Closings could be chance to get new stores
By Andrew Conte
Sunday, January 27, 2002
Downtown shop owner Patty Maloney sees opportunity in the neon “store closing” banners outside the National Record Mart and Dollar Zone stores on Forbes Avenue east of Market Square.
Pieces of butcher paper taped to the windows of nearby G.C. Murphy’s declare in black marker letters: “We are now closed.” That store went out of business in November, while Bolan’s Candies — a local landmark — closed its store at Forbes Avenue and Wood Street.
Empty store fronts might be even more numerous along Fifth Avenue, where space after space sits dusty and unused. Development experts warned in recent years this would happen. Retail stores in the central business district would start failing, they said, if a sweeping retail plan was not created. Yet, Maloney sees hope.
“You lost businesses, lost some retail,” said Maloney, the owner of three Downtown card shops, who has been deeply involved in the city’s latest round of urban planning. “But if you look at the up side, we have some really great floorplates in place. You have some really good properties available.”
Mayor Tom Murphy’s $522 million proposal for Market Place at Fifth & Forbes was supposed to prevent all of these problems: The city would create a synergy of small- and medium-sized retailers by demolishing a wide swath of buildings to create much-needed space.
But that idea failed amid widespread criticism that it would have destroyed the historic character of Downtown. Even Murphy now admits that he, among other Downtown interests, have “learned a lot from our mistakes in the past.”
Members of the new Plan C — for “compromise” — task force have been scrambling to fill the void over the past year. Officials have said they expected to begin releasing details of a new Downtown plan to the public early next month.
Murphy created the 11-member panel about a year ago after the demise of the Fifth & Forbes plan. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, other business interests and city officials serve on the task force. The group includes those who were at odds with each other during negotiations for the Fifth & Forbes plan.
As they worked to develop a new plan, existing stores have been failing.
“We’re very concerned, absolutely,” said Harry Finnigan, outgoing director of the Downtown Partnership. “It’s not a good sign. The urgency of making something happen is that we don’t end up seeing what so many downtowns have seen; that a department store closes.”
The immediate impact of stores closing might be negative, but the results could be promising, said Richard Hodos, a New York City-based retail expert who scouts new locations for high-end retailers such as Coach, J.Crew and Smith&Hawken.
Several of the Pittsburgh closings resulted from nationwide bankruptcies, and they have freed up large spaces in high-traffic areas near Market Square. No figures were available to indicate how many businesses have closed or moved in recent years.The key to attract businesses will be moving quickly to implement a plan that incorporates various sizes of retailers, he said.
“It’s sad retailers are closing Downtown but there needs to be a grand plan and it needs to be put into effect not over a long time but over a relatively short time,” Hodos said.
If the Downtown tries to implement a 10-year program, for example, the first stores will fail because of a lack of critical mass, Hodos said. Later phases will not occur because the first ones failed.
Others would argue the city already has waited too long by failing to adopt the mayor’s proposal two years ago.
“We honestly missed an opportunity,” said Mulugetta Birru, director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority and an architect of Murphy’s original development plan. “My feeling is it’s going to be a tough one.”
He predicted that the Downtown development woes are just beginning and that it will be much more difficult to create a regional destination there now that other areas have moved more quickly to get the big-name retailers.
The Waterfront retail and entertainment complex in Homestead has filled that role with a luxury movie theater, national retail outlets and niche restaurants. Station Square will open a Hard Rock Cafe, which had been mentioned for Downtown. And the former South Side Works site has plans for a 10-screen movie theater and more upscale restaurants.
“Homestead has all the stores,” Birru said. “Can Pittsburgh support additional entertainment districts? That really frightens me. Has Downtown missed an opportunity for entertainment development?”
While Pittsburgh has an advantage because it has so many anchor-type retailers, Finnigan agreed that they cannot survive on their own. As with a suburban mall, Downtown needs a mix of small and medium retailers among the anchors to make the whole area successful.
Plan C task force members say they are not limiting themselves to just local companies to fill the void, but some developers worry the group may not be willing to accept the demands of a national retailer.
Many chains only will commit to a place if other similar stores locate there, too. Making that much space likely requires some demolition and major renovation, two things preservationists have opposed.
“Things have really slid downhill in terms of retail,” said Eve Picker, president of No Wall Productions. “That core area from Market Square to Smithfield or Wood streets is really in poor shape. There are more vacancies and we’re relying on the local market to fill them.”
No Wall owns a “sliver” building at 945 Liberty Ave. with first-floor retail space, but Picker has not been able to attract any interest.
Birru echoed her concerns that while preservation groups want to keep the old buildings intact, that could mean sacrificing a thriving retail area.
“I’m not that confident because site acquisition is critical, and the mayor has said there will be no condemnation,” said Birru, who has remained out of the Plan C discussion.
On the positive side of the ledger, some Downtown retailers believe the area may have hit its lowest point — that the vacancies are an echo of larger economic problems throughout the country and will become filled as the nation rebounds.
The new convention center, set to start opening in phases this March, also should bring more people Downtown, Picker said. Like others, she also remains hopeful the Plan C group can provide some much-needed cohesion.
If this were a suburban mall, one main developer would have taken the initiative to not only attract anchors but to line up other retailers too. Someone — the task force members, the Downtown Partnership, the city — will have to fill that role, Finnigan said.
While the failure of the original plan caused delays, it was not necessarily a setback, he added. Unlike countless proposals before, it got people’s attention and generated commitment among Downtown interests.
“People do see the urgency of making something happen,” he said.
Maloney would be first among them.
The mayor’s plan outraged her so that she fought to not only kill that proposal, but committed herself and others to creating a better replacement. Ironically, her goal remains nearly identical to the mayor’s — finding some way to revitalize the retail corridor and prevent more storefronts from becoming empty.
“There are all sorts of opportunities out there,” she said. “We could be looking at a big hole in the middle of the city, on the one hand. Or, is this a real opportunity to do something really reflective of this region?”
Andrew Conte can be reached at email@example.com or (412) 320-7835.