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Parking woes plagues downtown – Survey finds shoppers attracted to area malls because of free parking

By Dave Copeland


Had it been approved, the failed $522.4 million Market Place at Fifth & Forbes redevelopment plan for downtown Pittsburgh would have done little to draw shoppers to the city, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review poll shows.

“I would just never think of going down there,” said Joe Kuhner of Wilkins Township as he shopped at the Monroeville Mall recently. “I have no reason to go down there. It’s just easier to stay out here and go to the mall.”

Only 10 percent of the respondents to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Poll said they would be “very likely” to shop Downtown if the Fifth-Forbes retail corridor was redeveloped. Forty-two percent said they would not shop Downtown even if the corridor was redeveloped.

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy had wanted to create the Market Place at Fifth & Forbes by demolishing 62 buildings along Fifth and Forbes avenues. Urban Retail Properties Co., the project’s lead developer that bowed out when Nordstrom Inc. declined an offer to anchor the development, had promised an upscale retail district that they believed would have drawn shoppers from throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

The main reason respondents gave for not shopping Downtown is the often hectic hunt for a parking spot.

Forty-three percent of the respondents said cheaper parking would make them more likely to shop Downtown, and another 18 percent said they might consider Downtown shopping more often if there was better public transportation to get them there.

“We can park for free here,” Kuhner said of the Monroeville Mall.

In November, Pittsburgh City Council voted against diverting money from the Market Place at Fifth & Forbes project to pay for free parking during the holiday season, upgrades to Grant Street and facade improvements for Downtown businesses.

The proposal had been pushed by Councilman Jim Ferlo, but Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Mulugetta Birru said it would be illegal for the city to use the tax-increment financing money for anything other than what it was designated.

Murphy’s thinking for redeveloping Downtown wasn’t completely flawed, according to poll respondents. Seventeen percent said they would be more likely to shop Downtown if there were more department stores. Since being elected in 1994, Murphy has given tax subsidies to build a Lazarus and a Lord & Taylor department store to join the existing Kaufmann’s and Saks Fifth Avenue stores, making Pittsburgh one of the few major cities with four Downtown department stores.

“I don’t go down there now. If it was different than a regular mall, I might go down,” said Shannon Mahoney of Murrysville, Westmoreland County. “The only reason I probably would go down was for shopping, or maybe a concert.”

While 59 percent of the poll respondents said they never shop Downtown, only 4 percent said they shop there on a weekly basis. Those people are more than likely people who work Downtown or live in the city, said Patty Maloney, owner of the Card Center on Wood Street.

“That’s why there are different places to shop – so people can choose where they shop,” Maloney said. “All you have to do is look at our transactions and you can see that people do shop here. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be in business.”

Another criticism of Murphy’s plan was the lack of residential development that could have provided a customer base for the envisioned “24-hour Market Place.”

Shadyside resident Karen McClellan said she prefers to shop at the stores on Walnut Street, within walking distance from her apartment.

“It’s so much easier to walk down the street. That’s where I do most of my shopping,” McClellan said. “I haven’t been to a mall since I moved here, and I’ve never shopped Downtown.”

With Murphy’s plan in shambles, he is looking to his former opponents to help develop a new Downtown revitalization program based partly on the National Trust For Historic Preservation’s Main Street program.

Murphy has tapped the Golden Triangle Community Development Corp. and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation – two key critics of his original proposal – to work on “Plan C, for compromise.”

Main Street has been used throughout the country to revitalize business districts while preserving historic buildings. In addition to revitalizing buildings and fostering existing businesses, Main Street relies heavily on promoting the district as a destination for shoppers and tourists. Pittsburgh’s South Side was one of the first urban areas to adopt a Main Street program.

Dave Copeland can be reached at or (412) 320-7922.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633