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For Fifth and Forbes, a place to start small and think big

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Preservation Pittsburgh wants to convert the first floor of the former Regal Shoe Co. building at Fifth and Market into a transit cafe, with office space above. It’s the work of Alden & Harlow, one of the city’s most prominent architectural firms in the early 20th century.

In a cartoon in the current New Yorker, a big man sitting at a big desk in a big city hands a folder to a smaller, weary man sitting across from him. The folder is labeled “Plan Z.”

“Of course,” the big man says, “if this one flops we’re done.”

Somebody ought to warn the little guy: Beware of a big man with a big plan.

Three years and three months from the day Mayor Tom Murphy announced Plan C, his revised Fifth and Forbes renewal project, we’ve got zip. In fact we’ve got a lot less zip than we had when the massive, demolition-oriented Plan A was hatched in October 1999. Back then, there were one or two empty storefronts; now there are many more as property and business owners wait for the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, which owns several properties in the district, to make a move.

When Carl Dranoff, the most recent potential developer, pulled out a few weeks ago, there was no rush to announce Plan D. Come January, the mayor and his men will move on. The empty storefronts will be hanging around for some time.

There’s still a frightening amount of alphabet left in Fifth and Forbes, but with a new administration next year, there are new opportunities for fresh ideas.

Here’s one: Preservation Pittsburgh wants to put a “transit cafe” in a great old building at the corner of Fifth and Market. It doesn’t look like much now, but in its day it was quite the place, an elegant little shoe showroom designed by Alden & Harlow for the Regal Shoe Co., one of a chain of Boston-based stores.

Of human scale and quaint antecedent, Regal Shoe was one of two buildings inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement that the firm designed Downtown in the first decade of the 20th century. The other, the former White Dog Cafe, was among the nine structures sacrificed for the new Lazarus store in 1996. The cafe had been remodeled, but ah, what it once was and could have been again.

We have a second chance with the Regal Shoe building, which has had a happier fate. Over time its canopy was removed and some of its windows were covered over, but its integrity has not been greatly compromised.

Downtowns need low-rise buildings like this, buildings with a social and architectural history to anchor the modern office towers, and Fifth and Forbes provide them. Plan A disregarded them, calling for the removal of 62 buildings and acquiring them by eminent domain if necessary.

But massive demolition wasn’t the only troubling aspect of Plan A. Just as wrong-headed was its intent to wrestle ownership from dozens of local and often longtime entrepreneurs and concentrate ownership in the hands of a single developer, sending all of the profits out town. Fine for a suburban mall, but this is not the way cities work. Urban retail lasts longest when it is steady and incremental, supported by government policies that understand its organic, symbiotic nature.

If you’ve ever waited for a bus or been panhandled at the bustling corner of Fifth and Market, you don’t need me to tell you how good a transit cafe sounds. A place to come in out of the cold and heat and rain, pick up a coffee and a newspaper, “maybe even a bouquet of flowers on the way home,” said architect Rob Pfaffmann, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, the nonprofit advocacy group launched in 1991 after the demolition of the Syria Mosque.

Bringing flowers back to the vacant building would be a sort of homecoming, as Lubin & Smalley operated a florist’s shop there for about 70 years after Regal Shoe moved out.

A transit cafe is just one idea; the important thing is to get a retail establishment up and running again at that gateway location. Located at one of the entrances to the Fifth and Forbes district, the building has an importance beyond it size, just 15 feet deep and 80 feet wide.

Restoring and renovating the building would show that preservation is a viable and desirable component of the revitalization as it moves forward, Pfaffmann said. Office space on the second floor could be used to house community meetings during the Fifth/Forbes planning process.

Pfaffmann thinks he knows how to keep the costs down, to about $500,000 for the building’s shell. Preservation Pittsburgh has asked Belmont Technical College in St. Clairsville, Ohio, to consider making it a class project next year.

Each year, Belmont students in the Building Preservation Technology Program put their newly acquired skills into play on a summer field project. Students have worked at Fallingwater, Grey Towers (the Richard Morris Hunt-designed, faux-French medieval castle in Milford, Pike County) and the Octagon House in Washington, D.C. Pfaffmann thinks Belmont students could, for example, rebuild the mullioned windows of the Regal Shoe building.

Closer to home, Carnegie Mellon University students could participate in transforming the building into a green, sustainable design, which should be a component of the revival.

Preservation Pittsburgh also hopes to team with Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation in making the project a case study at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference, which comes to Pittsburgh in October 2006.

Partnerships will be a key to making this project work, as will a positive reception from the city and the Fifth/Forbes task force, not to mention interest from a shopkeeper. Task force chairman Herb Burger declined comment yesterday, saying it was the city’s decision. URA director Jerome Dettore has said that he is willing to wait for the right developer.

Pfaffmann didn’t say so, but the subliminal message of the project is critical and clear: Stop waiting for a big man with big money and big plans. Start somewhere, and start small. Just start.

(Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

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