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Expert would oversee Downtown redevelopment plan

Thursday, September 27, 2001

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A group of Pittsburghers traveled to Philadelphia recently to look for a quarterback. But Kordell Stewart doesn’t have to worry.

The group was Mayor Tom Murphy’s Plan C Task Force, which is trying to revitalize the Fifth and Forbes avenues area of Downtown.

They weren’t seeking a football player with a strong arm. They need an urban redevelopment expert to oversee efforts to bring additional stores, entertainment and housing to the drab Downtown commercial corridor.

“We’re looking for professional advice to guide us from someone who knows what they’re doing, someone who can synthesize our thinking and make sure we’re all headed in the same direction,” said Tom Cox, Murphy’s executive secretary and a member of the task force.

Since it was formed last year, the 13-member group has been surprisingly unified on what Fifth and Forbes needs to become vibrant — intriguing shops, unusual restaurants or taverns, music clubs and housing.

The Plan C group interviewed several development professionals while in Philadelphia and is expected to discuss the quarterback position at a meeting this morning.

But Cox indicated the group is focusing on two people — Donald Hunter of Annapolis, Md., and Midge McCauley of King of Prussia in suburban Philadelphia.

“Everybody feels those two are strong,” Cox said.

Hunter, with 32 years of experience in the economics of urban centers, founded his present firm, Hunter Interests Inc. of Annapolis, in 1986.

The company specializes in Downtown and waterfront projects, said office manager Jean Clarke. It has done work on shops at the 30th Street train station in Philadelphia, the Inner Harbor waterfront in Baltimore and in Buffalo and Albany, N.Y., Tucson, Ariz., Seattle and other cities.

McCauley is director of Downtown Works, a year-old division of a 50-year-old shopping mall developer called Kravco Co., which owns the sprawling King of Prussia Mall outside Philadelphia.

In a phone interview, she said Downtown Pittsburgh had some important things going for it — major department stores and large crowds during the day — but obviously needs more stores and other attractions to keep people Downtown after 6 p.m.

“There are good stores currently [along Fifth and Forbes] and there are stores that are not so good,” she said. “Our goal would be to create a mix of stores that includes a good mix of local retailers and regional and national retailers.”

The “greatest challenge,” as she sees it, is to bring in “good, smaller specialty stores that would complement your wonderful array of department stores. Specialty stores are a key ingredient of any shopping experience.”

Adding attractive housing to increase the number of permanent Downtown residents is another key to revitalization.

“Pittsburgh has a great architectural stock of buildings, and where they can be developed into residential [uses], they should be,” McCauley said.

Once the Fifth and Forbes boss is on board, Cox said, another key issue will be how to go about buying privately owned property in the area. Two approaches will be considered — using a city agency, such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority, or letting private companies or developers acquire it.

A challenge facing any large city’s downtown, McCauley said, is “multiplicity of ownership,” because the more owners there are, the harder it can be to get everybody supporting the same plan.

In the past, the URA has assembled large sites for redevelopment. But some private companies already own key buildings in the Fifth-Forbes area that are likely to become part of the renewal project.

PNC Bank, whose director of corporate real estate, Gary Saulson, sits on the task force, owns the buildings in the block on the northern side of Fifth between Wood and Market streets.

“It’s PNC’s intention to cooperate with the city in their plan, assuming it’s acceptable to PNC,” Saulson said.

Another major real estate firm represented on the task force, Oxford Development Co., owns a large office building at 441 Smithfield St., on the edge of the Fifth-Forbes renewal area.

“There is a need for control of some of the properties, a need to assemble a critical mass of properties as they become available [for sale],” said task force member Cathy McCollom, an official of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

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

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