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Task force attempts to solve Downtown’s retail riddle

By Andrew Conte
Sunday, February 24, 2002

Given the option of recommending just one new Pittsburgh location for his high-end retail clients such as Smith & Hawken or Sur La Table, Richard Hodos favors Shadyside’s tony Walnut Avenue over the city’s busy Downtown.
As president of New York City-based HGCD Retail Services, Hodos scouts markets across the country to find ideal places for stand-alone retailers such as those, which sell garden items and cooking tools, respectively.

While Shadyside has a lively mix of residents, retailers and shoppers who come from across the region, Downtown has lacked a clear vision for retail development. It would be hard for anyone now to recommend a national chain locate there among vacant storefronts and neon “store closing” signs.

“At this point I would put them in Shadyside, not Downtown,” said Hodos, a Johnston-native who returns to southwestern Pennsylvania often. “If there was a viable mass of retail Downtown, or if I knew one was coming, I might advise them differently.”

The Plan C task force – a broad coalition of urban planners, city officials and Downtown retailers – hopes to give him that option in the near future. They are developing a plan to direct retail development in the central business district, while maintaining the architecturally significant buildings there.

Even vacancies left behind in recent months by G.C. Murphy, National Record Mart and Dollar Zone – all within one block of Forbes Avenue – could be potential assets, said Patty Maloney, who owns three card shops Downtown and has been deeply involved in Plan C.

“There are all sorts of opportunities out there,” she said. “We could be looking at a big hole in the middle of the city, on the one hand. Or is this a real opportunity to do something really reflective of this region?”

Despite Plan C’s work at “cooperation” over the past year, debate still smolders over whether Downtown needs widespread reconstruction or detailed preservation.

More than a year ago, Mayor Tom Murphy officially dropped his $522 million plan for Market Place at Fifth & Forbes, a wholesale demolition to attract national retail chains. Talking about that proposal, he now says that he has “learned a lot from our mistakes in the past.”

Others are not so sure the city didn’t miss an opportunity – one that fades a little more every time other retail centers such as The Waterfront in Homestead gain another major store or entertainment venue. Station Square will open a new Hard Rock Cafe this year, while the former South Side Works will have a 10-screen movie theater and high-end restaurants.

“Homestead has all the stores,” said Mulugetta Birru, director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. “Can Pittsburgh support additional entertainment districts? That really frightens me. Has Downtown missed an opportunity for entertainment development?”

Hodos, who scouts the Pittsburgh market regularly, remains optimistic about retail opportunities Downtown. The city now has a chance to fill in vacant spaces with high-end retailers that are unique to the region.

But, he said, developers need a clear vision, have to remain flexible and must move quickly once they get started.

“It’s sad retailers are closing Downtown but there needs to be a grand plan, and it needs to be put into effect not over a long time but over a relatively short time,” Hodos said.

Andrew Conte can be reached at or (412) 320-7835.

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