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Birru did his best under tough circumstances, some say

By Dave Copeland
Friday, May 28, 2004

Whether the high-profile projects he led caused the city’s financial crisis will be debated for years, if not for decades.

But observers of outgoing Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Mulugetta Birru said Thursday that the city’s money woes might have played a role in his decision to leave for a new job with Wayne County Economic Development Corp. in Michigan. Detroit is the county seat.

“This could easily mean fewer deals to do and a lot of retrospection about the Downtown retail situation and, hopefully, some serious self-examination about the low level of commercial occupancy,” said Robert P. Strauss, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy.

“In this sort of cutback environment, it’s entirely reasonable to expect somebody with Mulu’s energy level to seek another venue where he can build public-private partnerships,” Strauss said.

Birru, 57, wouldn’t give specific reasons for his departure yesterday, saying only the new post is a better opportunity that nearly doubles his current salary.

Under Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, Birru and a URA staff of more than 100 carried out one of the city’s most ambitious and controversial urban-renewal programs since Mayor David L. Lawrence’s Renaissance in the years following World War II.

One of Birru’s biggest proposals never came to fruition.

In the late 1990s, the Murphy administration pushed for a $520 million Downtown overhaul called Marketplace at Fifth & Forbes. The effort was turned back by a grassroots coalition of property-rights advocates and historic preservationists and a loose-knit group of young professionals, artists and city residents.

“That disappoints me a lot,” Birru said.

Murphy scrapped the plan in November 2000. Subsequent efforts to redevelop the Downtown retail corridor, dubbed Plan C, have stalled. Two department stores that Birru helped lure with a variety of subsidies also failed. The Downtown Lazarus-Macy’s closed earlier this month, and Lord & Taylor will close next year.

Birru defended the department-store deals, comparing them to the public investments by Westmoreland County in an auto-manufacturing plant that failed in 1988 but was converted into a Sony manufacturing plant in 1992.

“I honestly have no regrets about the Lazarus building or the Lord & Taylor building because now we have discussions with developers on those two buildings,” Birru said.

A co-founder of Ground Zero — an activist group formed in part to oppose the Marketplace plan — said the URA’s successes in housing and in using the Main Street redevelopment model in small, neighborhood business districts would be a good model for future efforts.

“With the director of the URA leaving, and against the backdrop of extremely substantial financial problems for our region, this would be a good time to re-examine the development tools and organizations we have at the city, county and regional levels,” said Ground Zero’s Pat Clark.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation President Arthur Ziegler, who also opposed the Marketplace plan, described Birru as “congenial and forthright” in those and other discussions. Ziegler said he did not see Birru as the impetus for many of the Murphy administration’s redevelopment strategies, but as the person who carried them out.

“I always felt he was doing the best he could for the city within very restricted circumstances because I always assumed that the chairman of the authority (executive assistant Tom Cox) set the agenda and goals, rather than Mulu,” Ziegler said. “I feel he was sensitive to historic preservation, but I don’t think he was able to act on behalf of preservation as he might have wished — and certainly not as much as we might have wished.”

Former Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey echoed Ziegler’s comments, saying Birru had not been given the “right directives.”

“The efforts to put retail Downtown were doomed from the beginning,” Roddey said. “If they had assumed a strategy of putting all our resources into housing instead of retail, if they had found a way to get people living there, the private sector would have taken care of retail on its own.”

Until July 2000, Birru also headed Allegheny County’s economic-development department.

Roddey said yesterday he asked Birru to step down from the $82,800-a-year job because “economic development is too important to the county to have a part-time director.”

Before joining the URA in 1992, Birru, an Ethiopian immigrant, headed the Homewood-Brushton Revitalization Corp. He earned a doctorate in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh in 1991 and has been an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz school.

Birru said his greatest legacy is in the “strong” URA staff he put together. He has complained in recent months that some of his best people have left the authority as it has come under increasing scrutiny by state lawmakers, who question its investments and want to sell off its assets.

“People in Pittsburgh are really spoiled,” Birru said. “They think these things happen easily.”

Dave Copeland can be reached at or (412) 320-7922.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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