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2 years after Plan A failed, the city works on Plan C – Corroding Fifth/Forbes awaits rebirth

By Tom Barnes and Timothy McNulty,
Post-Gazette Staff Writers
Sunday, August 04, 2002

David Kashi, a Downtown jewelry store owner, says some of his friends think he’s crazy to invest money in a neighborhood where graffiti has replaced gleaming glass and empty buildings hover over silent sidewalks.

Kashi, who’s had a store for 15 years in the rundown lower section of Fifth Avenue just off Liberty, is spending thousands of dollars to renovate a former Candy-Rama store at Fifth and Wood streets and will move his jewelry store into that space.

He said he’s decided to move ahead even before Mayor Tom Murphy unveils his long-awaited “Plan C” for reinvigorating the area.

“Everybody told me not to invest money in the city — to get out of the city,” he said last week. “They said it’s a dead horse.”

Kashi’s former store at 210 Fifth Ave. now sits empty, adjacent to a forlorn stretch of the street from Graeme to Market streets, where three stores are deserted, with graffiti on the windows. Across the street at Market and Fifth, the boarded-up windows of another empty store have been painted with an urban mural titled “Celebrate Pittsburgh.”

But there isn’t much to celebrate.

Nearly two years after Murphy abandoned his much-criticized “Marketplace at Fifth and Forbes” plan, which would have demolished more than 60 older buildings and replaced them with 40 new ones, he’s now working on an alternative called Plan C.

But administration officials aren’t saying when an actual proposal for redevelopment will be put forward.

“They have been talking about [improving the area] for so long,” Kashi said. “There is no help from the authorities, so I took the initiative.”

The portions of Fifth and Forbes just off Market Square “look bad and are getting worse every day,” said Mulugetta Birru, director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. “The city can’t wait too long. We are missing out on opportunities” to attract new stores.

“I am anxious to see something happen,” said Bonnie Klein, co-owner of Camera Repair Service, just off Market Square.

She was one of 13 members of Murphy’s Plan C Task Force on Fifth and Forbes, which spent more than a year studying options for renewal before delivering its report to Murphy in April.

In early June, in response to Murphy’s request, a handful of development companies submitted proposals for shopping, residential and hotel projects in the area roughly bounded by Fifth, Forbes, Market Square and Smithfield Street.

Klein and several others on the Plan C task force said they were still in the dark about what Murphy wants to do with the Fifth-Forbes area.

The city has done “nothing at all” to keep up the commercial stretch of Forbes, said Gabriel Fontana, who has run Gabriel Shoe Repair on the street for 26 years. That neglect affects business, he said.

“There aren’t too many people [here] like there used to be,” he said. “There are a lot of stores closing up, a lot of empty stores.”

Craig Kwiecinski, a spokesman for Murphy, said things were happening and would be announced shortly.

“We are still reviewing the applications and meeting with the development community,” he said, but added he couldn’t speculate on a time frame for action.

Cathy McCollom, an official of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and also a member of the Plan C task force, said there could be an upside to the length of time it has taken to improve the area.

While it’s difficult to see the number of empty storefronts and deteriorated facades, she said, the wait could eventually bring down asking prices and make it easier for the city to assemble the properties it needs to make something happen.

Time is not on Murphy’s side.

The Fifth-Forbes area took a serious hit in February, when a McDonald’s at Forbes and Wood shut down. Its boarded windows are a frequent target for graffiti.

In that same area along Forbes, National Record Mart and the large G.C. Murphy are closed, adding to the forlorn appearance of the block.

The old NRM is partially occupied by a discount store that sells, among other things, “trouser socks” and “flavored blunt wrap” used by people who roll tobacco and other things.

Walking west toward Market Square, there’s a T-shirt and trinket shop outside the so-called “Skinny Building” at Forbes and Wood across from the former McDonald’s. It’s an arts showcase run by activists from Ground Zero, a group formed to oppose Murphy’s first redevelopment plan.

The second floor of the narrow building is smeared with large, looping graffiti. Pat Clark of Ground Zero said the paint would be removed soon. Sidewalks are crumbling or patched with lumps of asphalt.

There are some improvements to report.

At Forbes and Smithfield, a new brick facade is being added to the CVS drugstore. The outside of the Chart Room Cafe has a new paint job, partly funded by Ground Zero supporters who patronize the bar.

The front of Mama Gina’s pizza shop, which is bustling at lunchtime, is dappled with bright new pastel paints. Cardamone’s Hair and Nail Salon at Forbes and Wood was also recently renovated and expanded.

Murphy said recently that the city received “five, maybe seven” responses from developers interested in some aspect of the Fifth-Forbes renewal.

He hasn’t released the names, but Donald Hunter of Annapolis, Md., who served as a consultant to the Plan C task force, is one of them.

One of his ideas is to turn the old G.C. Murphy, at least its ground floor, into a “public market,” which also, possibly, could spill out into Market Square.

Birru wasn’t sure that would be a good idea, however, saying it could hurt the farmers markets now operating in the Strip District.

Hunter is interested in creating a new hotel in the triangular area bounded by Liberty, Forbes and Stanwix. He said that hotel would, however, have to wait until after a proposed hotel is built next to the new convention center.

Another good idea for invigorating Fifth Avenue, he said, is expanding the current Saks Fifth Avenue store so that it actually has a presence on Fifth, where a former Revco drugstore now sits next to Lazarus.

Hunter said he wasn’t a developer of retail or residential uses, but he was certain other companies could take on those type of projects.

He said buildings shouldn’t be done in a piecemeal way. That approach “won’t turn things around in the eyes of skeptical investors and a skeptical public,” he said.

Birru agreed, saying that a successful Fifth-Forbes project “has to have a critical mass” of buildings. “Acquiring just a few buildings isn’t going to do it.”

Murphy’s previous “Marketplace” plan foundered, in large part, because he wouldn’t swear off the use of eminent domain, the city’s power to condemn and take over privately owned property. A nonprofit law firm from Washington, D.C., offered to defend property owners for free in court.

Some historic preservationists opposed Murphy’s “Marketplace” plan because they wanted to save 100-year-old structures along lower Fifth and lower Forbes.

Murphy has said he wouldn’t use the eminent domain power for the new Plan C.

Yet Birru thinks such a stance also could complicate property-acquisition efforts. Some property owners are content just to sit on their property and hope the city will pay inflated prices for it, he said.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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