Menu Contact/Location

Proposals abound for Fifth and Forbes

Compiled By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, February 08, 2004

The distinct local businesses in the Fifth and Forbes district cannot hang on forever while PNC and the Urban Redevelopment Authority collect and sit on empty properties and the mayor waits for the perfect retail development to fall into his lap. The city’s Downtown deal-making of the past years has done nothing but plunge the city into debt. Downtown’s real estate market values no longer relate to reality, and no one can make an investment knowing that large-scale property owners are letting large swaths of the Fifth and Forbes district fester indefinitely.

Downtown should capitalize on what it does best: entertainment and commerce. Forget about subsidized big-box retail Downtown! Don’t compromise Kaufmann’s success. It is a destination unto itself, and subsidizing its competition is counterproductive.
Downtown will not succeed in the long term as a one-fell-swoop retail development project. For investment in the Fifth/Forbes district to be sustainable, development must be incremental and market-driven (the antithesis of the recent Lord & Taylor and Lazarus fiascoes). Paying outside developers to fix our city will do little to improve the integrity of our Downtown and will further export future income generation.

Ideas for helping to promote a sustainable future for Downtown start with the sale of Fifth/Forbes district URA properties. Proceeds generated from the sales should be used to:

Hire a Main Street manager to market the district’s assets and to connect buildings/available rental space to interested tenants/owners.

Revive the Golden Triangle Community Development Corp. and give small business a bigger voice in Downtown development discussions.

Create an immigrant-recruitment and relocation program to repopulate Downtown and enliven specifically the Fifth/Forbes district.

Target investments to make the district’s buildings easier and more profitable to convert into mixed-use or residential buildings (for example, matching grant programs for the installation of elevators, sprinkler systems and a second means of egress), eliminating some roadblocks to building reuse.

Start a business program that helps local entrepreneurs.

Revive the URA Street Face program. Created to promote the sensitive renovation and rehabilitation of historic building facades, this program was just closed indefinitely, presumably due to the city’s fiscal situation. This was the one program that supported individuals wanting to invest in Pittsburgh’s aging building stock.

At this point, you must be a big-time developer to get support or interest from the city for your projects.

Plans for revitalizing areas:

Market Square is the rundown heart of Downtown. The Fifth/Forbes district cannot be improved without substantial investment in its core. What should be a central gathering place lacks in attractiveness, safety and cleanliness. With prominent empty storefronts at opposite corners of Market Square — the PPG and Murphy’s buildings — the public space feels increasingly vacant and rundown.

The Murphy’s building would be perfect for a market place. Downtown employees could use a supermarket with more inventory than a convenience store, where they could pick up dinner on the way home. A deli-style take-out counter would be a welcome addition to the lunch opportunities around Market Square. Surely the college students and residents of Downtown would appreciate being able to walk to get groceries.

At Warner Center, pair up each of the food court vendors with an empty URA property and a business plan. Activate the streets with diverse businesses. Turn Warner Center back into a movie house with more mainstream box-office draws to complement but not compete with the Harris Theater.

Forbes Avenue, full of smaller storefronts, could become the destination for a variety of ethnic restaurants and smaller-scale nightclubs and entertainment, particularly as the Cultural District empties certain tax-paying businesses from Liberty Avenue.

Finally, encourage Downtown living, including more dorms for Point Park and Duquesne students.

Start small, build green

Gary Saulson, Senior Vice President and Director of Corporate Real Estate, The PNC Financial Services Group

As owner of the largest group of properties that could be developed in the Fifth/Forbes corridor and one of the city’s largest employers, PNC has a vested interest and deep commitment to the revitalization of Downtown, which has tremendous benefits for the city and our region overall. Clearly, the “big bang” approach has not worked, so my three main recommendations are:

Think big, start small: Greater emphasis should be placed on Downtown’s residential population to help draw small businesses back into the district. There should be larger residential developments that appeal to a diverse range of residents, from the recent college grad to empty-nesters who are all drawn to the amenities and conveniences that could be offered. This will create the critical mass that a large, national retailer covets, and generate interest in the Lazarus and Lord & Taylor buildings. Now is not the time to get discouraged and overreact.

To complement any incoming “destination”-type retailers, we must pay equal attention to filling the spaces between those stores with the right mix of street-level businesses that will attract shoppers. Any mall developer will tell you the “anchor” stores rely on the smaller stores and vice versa. Go slow to grow big — accept steady, incremental growth and give entrepreneurs a chance to make a difference, along with the time to make it happen. It will take longer, but the benefits will be far more lasting.

Get connected: This city has already proven an ability to succeed with public/private partnerships, such as the Cultural District. Let’s build on the success of this nationally renowned redevelopment and expand its look, feel and vibrancy into central Downtown and extend it to the First Avenue area, where improvements are already being made. We can create “connectivity” so that residents and visitors alike can walk from river to river and appreciate the continuity, cleanliness, safety and vitality of our historic city. Responsible development that includes modern, appropriately priced housing attracts residents and will, in turn, drive demand for a wide variety of retail and service businesses.

Build responsibly: Think “green.” Pittsburgh is a national leader in environmentally responsible construction, with more than 30 registered or certified “green” buildings, including the two largest in the world — the convention center and PNC Firstside Center. We can continue to reinforce our region’s evolution by applying environmental principles to the revitalization of Downtown. A deeper commitment to water and energy efficiency, open “green” space, pollution control and traffic planning all will serve us well. It also will make Pittsburgh more attractive to potential businesses, residents and tourists.

Embrace market economics

Bernie Lynch, former executive director of the Market Square Association

Here’s how to do it:

Repeal the Fifth/Forbes redevelopment plan and “lift the cloud on the title” of these properties, allowing them to be free and clear for resale for what the market will bring. Stop our government from using eminent domain by taking property from one private owner to give to another of its choice.

New development: Ask PNC chairman Jim Rohr to develop PNC’s dozen or so properties on Fifth Avenue.

Force the URA to sell its Downtown properties (including Lazarus), valued collectively as high as $50 million. Sell them in an open, transparent bidding process (banks need not apply). Open the pools and recreation centers this summer with the first proceeds of the property sales, which should use up about $4 million, leaving us $16 million to $46 million to help fix that budget problem we keep talking about.

Disband the URA. Overhaul the whole idea of “authorities” that take our revenue streams for their purposes and leave the city economically dry to operate. No RIDC, no county development agency. Encourage the private sector to do this work. Re-evaluate market-manipulation funds like tax increment financing, the Strategic Investment Fund, the Pittsburgh Development Fund and others. Realize that “big bang” doesn’t work long term.

Embrace entrepreneurs, businesses, mom-and-pop shops, the owner-occupied merchant, the immigrant business owners who can’t work in corporate America but whose drive can’t be stopped.. Embrace the yet-to-be-revealed, next-generation business gurus.

No more handouts. No business privilege tax for anyone. Spread a regional business tax that is palatable to all across five or six counties. Let’s not keep driving everyone out of a core that will collapse if it isn’t supported.

Build on strengths

Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh; Dan Holland, founder

The association embraces the message of CMU professor Joel Tarr’s new book, “Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region”: Let us not repeat mistakes of the past.

We think Downtown doesn’t need too much tinkering to enhance its strengths, which include architectural diversity, pedestrian-friendly streets, a transit-accessible location and untapped potential for housing.

Creative and flexible taxation and zoning mechanisms combined with existing preservation laws, new state legislation and time-tested preservation techniques can ultimately generate a successful mixed-use residential, office and retail environment for the Fifth/Forbes corridor.

We have three recommendations:

Expand the Downtown historic districts. You can’t have too much of a good thing. Pittsburgh must maintain the historic integrity of our Downtown buildings, including historic interiors. We want to keep our architectural landscape as distinct as possible so that our Downtown is unlike any other urban center in the country. The current historic districts — Penn-Liberty and Market Square — are the most vibrant and economically successful parts of Downtown. We must build upon this success.

Consider a third Downtown historic district along the Fifth/Forbes corridor, to include other notable structures, such as the Park Building and Warner Theater. Nominate Fourth Avenue, between Smithfield and Wood streets, which borders the Market Square district, as a city historic district.

Amend the Historic Preservation Code to create a special historic interiors provision for Downtown. The gutting of the marble interior of Mellon Bank was a travesty that could have been avoided if preservation of historic interiors had been codified into law.

Allow for flexibility. The YPA is not flatly against demolition or alteration of historic structures; some compromises may have to be made. But these are options of last resort Progressive new architecture should be encouraged where appropriate, but not to replace a historic structure.

Create a competitive program that rewards innovative, quality commercial design with incorporated living spaces and sound business plans with low- or no-cost land, plus new/upgraded infrastructure to the site. An Urban Business & Residential Homesteading Program would encourage a mix of housing, retail and office space. The agency would help negotiate the sale of buildings and make the property available to the highest evaluated rehab/development/small business plans within established guidelines and rehab standards.

Encourage banks to adopt a Location Efficient Lending program –innovative underwriting standards by private or public lenders who recognize the significant retention of disposable income to people who are living where they work.

Urge swift passage of the proposed Historic Rehabilitation and Economic Revitalization Tax Credit Act (Pennsylvania Senate Bill 820 and its companion bills, House Bill 951 and 952). The House version passed unanimously in 2003. In short, this legislation provides a 20 percent tax credit on eligible redevelopment costs. The proposed historic tax credit empowers local redevelopment authorities to designate those buildings that are most important to the community and most economically viable for consideration.

Adopt meaningful transit changes to increase Downtown’s accessibility without compromising its historic integrity. This would mean no more surface parking lots. Consider creating a free (or low-fee) shuttle that would service suburban communities to bring people Downtown. Create common-sense ways to navigate the archaic Downtown bus routing systems. A commuter rail system from the north and east should be strongly considered, eliminating the current strain on Route 28 and the Parkway East.

Word by word

Eve Picker, President, no wall productions

It’s like a crossword puzzle. You can’t solve all the words at once. They intersect and need each other. But you know that it is solvable. If you start in one place, with one word, and then another, it gets easier and easier.

The Fifth and Forbes project is no different. We have tried to solve it all at once. We need well-sequenced, small, achievable steps that get us there in the end. And here they are:

The G.C. Murphy Block:Develop the upper floors of as much of the G.C. Murphy block as possible. Forget about the missing pieces. If property owners want to be holdouts, so be it. A lot can be done right now. And I will shamelessly add: Let no wall productions do this project. We’ve been working on it for months now, with the continued support of the URA, and we know how to make it fly.

Market Square: Police Market Square 24 hours a day and clean it up. It must be a joy to visit, not a threat. Chase away loiterers. Encourage others to program more there in the summer. Solicit the help of the Market Square Association and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. Sweep it, clean windows, keep it free of litter, and do it every day.

Market Square District: Pull the charm of Market Square up the street, along Forbes Avenue. Create a Market Square District. The entire block of Forbes from Wood to Market Square would feel as if you have entered a neighborhood. The effect is easy to achieve. On the north side, the G.C. Murphy building will be ready with tenants and a gorgeous facade. The URA has control of a lot of land on the south side of the street — here’s an opportunity to build a smaller-scale housing project; maybe this one can be for sale. There’s enough land for parking here, too.

Build great retail spaces, and now you have three spaces ready for retailers: the G.C. Murphy building, the Lazarus building and the south side of Forbes. Now let’s think about improving the sidewalks and lighting, too.

Fifth Avenue: The toughest block to develop — it’s a great location for a future larger and denser housing and retail project but will need parking, and it is very, very expensive to build. It looks hard now but will become easier as the rest takes off. It’s the hardest word to solve in the crossword puzzle. But we have a powerful ally there: PNC Bank.

Retail: Keep looking for a retail partner to implement the retail plan. Make it as enticing as possible. We have a significant site assembled. There’s something to be said for staying with Downtown Works — they have such a thorough understanding of the city by now; we may lose too much time starting over. It will set us back another year.

A market house in Market Square

Arthur Ziegler, President, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

Take any available funds, publicly held land and suitable buildings and make them available for housing.

Support a great market house in Market Square. If Market Square must remain open space, use the G.C. Murphy building. A stunning new building would symbolize a positive Downtown renewal and answer the No. 1 question of potential residents: Where can I buy groceries?

Do not limit the housing to the Fifth and Forbes area, but encourage it, preferably with its own parking, everywhere Downtown, especially on the riverfronts.

Adopt the excellent plan prepared by Stan Ekstut that Landmarks submitted three years ago as a guide. [It would have cost about the same as the mayor’s plan, but saved more historic buildings and added housing to the mix.]

Blend the bold with the old

Arthur Lubetz Associates Architects, Oakland

The Fifth/Forbes corridor is the core of the Golden Triangle, and as such it should be the core for the city and the region. This Pittsburgh Core should both underscore and amplify the dynamic and strongly dense urban quality of the Triangle. Moreover, the Pittsburgh Core, like the core of the Earth itself, should be a vital, vibrant place. How can we accomplish this?

Restore and re-use existing buildings almost exclusively for housing — dense, impacted housing that attracts a variety of people and income levels. A good deal of this housing should also have access to adjacent parking. In restoring the existing buildings, render them lively and arresting, from brilliant new paint to exciting textures, aromas and materials.

On the cutting edge: or “in-fill” buildings to be erected on empty lots, chose leading-edge, 21st-century architects, commissioning them to design striking, visionary, exciting places that are simultaneously seen and experienced.

In this way, the Pittsburgh Core could be transformed into one of the most thrilling urban settings in the nation, a place that attracts people with a series of dramatic episodes. The end result would be a memorable experience for the participants — achieved by engaging all the senses, stimulating the body, evoking powerful responses. This total experience of colors, sights, signs, sounds and materials would render the Pittsburgh Core a unique place.

A place to go, a place to be. We can distinguish this city with an urban center where visitors feel the great density of a city while gazing past the rivers and to the green hills beyond. What other city can say that?

Back off, Mr. Mayor

Pat Clark, founding member, GroundZero Action Network

Get out of the business of Downtown shopping center development. Until the city steps away from this strategy, the depressed real estate and retail business environment Downtown will continue to degrade. Redevelopment will never occur in an uncertain and speculative environment, an artificial economy where the city and the URA continue to buy up property for the sake of a misguided vision that is not working. Free-market forces can and will be able to begin the kind of incremental redevelopment that will prove to be lasting and effective, but not until the city restores some stability to the district.

Don’t try to do it all. Leadership doesn’t mean running the whole show; it means partnering and empowering others toward shared goals. Encourage, support and embrace a more diverse strategy of housing and business development Downtown, letting retail take its logical, more secondary role. Retail will naturally follow population and business. Funds and support of retail are better directed toward our neighborhood business districts.

Young entrepreneurs should lead the way. There’s a lot of talk in this town about attracting and retaining young people. There’s a simple solution to turning that talk into results: Support their ideas, empower them and fund them. Create a development fund, managed by young people, to support creative young entrepreneurs in developing businesses in the Fifth/Forbes district. A few key businesses founded by young entrepreneurs were instrumental in helping to turn around South Street in Philadelphia and Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, downtown Bakersfield, Calif., in the 1990s, as well as our own Carson Street. Perhaps PNC Bank could help fund this type of initiative and, in the process, transform all those empty retail properties PNC owns along Fifth Avenue that have sat vacant for years.

Stop focusing on building $500,000 luxury condos Downtown. The best target market to repopulate Downtown quickly is young people, homesteaders who aren’t bothered by vacant night-time streets but would actually be attracted to a bohemian-style district — if only there were affordable housing in the upper floors of Downtown properties!

Developing this kind of housing will take subsidies, but I’d wager that the luxury condos would, too, and on a much larger scale. The difference is that young people would actually be inclined to live down there right now if there were housing, even without an upscale grocery store or a Crate & Barrel.

Middle-class Pittsburgh is the solution, not the problem. Five years ago, a big part of the reason that we had a lively retail environment Downtown was that its stores served two important customer bases: Downtown workers as well as the working- and middle-class shoppers who relied on public transit. The Nordstrom/Lord & Taylor retail mirage aimed to upscale the district, shooting for attracting the affluent shopper at the direct expense of the more value-minded traditional shopper. Now the empty storefronts serve neither, but chances of redeveloping the district will most logically succeed if based on the customers who have long supported the district.

Sell everything immediately

Terry A. Necciai, former Main Street manager in Charleroi and Somerset, presented a Main Street plan for Fifth/Forbes to City Council in April 2000. He is currently a project architect with John Milner Associates, Alexandria, Va.

Divest the city its financial interests in Fifth/Forbes corridor commercial properties. Government involvement in property ownership and development is a disincentive to businesses. The Fifth and Forbes area is an excellent example — as soon as the city decided to give up on the business people already in place and acquire real estate and seek and financially support outside investors, local business owners began to posture themselves either to sell to the city or go out of business.

From the sale of buildings, set aside some of the proceeds to establish a new “public-private partnership” office aimed directly at helping existing business and property owners to “grow” their businesses and improve their buildings and their marketing strategies. Focus a large percentage of the marketing resources and energy available on creating visible events targeted at making the office workers and various individuals who commute to Downtown feel like the place is “people friendly” and fun.

Create an aggressive, positive-minded program that works with existing property owners. This program should be only on a “technical assistance” basis. The technical assistance should include highly specialized, highly qualified and highly motivated staff people who know how to work with property owners, large and small, and who know how to deliver good and useful advice about marketing, aesthetics, advertising, and so on. Such a program can be budgeted (and staffed) at about $200,000 a year or less.

Undertake many small- and modest-scaled projects rather than concentrate on “big fix” ideas. Revitalization is almost the complete, categorical opposite of “redevelopment.” To revitalize means to make something “vital.” Vitality comes with diversity and not with top-down “site control.”

Treat historic buildings as assets and gradually upgrade them. That includes all the old quirky stuff found in the district, Any additional funds the city has available should go toward carefully crafted matching grant programs — the city should give no money to private businesses unless matched by the business owner or property owner who is benefiting from the program.

A Fifth/Forbes Timeline

September 1996 — Demolition begins on nine buildings that will be replaced by a Lazarus department store and underground garage.

October 1998 — The May Co. announces it will buy the Mellon Bank headquarters building for $9 million and spend another $27 million converting it to a Lord & Taylor store. Of the $36 million total, the Urban Redevelopment Authority will provide $11.75 million in a “soft loan.” Repayment won’t be triggered until the store generates sales of $259 per square foot.

November 1998 — $78 million Lazarus opens with $50 million in public subsidies, including $18 million in loans from the Pittsburgh Development Fund, $15 million in tax increment financing and $14 million for the 520-space parking garage.

August 1999 — Mellon Bank’s historic marble interior is demolished.

October 1999 — Mayor Murphy announces a $480.5 million plan by Chicago developer Urban Retail Properties to demolish 62 buildings and replace them with 40 new shops, restaurants, an 18-screen movie theater and Nordstrom store. The plan includes $53.5 million in public funds. The city would acquire 64 buildings, by eminent domain if necessary, and sell the land to Urban Retail.

November 1999 — Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and Preservation Pittsburgh propose a redevelopment plan by New York architect Stan Eckstut that would cost about the same as the mayor’s plan but save more buildings and add housing to the mix.

April 2000 — The newly formed Golden Triangle Community Development Corp. presents its plan to City Council, based on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s incremental Main Street approach.

November 2000 — Lord & Taylor opens. With Nordstrom expressing only lukewarm interest in the Urban Retail project and property owners threatening lawsuits, Murphy drops the Urban Retail plan.

December 2000 — Murphy forms Plan C Task Force, a coalition of city officials, building and business owners and preservationists.

March 2002 — Murphy releases details of Plan C: $363 million for a new hotel, office building, indoor public market, two retail buildings and two residential developments.

March 2003 — In a speech at the Rivers Club, Murphy reveals portions of a plan by Kravco. Co., in which the block containing the old G.C. Murphy store would stay intact; parking would be built underneath a Fifth Avenue block controlled by PNC Financial Services Group; and housing would be built along a stretch of Forbes anchored by Market Square and Wood Street. By summer, Murphy says, Kravco will produce a more detailed plan. By early fall, demolition or renovation work could start on the first buildings.

July 2003 — Lord & Taylor announces it will close its Downtown store, which could remain open until its lease expires at the end of 2005.

January 2004 — Kravco drops the Pittsburgh project after merging with Simon Properties, a mall developer. Lazarus announces it will close its Downtown store in May.

— Patricia Lowry

(Post-Gazette architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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