Local activists and business owners in Pittsburgh are fighting Mayor Tom Murphy’s plan to use eminent domain to destroy 60 buildings and condemn 125 mostly locally owned businesses. In their place, Murphy wants to build a massive retail complex, anchored by a Nordstrom department store and several dozen national chains such as The Gap, FAO Schwarz, and J Crew.
In July, Murphy took steps to secure a key piece of the $520 million redevelopment plan, known as the “Market Place at Fifth and Forbes” project. His administration announced that the city had offered Nordstrom $28 million to build a department store downtown. A spokesperson for Murphy described the deal as a bargain and noted that Cincinnati spent $47 million to get a Nordstrom’s.
But local business owners have vowed to stand their ground. The area is a vibrant, pedestrian hub, home to a variety of profitable businesses, including a few that have been around for more than 100 years.
They contend Murphy’s plan is an abusive and unconstitutional use of the power of eminent domain, which enables cities to condemn and acquire property for public purposes, such as road construction. Eminent domain has been increasingly used to condemn existing businesses for the benefit of private developers (see Mamaroneck story below). Such property transfers arguably serve no public purpose.
The merchants, together with community activists, have formed the Golden Triangle Community Development Corporation and are moving forward with an alternative plan for the area. Their “Main Street” proposal would preserve and restore the buildings and existing businesses. The plan emphasizes a sustainable, bottom-up approach. It includes developing empty second story space to incubate new high-tech businesses, as well as adding more housing to the area.
It’s not a lack of economic vitality that has left 475,000 square feet of upper floor space empty, according to Bernie Lynch of Golden Triangle. Rather, the buildings were never retrofitted to meet current fire code and accessibility standards, a problem the city could have solved years ago by providing basic incentive programs.
Golden Triangle is already redeveloping and leasing the upper floors. It has asked the city to support the plan with $24 million in public funds. In contrast, the Fifth and Forbes project carries a public price tag of more than $150 million.
“Over his term, the mayor has repeatedly sapped neighborhood resources for these big projects,” says Lynch. “The neighborhoods are now crumbling.”
The area’s merchants have received an outpouring of support from local and national organizations. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has been an ardent opponent of Murphy’s plan. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the area to its annual list of most endangered historic places and described Murphy’s plan as “a misguided approach to redevelopment that was discredited long ago.”
The Institute for Justice, a conservative organization concerned about property rights, has volunteered to provide free legal representation for merchants who challenge the use of eminent domain. The organization has purchased billboard ads in the city, which say “Eminent domain was meant for roads. Not for Tiffany’s” and “Mayor Murphy: Pittsburgh was built on steel. Not stealing.”
The Fifth and Forbes project will be presented to the City Council in September.