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Rebuilding needs input, not secrecy

Wednesday, October 06, 1999
By Sally Kalson
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

There’s never been any question that something must be done about Pittsburgh’s Forbes-Fifth corridor, a grim expanse with too many indications of a center-city in decline.

But now we’re seeing what happens when the plan for “something” is hatched in secret, by a few people, with no input from those most directly affected, and without consulting any of the myriad local experts who could have helped shape the project and build community support.

Without that kind of participation, Mayor Murphy’s newly unveiled plan for Market Place at Fifth and Forbes feels like it’s being done more TO us than WITH us. And that’s a shame.

I, for one, would love to get behind a major Downtown revitalization project. But as it stands, this one gives me the willies.

It feels out of balance, both too much and not enough — too much demolition, not enough preservation; too much commercial development, not enough residential (none, actually); too much emphasis on national chains, not enough on retaining homegrown business; too much telling how it’s GOING to be, not enough conferring on how it OUGHT to be.

The plan has its merits, to be sure. Of the $480.5 million package, about 89 percent will come from the private developer, Urban Retail Properties of Chicago, and the prospective tenants. The buildings are to be in scale with Downtown’s current proportions, and all the stores are to have street entrances instead of inward-facing, mall-type corridors.

But — and this is a very big but — the plan calls for the city to acquire 64 buildings and demolish 62 of them. Only 10 facades are to be saved and incorporated into the new designs.

That’s not revitalization; it’s clear-cutting. And even if the new buildings that take their place are nicely designed, will there be anything distinct about them? Anything that says Pittsburgh, as opposed to Cleveland, Denver, Atlanta or Fort Worth?

How many structures that are worth saving could have been kept in the picture if Murphy and his point man on the project, Deputy Mayor Tom Cox, had invited Pittsburgh History and Landmarks and Preservation Pittsburgh into the process, instead of holding them off?

Having been excluded, they’re now working on alternative plans of their own. How much time, energy and expense could have been saved if they’d all worked together from the get-go?

And how many Downtown business owners could have been won over, fired up or, at the very least, assuaged if the mayor’s office had found a way to include them? Now they’re angry as hornets, vowing to dig in and hold out, threatening lawsuits.

It was all so predictable, and so unnecessary. Sure, some opposition is inevitable in a project of this scale. All the more reason to accept the help of potential allies when it’s offered instead of shutting them out.

Arthur Ziegler of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks summed it up, saying he was “most disappointed that the city has ignored all those people and organizations that want to help. There was an opportunity here to encourage terrific local community energy and commitment through broad participation.”

This, I think, is one of the most unfortunate characteristics of Murphy’s tenure. I believe he loves this city and cares deeply about its future. If only he could recognize that other people do, too.

Sally Kalson’s e-mail

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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