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Urban writer scoffs at corridor plan

By Jeff Stacklin
October 6, 1998

By redeveloping the Fifth and Forbes corridor with national retailers and restaurants, city planners will blow an opportunity to “do something interesting and innovative that won’t bankrupt the city,” an urban critic said Wednesday.

Instead of investing in a national developer, city leaders should assist local businesses by helping them market their wares and by government-funded programs to improve roads and buildings, said Roberta Brandes Gratz, a journalist, author and critic from New York City.

Gratz, author of “Cities Back from the Edge, New Life for Downtown,” spoke as part of the Making Cities Work lecture series. The lecture was sponsored by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Pittsburgh Branch.

With slides, Gratz showed redevelopment projects that have worked in other U.S. cities and some that have not. She made a distinction between the reborn and rebuilt city – and favors the reborn city.

A rebuilt city is one where buildings are razed and replaced with new structures. A reborn city utilizes what’s already in place.

She scoffed at the proposed overhaul of Fifth and Forbes avenues as a rebuilding project that won’t work and will cost too much.

The plan, which has not been finalized, tentatively calls for the city to buy the properties lining the corridor, and then sell them to Urban Retail Properties, a Chicago-based firm.

The firm, which did not return phone calls yesterday, promises to attract an All-Star Cafe, a Planet Hollywood with a 24-screen movie theater and several national retailers.

The project is also expected to get plenty of tax dollars. Already, Gov. Tom Ridge has pledged $10 million in state grants. Mayor Tom Murphy has said he wants to provide $7 million in taxes reaped from a new Mellon Bank operations center. The project, which Urban Retail Properties brochures have called the Market Place at Fifth and Forbes, has been estimated to cost $170 million.

The developer and the city have yet to disclose how much of that cost will be underwritten by private sources.

Although many people can relate to the national chains, Gratz said her studies of other cities show they won’t attract more people Downtown.

“Why would someone come Downtown to a store they can find in a mall in the suburbs?” she asked.

The Fifth and Forbes corridor already is loaded with unique stores that offer a distinct flavor. It’s an area that can be reborn, Gratz said.

She suggested the city catalog existing businesses and what they sell. With that information, the city should launch an advertising campaign to market the area. She’s betting that within a year more people will come Downtown to patronize the stores.

“I don’t think people know how many local businesses will be displaced” by the redevelopment, Gratz said. “Local businesses should be treasured, not replaced.”

After her lecture, Gratz toured the Fifth and Forbes corridor, and stumbled upon The Headgear hat shop on Fifth Avenue. From cowboys hats to baseball caps, the store sells all styles and fashions of hats. It’s in a building that will be razed if the city’s plan is carried out.

“This goes?” she asked, shaking her head in dismay. The plan “makes less sense seeing it on the street than it did when I just heard about it.”

City Councilman Sala Udin is confident that the unique stores, such as the hat shop, will be relocated into the new development – although he could not guarantee that every wig shop and manicurist along the corridor would survive.

“Efforts are being made by the mayor’s office and the Urban Redevelopment Authority to find local businesses that contribute a progressive urban character and keep them in business and keep them in the mix,” Udin said.

Margaret McCormick Barron, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said that some businesses might be temporarily relocated while construction is taking place. She said “it’s premature” to say what businesses, if any, would be forced out of their buildings because of the development.

Udin said he appreciated many conclusions drawn by Gratz. However, the final plan for the Fifth and Forbes corridor has not been completed.

“The jury is still out on it,” Udin said. “What the final configuration of the Downtown ownership will look like is still to be determined.”

Barron said that the city’s new Downtown Plan includes market research that supports the Fifth and Forbes plan, and concludes that the national retailers and restaurants will draw customers.

“We stand by the plan,” she said. Gratz’s remarks suggested that “she seems to think we’re building a mall.” That’s not the case, Barron said.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s office said last night that Murphy planned an important economic development announcement this afternoon at Mellon Square, Downtown.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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