Downtown overhaul poses many challenges
By Dave Copeland
Saturday, March 9, 2002
Even though one national authority on urban redevelopment hasn’t seen the latest proposal to remake Downtown, she knows it’s better than the last one.
“It has to be a 100 percent improvement, because the mayor’s original plan was such a disaster,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, a New York author who has written two books on revitalizing downtowns.
Still, it’s too early to tell what chance the latest blueprint for redeveloping Downtown has to succeed — politically and economically.
The Plan C Task Force presented its long-awaited report to Mayor Tom Murphy on Thursday. Among the promises included in the 450-page document are up to $7.7 million in new property tax revenues, 3,057 construction jobs, 880 new full-time jobs and a Downtown brimming with residents and visitors.
But it also comes with the promise of new challenges. The Plan C Task Force may have completed its work, but now city and private development officials will begin wrestling with a number of questions left unanswered by the report.
Among the issues to be settled:
Financing. While the plan notes that the $365 million redevelopment strategy will need $51.5 million in public subsidies, there is no mention of how that money will be raised and what percentage would come from local, county, state and federal funds. The rest of the money comes from corporate and philanthropic donations and private investment.
Regulatory approval. If Murphy accepts the task force’s recommendation, the plan would need to be approved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Historic Review Commission and City Council. Two years ago, Murphy’s first plan for redeveloping the Fifth-Forbes corridor left council divided.
Site control. The task force was unable to reach consensus on how to get the property for the development and issued a majority opinion favoring the use of eminent domain and a minority opinion opposing it.
Despite the potential hurdles, City Planning Director and task force spokeswoman Susan Golomb said the plan was the result of a massive effort to determine what Pittsburgh wanted and needed for its retail corridor.
“It’s simply a reflection of what we’ve been hearing that people want,” Golomb said. “We feel we’ve created a very exciting strategy.”
Unlike Murphy’s Market Place at Fifth & Forbes, which failed when Nordstrom Inc. opted not to build a Downtown store, the Plan C strategy seeks to build off of the existing foot traffic. The plan also calls for the addition of housing and a 600-room hotel; Murphy’s plan had no hotel component and housing was added only after critics attacked his plan.
Market Place called for the demolition of up to 62 Downtown buildings. The cleared land would have been sold to a private developer that would have built an upscale retail and entertainment district.
The plan was criticized on a variety of fronts: historic preservationists said Murphy was planning to demolish architectural gems; local merchants said they were being forced out to make way for national retailers, while others said the city couldn’t afford a $100 million subsidy for the $522 million project.
The task force was formed in November 2000, just days after Murphy scrapped the Market Place plan. Plan C stood for compromise, and Murphy charged the group with building consensus and developing a viable, Downtown redevelopment plan.
Gratz applauded the Plan C Task Force’s decision to preserve more buildings than Murphy’s original plan, but stressed that the plan would not be successful unless local businesses were preserved as well.
“The bottom line is that this plan has to have local character inside the buildings as well as on the outside,” Gratz said. “The big chain stores like Kmart are coming and going, but it’s the local businesses that stay generation after generation.”
The Plan C Task Force report hopes to have local and national retailers. Examples include chains such as Banana Republic and other stores that could enhance a shopping district that already boasts four large department stores. But the plans for the inclusion of local retailers didn’t satisfy George Harris, whose family has operated a florist at the corner of Liberty Avenue and Market Street for more than 100 years.
Harris said Friday he planned to fight any efforts made by the city to take his property. On the current plan, Harris’ shop is slated to be acquired and demolished.
“This site represents the comings and the goings, the place where my family has tread, in one form or another, for more than 100 years,” Harris said. “I have no compelling reason to dispose of my business, or to dispose of my property at this particular time. This is where I get my zest for life.”
Harris spoke at a news conference with Scott G. Bullock, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice. The Washington, D.C., group has offered to defend any Downtown property owners who want to fight eminent domain. It’s the same pledge the group made two years ago, when Murphy’s original plan called for taking property by eminent domain.
“The task force says eminent domain is necessary. That is nonsense. Development goes on everyday in this country without eminent domain,” Bullock said. “The property owners here support redevelopment. They just want to be a part of it.”
Bonnie Klein, who owns the Camera Repair Shop a block away from Harris Brothers Florist, sat on the task force. She said she supported the plan, but was one of three task force members who supported a minority opinion against using eminent domain.
“I think it’s a great plan, but I can’t support eminent domain,” Klein said. “I’m so disappointed that the task force decided to include it — I was hoping for a plan that would have included all business owners.”
Klein’s building is also slated to be acquired and demolished. She said she was unsure if she would fight eminent domain proceedings.
Margaret Philbin, spokeswoman for County Executive Jim Roddey, said that although Roddey had not yet seen the full plan, he was encouraged by the details he had heard about.
“He especially likes the marketplace, the hotel and, in particular, he likes the plan to increase the number of Downtown residents,” Philbin said. “He his, however, concerned about the threat to use eminent domain and hopes that that measure of taking would only be done as an absolute last resort, if at all.”
City Council members reached yesterday voiced no opposition to the plan as a whole, but expressed reservations about some of the issues at stake — including eminent domain.
“That’s not necessary if you have a good plan and it includes everybody,” City Councilman Bob O’Connor said.
Councilman Alan Hertzberg said there is some question about why private investors would want to pump $264 million into an ailing business district such as Fifth-Forbes, as the plan calls for.
“But usually when you do have public sector investment, it does tend to bring with it private sector investment. It kind of serves as seed money, or however you want to look at it,” Hertzberg said.
With the exception of O’Connor, council members said they hadn’t been shown the plan.
Planning director Golomb said the task force sent one copy to Councilman Sala Udin’s office, and another to be circulated among council members. Golomb said she assumed Udin — whose district includes the plan area, and whose assistant has attended the panel’s hearings — would bring his fellow council members up to speed on the plan.
“It’s Sala’s district, so we would take our lead from Sala,” said Golomb, adding that she would brief council on the plan next week. Udin declined to comment on the plan.
Dave Copeland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 320-7922.