221 Millbrae Way)

*(5) Tazza D’oro:  Free brownies & blondies (1125 Highland Ave)

*(6) St. Andrews Church:  Free cookies and hot cocoa, plus have your picture taken with St. Nicholas and enjoy the lights and trees in the sanctuary (5801 Hampton Street)

(7) Pittsburgh Theological Seminary:  Enjoy the lighted trees out front and help yourself to candy canes that will be there for visitors; cars are welcome to drive through (616 N. Highland Ave)

(8) Winterton Street: Lined with luminaries

Plus treats at (9) 5710 Hampton St. and treats & Santa at (10) 920 Sheridan Ave!

The HPCC Dictionary

Do you know your HPCC from your HPCDC from your HPGC?

Whether you’re new to Highland Park or you’ve been here for a few years, you’ve probably encountered a term or acronym used in the neighborhood that you didn’t immediately recognize. Here’s a guide to help clarify the different entities and spaces that come up when you live in Highland Park.

HPCC ➡ Highland Park Community Council
We are the oldest continually operating neighborhood organization in the City of Pittsburgh and are run completely by volunteers. We host monthly community events, publish a monthly newsletter and this blog. Our mission is to take a leading role in the community activities that address issues of common interest and concern and that promote a safe and healthy neighborhood for the diverse residents of Highland Park. Learn more on our website.

HPCDC ➡ Highland Park Community Development Corporation
The HPCDC works to develop vacant and idle lots around Highland Park. They have had a huge hand in the revitalization of the Highland Park business district on Bryant St. The HPCC often works with the HPCDC, but the two organizations are separate entities. Learn more on its website.

HPGC ➡ Highland Park Garden Club
The HPGC supports individual gardeners, promotes garden education, and provides neighborhood garden and horticultural activities. Learn more on its website.

HPELBPC ➡ Highland Park/East Liberty Bike Ped Committee
The HPELBPC is a group of residents dedicated to supporting infrastructural improvements for bikers and pedestrians. Learn more on its Facebook page.

MACC ➡ Morningside Area Community Council
MACC is the mirror neighborhood organization to the HPCC for the neighboring Morningside neighborhood. Like the HPCC, MACC is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to improving and supporting the Morningside community. Learn more on its website.

BGC The Garfield-Bloomfield Corporation
The Garfield-Bloomfeild Corporation is a community organization founded in 1976 to address physical and economic declines in the neighborhood. It has a strong focus on ensuring affordable housing in neighboring Garfield and runs a number of programs to support low-income families. Learn more on the website.

ELDI East Liberty Development Inc.
The East Liberty Development Inc. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing East Liberty. It is involved in development projects in the neighborhood and invests in and supports projects aimed at supporting and creating benefit to residents of East Liberty. Read more about the projects ELDI supports on its website.

EECM East End Cooperative Ministry
On the border of Highland Park and East Liberty, the East End Cooperative Ministry provides food for people who need it, runs a shelter and other housing programs, and offers programs to enable people to secure steady employment. Additional details are available on its website.

The ListServ
This long-standing email-based mailing list is run by a neighborhood volunteer. It is one of the most active ways neighbors communicate digitally with each other. Though it’s not run by the HPCC, all HPCC public communication is posted to this list. To sign up, go to mail.highlandparkpa.com

The Parklet or Bryant St. Parklet
In 2020, the HPCC worked with the HPCDC and Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority to set aside a corner lot at Bryant St. and N. Euclid St. as a community green space. The HPCC leases this property from the URA, and HPCC volunteers provide its ongoing maintenance.

Flynn Parklet
There is also a space called Flynn Parklet at Bunkerhill St. and N Saint Clair St. which is a tennis/hockey/basketball court area operated by the City of Pittsburgh.

The Farmhouse
This refers to the large building next to the Farmhouse Playground and baseball field on Farmhouse Dr. in the northeast corner of the neighborhood, adjacent to Highland Park.

The Fountain
This refers to the large fountain in the front entrance garden in Highland Park (the city park).

The Super Playground
This refers to the large playground on Reservoir Drive, visible up the hill from Bunker Hill Street. 

What have we missed? Send your suggestions to hpcceditor.com and we’ll update the list!

Meet Your Neighbor: Dr. Asa Lee, President of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

By Diane Averill

The first thing you notice as you enter the office of the Reverend Dr. Asa J. Lee—who prefers to be called, simply, Asa—is the sizable calabash that sits on the floor in front of his desk. Burnt orange in color, it is ornamented by the image of the mythical Sankofa bird, picked out in tiny beads of pink, white and dark blue. The bird’s feet face forward, while its head is turned to look backwards.

“It symbolizes using the past as a guide for planning the future,” Asa explains.

The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, at S. Highland Avenue and St. Marie Street, chose Asa to guide the institution into the future as its seventh president. Inaugurated in the Fall of 2021, he represents a considerable step forward from the past in that he is an ordained Baptist minister heading up a seminary affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, and he is the first African American to do so.

Asa Lee

In their march forward, both Asa and the seminary sustain long traditions, such as the learning of Greek and Hebrew, which Asa demonstrates when he pulls a Greek New Testament from the bookcase. Flipping through the pages covered in the Greek alphabet, he reads aloud, in Greek, a portion of the Lord’s Prayer.

While ecumenism abounds at PTS, where the student body represents a number of different faiths, it thrives as well at the Lee family home on Jackson Street, where Asa’s wife, Chenda, is an ordained clergy member of the United Methodist Church and works as director of clergy and congregational development for the UMC’s western Pennsylvania conference. The Lees’ four daughters, ranging in age from six to 13, attend Catholic school.

A Maryland native, Asa obtained his bachelor’s degree in music education from Hampton University with a major in trumpet and a piano/organ minor. Growing up, he had played organ in church and after four years teaching in private and public schools, he decided to heed the call to the ministry that he had felt as a teen. It was at Wesley Theological Seminary that he met Chenda.

Music remains an integral part of Asa’s life, much in the form of his children, who play flute, guitar and piano. Three of them play ukulele, and one is the family vocalist. Chenda, he says, would not call herself musical but she has a beautiful singing voice.

Back in June of 2021, after first arriving in Pittsburgh, Asa spent a lot of time getting out to meet “anyone and everyone,” he says, to get a feel for who were his neighbors and where connections could be made.

“Neighbor is a spiritual concept,” he says, and one that is fraught with contradiction. As neighbors looking out for each other, it’s easy, he explains, to send a check to a favorite charity or an international appeal for help, “…but what about the homeless guy that you just passed on the street? It’s hard to help who’s right in front of you.” He observes a caution in Pittsburgh’s emphasis on named and defined neighborhoods, in that it can create boundaries that keep people apart.

Transcending boundaries and building relationships for the good of the city are the foundational goals of the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, an interfaith organization for which Asa sits on the board of directors. The foundation’s Amen to Action project, now in its fifth year, will package one million meals in November, to be distributed by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Ten sites in the metro area will each produce 100,000 meals, paid for by donations and packaged by volunteers. On November 12, Asa and PTS will host one such event, staffed from churches of all faiths in the surrounding East End. (To make a donation, go to amentoaction.org.)

While there are still more neighbors to meet and things to learn about the city he now calls home, Asa Lee has made up his mind quite firmly about one of Pittsburgh’s signature culinary concepts: On sandwiches and salads, he says, with his signature ready smile, “Please, I’ll take my fries on the side!”