The Environment for Amazon in Pittsburgh
By Arthur Ziegler
Pittsburgh is one of the 20 cities in North America that was recently selected out of a pool of 238 cities vying to land Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters, known as HQ2. Many cities, large and small, believe that Amazon will have a tremendous economic impact in their cities and regions, and so the competition is stiff.
I don’t know the details of what Pittsburgh or any other city proposed as an offer to entice Amazon, other than the idea that many cities have offered lots of money in the form of subsidies, but I know that we in Pittsburgh could offer Amazon something that not many cities may be in a position to—our city’s historic built environment.
In April 2016, I attended a symposium held by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy at the University of Pittsburgh to discuss some of the challenges Pittsburgh will encounter as we build and grow for a new generation of entrepreneurs. A keynote presenter at that symposium was Paul Graham, a venture capitalist and a former Pittsburgher, now based in the San Francisco tech-world.
I was particularly interested in his thoughts on how to grow Pittsburgh as a tech hub and how it may do that through understanding the needs and desires of millennials and how tech leaders think about them. Key among the things that they desire, he said, is the authenticity that historic buildings and neighborhoods bring to establishing sense of place and identity.
“So here is another piece of evidence for becoming a start-up hub: don’t destroy the buildings that are bringing people here. When cities are on the way back up like Pittsburgh is now, developers race to tear down the old buildings. Don’t let that happen. Focus on historic preservation. Big real estate development projects are not what’s bringing the twenty-somethings here…they subtract personality from the city. The empirical evidence suggests you cannot be too strict about historic preservation. The tougher cities are about it, the better they seem to do.”
Paul Graham is right. One of the biggest advantages that Pittsburgh can offer Amazon, in addition to the various incentives already proposed, is the history and authenticity of our city and its rich architectural landscape. For example, Pittsburgh can provide ample office space in our historic buildings in Downtown where we would welcome Amazon as a new major corporate citizen.
We have a collection of historic and handsome buildings on Fourth Avenue and Wood Street, in Downtown, for example. They are in partial service now or restoration is about to be underway, but possibly the owners would be interested in finding a way to go together and welcome Amazon. They include the handsome Arrott Building, the Investment Building, the partially filled Union National Bank (The Carlyle) Building, the Commonwealth Building, and the Bank Tower Building. While these are separate buildings, they could be tied together with skywalks such as was done years ago for Kaufmann’s and for Point Park University.
Not only would we generate a reuse and restoration of all these significant buildings but also we would be offering a location in the midst of a growing high quality university campus that offers courses from business to theatre to dance to journalism. These buildings would also offer a variety of spaces for open floor plans like WeWorks, private areas, and a variety of conference areas. Adjoining these are a variety of restaurants and bars. A block away is Market Square with its varied activities, summer market, and Christmas market.
Other options? Sure. There is the yet-to-be-filled former Kaufmann’s Department Store. The neighboring Union Trust and Frick buildings have space available. All are handsome, significant buildings.
And if not Amazon, why not band together to market these important assets that we have to other corporations to further revitalize our Downtown, our well known core area that is constantly praised by visitors for its significant architecture.
This is also a time to ask: what other firms out there might consider our good city and its historic buildings?
Arthur Ziegler is the president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF). He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-471-5808.