Small business owners and neighborhood activists were elated in November when Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy decided to drop his controversial downtown redevelopment plan. The $522 million project involved demolishing 60 historic buildings and condemning 120 mostly locally owned businesses. In their place, Murphy sought to build a massive retail complex, anchored by a Nordstrom department store and several dozen national chains. (See the August 2000 issue of the Bulletin at http://www.newrules.org/hta/hta0800.htm for more details.)
Murphy has appointed a task force to devise an alternative plan for enhancing the downtown business district. Several of the most outspoken opponents of Murphy’s original plan are represented on the task force, including the Golden Triangle Community Development Corporation, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, and two merchants whose buildings would have been demolished.
The task force held its first meeting this month. Although a big step forward, the road ahead will be difficult. “The goal is that everyone will walk away winning, but we’re dealing with widely divergent points of view over how to go about this,” says Bernie Lynch of Golden Triangle.
While the use of eminent domain has been taken off the table, the idea that some of the district’s older retail stores need to be pushed out—albeit more gracefully—persists. Some task force members who supported Murphy’s original plan, still envision a complete overhaul for the district. Stores that do not represent the latest fads in retailing, especially immigrant-owned and multi-generation businesses, continue to be seen by some as targets for removal.
“We should be working with the merchants and building owners, not against them,” says Lynch. “These are all viable businesses. It’s that entrepreneurship that’s at the very heart of this area’s identity and success.” She hopes the city will abandon the top-down approach and instead focus on ways to help existing merchants build on their strengths and re-energize the area.
Ultimately any task force proposal must be approved by the mayor, who holds the keys to the $128 million earmarked for the district.
One of the strengths of the movement against mayor’s original plan, which once seemed unstoppable, was that it drew people from a wide variety of perspectives. Conservative property rights activists joined with liberal groups who viewed the project as a attack on the immigrant and African-American populations largely served by the district.
The challenge now will be whether these disparate groups can develop shared objectives. Preservationists, for example, may be tempted to turn the district over to companies with deeper pockets and greater resources for building renovation. Some contend that preserving the district hinges not only on protecting the buildings, but ensuring that long-term businesses and traditional retail uses have an opportunity to continue.
Meanwhile, the district’s years of uncertainty are beginning to show. With the wrecking ball just around the corner, property owners have put off needed repairs and renovations. Repeated references to the area as “blighted”—an official designation necessary for the city to condemn buildings as planned in the original proposal—threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
But despite the challenges ahead, the demise of the city’s s redevelopment plan is cause for much celebration. This area of downtown Pittsburgh has been saved, at least for now, from becoming an urban version of the cookie-cutter, absentee-owned shopping centers proliferating in suburban America.
And, although task force members bring widely divergent perspectives to the table, they do share some common ground. All agree that the area needs more housing and parking, better transportation options, tenants for the upper stories, and a cohesive marketing strategy.