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Retail will follow the residents

By George Aspiotes and Maggi Newhouse
Friday, August 1, 2003

When it comes to retail, planning officials from cities nationwide have this advice for Pittsburgh: Quit trying so hard.
Despite receiving $11.8 million in public money to open a Lord & Taylor in Downtown Pittsburgh, May Department Stores announced Tuesday that the location is one of 34 stores it plans to sell or close.

For Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, the news further proves the strategy he has used in his city for years — fewer taxpayer subsidies means more success when it comes to business and residential development.

“You shouldn’t feel bad about Lord & Taylor,” Norquist said. “I’d feel bad about having bribed them to come in the first place. If you have patience, retail will develop.

“My feeling is the city should make it easy to convert buildings to housing. If more people lived Downtown, then the retail would follow.”

Norquist said his city has one department store, a Boston Store — and he’s fine with that. Since 1999, Milwaukee has added more than 3,000 residential units downtown — without any subsidies.

As a result, he has seen Milwaukee’s downtown area buck the national trend and grow in population.

In Pittsburgh, the population of the Golden Triangle (everything west of the Crosstown Boulevard) is approximately 2,000, according to the latest Census figures.

Milwaukee isn’t alone in its strategy. Across the country, cities of approximately Pittsburgh’s size are finding that retail becomes secondary in the larger goal of luring residents to downtowns.

Denver has not had a department store in its downtown since 1995. In the early 1990s, officials decided the city could not maintain a solid base for downtown department stores, said Ben Kelly, director of communications for the Downtown Denver Partnership.

“It was decided that much more effort would be put into bolstering downtown housing,” Kelly said. “We worked under the idea that rooftops would bring retail.”

Since 1995, downtown Denver has become an entertainment-oriented location. Anchored by Coors Field, the downtown development has focused on theaters and restaurants. City officials hope to attract 25,000 residents to the downtown in the next two decades, according to the Rocky Mountain News.

Downtown Denver has seen more than 6,600 residential units built since 1990, with 1,800 more under construction as of April, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership.

Tampa, Fla., a city of 303,000, saw its last downtown department store depart 15 years ago when the Maas Brothers Department Store closed after 100 years in the city.

As in Denver, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has made boosting the downtown’s residential population a priority.

“In Tampa, the return of the department store is unlikely,” said Paul Ayres, director of marketing and business development for the Tampa Downtown Partnership. “We are working to add residential to the area. Then you’ll see other services come along that are more retail-oriented and geared toward the residential base.”

Downtown Columbus, Ohio, has two department stores within an urban mall. Bill Burns, a spokesman for the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, said the stores, including a Lazarus that has been in the city for years, are only one part of a successful city.

“A downtown setting has to have housing, jobs, recreational opportunities; they all make up a successful downtown,” he said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy’s spokesman, Craig Kwiecinski, said that is also the mayor’s strategy — to focus on commercial, entertainment, retail and housing.

One example is the latest plan for the Fifth and Forbes corridor, to be developed by Downtown Works, a division of Philadelphia-based Kravco. It calls for a combination of new and renovated buildings for retail and residential use.

“We are fortunate to have several major retailers anchoring our downtown,” Kwiecinski said. “We believe that is what we can build on to make downtown a vibrant retail destination.”

“Pittsburgh has tried too hard (on retail),” Milwaukee’s Norquist said. “Try to work more with the real estate market. You don’t have to subsidize.”

Still, the city will have three department stores after Lord & Taylor is gone — and that’s three more than Cleveland.

George Aspiotes and Maggi Newhouse can be reached at or 412-320-7982.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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