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Seattle can identify with Pittsburgh’s Plan C

By Dave Copeland
Thursday, April 4, 2002

As Pittsburgh officials begin to move forward with a Downtown redevelopment plan that won’t allow them to use eminent domain, developers in Seattle say the task will be difficult, but not impossible.
Seattle civic leaders reversed the decline of the Pacific Northwest city’s downtown retail core in a state that prohibits the use of eminent domain for redevelopment projects. It was one of the cities mentioned by Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy on Tuesday, when he announced he would move forward with the Plan C Task Force proposal for Downtown redevelopment while attempting not to use eminent domain.

“I would encourage you to go look at other cities in America, because you can see the good of what can happen and the bad of what can happen,” Murphy said. “There are areas in Seattle that looked very similar to Fifth and Forbes five or seven years ago that have been completely rejuvenated.”

Downtown Seattle is one of the projects that city planners and private developers love to cite when they talk about urban business districts that work. The city redeveloped three blocks, putting in more than 1 million square feet of new retail space from 1996-98. The development, known as Pacific Place, sparked an urban renaissance of sorts.

The retail-heavy redevelopment led to new housing space, new office space, a more vibrant cultural district and an expanded convention center.

“I think the best thing is that at almost any time of the day — not just on normal weekdays, but on Saturdays and Sundays and weekday evenings — you can walk out on Pine Street and see all these bobbing heads,” said Matt Griffin, one of the key developers in Seattle’s downtown redevelopment effort. “It reminds me of walking out on a street in New York City. People are coming to downtown Seattle.”

Griffin and three partners formed Pine Street Associates in 1993 to begin working on the plan.

At the time, retail was dying downtown. The historic Frederick & Nelson department store closed in 1992, and two years later L. Magnin followed. Nordstrom Inc., the national retailer based in Seattle, was threatening to move its flagship store and corporate headquarters to Seattle’s suburbs.

Pine Street Associates put together a plan to buy the old F&N store and trade it to Nordstrom for their smaller store and an adjacent building Nordstrom was using for office space. In addition to rebuilding a parking garage, the plan called for Pine Street Associates to refurbish the old Nordstrom store and fill it with retail and office tenants.

Griffin acknowledges that despite only having four major property owners to deal with, acquiring the property for the three-block redevelopment effort was difficult without having eminent domain.

“One or two property owners can hold out and you end up paying too much,” Griffin said. “We really only had to deal with four property owners, and we clearly ended up paying at the high end of our range.”

Where Griffin and his partners only had to conduct negotiations with four property owners, Pittsburgh officials are eyeing a redevelopment area that has more than 60 individual property owners. While not all of the properties need to be acquired, and some of the substantial property owners are already backing the Plan C Task Force proposal, Pittsburgh officials concede acquiring all the property will be difficult.

“I believe it will be difficult, and I think finding a developer willing to go forward without eminent domain will be difficult,” Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Mulugetta Birru said. “But the mayor is very adamant that he doesn’t want to use eminent domain.”

Without eminent domain, the developers used corporate investments, such as Nordstrom’s commitment to stay in downtown Seattle, to convince property owners to join the plan. The redevelopment has been successful not because it offers many options that can’t be found in suburban shopping malls, but because it offers several options in a single place, Griffin said.

“You’ll never find the fabric we have downtown in a suburban shopping center. It’s not a question of just having national stores and being able to see ‘A Beautiful Mind.’ It’s being able to see the symphony or visit the arts center as well,” Griffin said. “Those things will never be replicated in a shopping mall. We both have great stores, but it’s the idea of having all these things come together.”

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

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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