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Fifth and Forbes ready for another go-around

3,000 Downtown merchants, property owners invited to offer revitalization input tomorrow

Wednesday, April 25, 2001

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Three thousand Downtown property owners and merchants have been invited to a meeting tomorrow to discuss solutions to a bitter, two-year dispute over how to revitalize the rundown commercial core along Fifth and Forbes avenues.

The 11-member Plan C Task Force — named by Mayor Tom Murphy in December after he abandoned a $522 million renewal plan called Market Place at Fifth and Forbes — will hold a hearing from 2 to 4 p.m. to collect ideas on what Downtown needs, particularly what it needs to stay alive after 5 p.m.

Hundreds of people are expected to attend the hearing at the Italian Sons and Daughters of America building at Forbes Avenue and Wood Street. That is ground zero in the long-running dispute between Murphy and his critics in the historic preservation and business communities.

“We have to come up with a clear vision for Fifth and Forbes,” said task force member Harry Finnigan, director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. “We have to come up with rules that will provide direction for revitalization and let private-sector investors be part of it. If we don’t do that, we will have failed miserably.”

Despite angry words exchanged last year by Murphy and his opponents, “we all agree on a number of things the area needs. We all want to create a vibrant, colorful Downtown core,” said marketing director of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which fought Murphy’s Market Place plan.

McCollom said points of agreement include:

All stores in the target area, bounded roughly by Fifth and Forbes avenues, Smithfield Street and Market Square, need to have a unified plan for signs, advertising, marketing and hours of operation.
The city won’t use its eminent domain power to condemn and take over privately owned buildings.
Buildings and shops along Fifth and Forbes must have their windows and facades beautified, using both private funds and city loans or grants.
The mix of stores should include national, regional and local businesses.
Additional parking and housing are crucial.
But major points of disagreement remain. One is the exact formula of national vs. local stores in the final retail mix.

Under Murphy’s abandoned plan, national stores, such as Tiffany’s jewelers and the House of Blues music club, were given preference, angering local business owners.

Another unsettled issue, McCollom said, is who will take the lead in quarterbacking the renewal plan.

It could be Murphy or the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority — which Murphy controls — or Finnigan’s 7-year-old Downtown Partnership or a year-old group of building owners called the Golden Triangle Community Development Group, which fought Murphy’s previous plan.

A second hearing will be held May 10.

In recent weeks the Plan C Task Force has held informal talks with some developers.

One was Frank Kass, chairman of Continental Real Estate Cos. of Columbus, Ohio, whose firm is doing the massive Waterfront retail-entertainment project in Homestead and the housing component of the South Side Works on East Carson Street.

Kass said Pittsburgh’s central core has a lot going for it, but needs more parking and permanent housing.

He suggested that the city “immediately begin buying up any piece of property that is underutilized and is for sale.” Even if the city knew what it wanted to add to Downtown, it currently doesn’t control enough property to make it happen.

He also suggested the use of government-sponsored facade grants to help owners spruce up the outsides of their buildings, and a technique called reverse taxation, in which an underused building or vacant land is more heavily taxed to encourage development while taxes decrease for buildings that are fully used.

The Plan C Task Force is also looking at the possible use of historic tax credits, which could reduce taxes for owners of historic buildings who make improvements.

Last year, Murphy angered historic preservationists by proposing the demolition of more than 60 buildings along Fifth and Forbes, many nearly 100 years old.

The task force has also interviewed Wayne Snyder, head of a firm called Kravco, near Philadelphia.

The 50-year-old company is primarily known for developing regional shopping malls but recently established a new division called Downtown Works, which focuses on urban redevelopment.

“Downtown Pittsburgh’s complement of department stores is a testimony to the general strength of Downtown,” he said.

“The next thing is to put residential [units] there and better entertainment and funkier, more diverse restaurants,” he said.

Local developer Craig Cozza of Mount Washington has also met with the Plan C group.

He is working with the Golden Triangle Community Development Group to use the first two floors of the old G.C. Murphy building for a 40,000-square-foot music club and a farmers market.

The music club would be run in connection with Rich Engler of SFX Entertainment, a nationally known concert promoter.

Cozza said Engler, formerly of DiCesare Engler, a Pittsburgh concert promoter, knows the local entertainment scene, while SFX could bring in national acts.

“There would be different kinds of music on each night — a jazz night, a blues night, a family entertainment night,” Cozza said.

“There would be something for everyone.”

Also, farmers from a nine-county area would have a place in the building to sell their wares.

In warm weather the farmers market would move out into Market Square, Cozza said.

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

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