Pittsburgh officials want to create a Downtown 'urban village' atmosphere

Bob Bauder
| Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Pittsburgh planners abandoned efforts to transform Downtown with big-box retailers anchoring the business district and instead envision an “urban village” where people can walk to unique locations to live, shop, dine and be entertained.

City leaders want to make the Golden Triangle the regional destination it was 60 years ago.

“You'll be able to go to stores here in Downtown that you won't find in a suburban mall,” said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. “Our vision for Downtown is to invest in small businesses and create retail environments where people want to walk from place to place.”

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, formed by businesses, organizations and other groups, promotes and markets the neighborhood it calls the region's “metropolitan heartbeat.” The group considers the North Shore, Station Square and sections of the Strip District and Uptown as part of Downtown, and counts 180 retailers and about 280 restaurants, nightclubs, bars, sandwich shops, coffee shops and bakeries Downtown. It lists five art galleries, 26 tourist attractions and seven theaters.

Still, Downtown today is a dramatic change from that of the 1950s, said Ron Heck, an attorney with offices on Forbes Avenue.

“You came into town to shop,” said Heck, 70, of Shaler, who grew up in Brookline. “The sidewalks were crowded with people. You had streetcars and movie theaters. When you had a date in high school, you brought a girl down here, and you put a suit and tie on. That's all gone.”

Over the years, redevelopment cleaned the air and rivers, brought skyscrapers, and rid Liberty and Penn avenues of smut parlors. Yet, despite a thriving Cultural District when theaters book events, Downtown resembles a ghost town after 5 p.m.

Pittsburgh evolved from the “Smoky City” to “America's Most Livable City” over six decades, but its Golden Triangle stagnated with expanding suburbia and retail flight.

“In 1950, there wasn't a blade of grass in Downtown Pittsburgh,” said Bob Pease, 87, of Edgewood, who was executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority from 1958 to 1968. “If you look at Downtown now, there's quite a dramatic change.”

Critics point to a need for improved parking and less expensive real estate options. Rents start around $900 for a studio and go up, said Liz Caplan, a real estate agent with Keller Williams in Shadyside. Condos range from $100,000 for “a very small unit” to million-dollar penthouses, she said.

“I've seen a very big downturn in the quality of independent stores,” said Point Breeze native Eddie Lowy, owner of Banner Coin Exchange on Fourth Avenue for 33 years. “I've seen a dramatic change in the types of people. Outside of the Downtown working crowd, you have more of a middle- to lower-class shopping Downtown.”

He agrees with city leaders who say that's starting to change with an influx of residents and businesses. The neighborhood's population in 2010 was nearly 4,000, up by nearly 1,000 since 2000, according to the Pittsburgh Planning Commission.

With residents bolstering daily commuters, retail business could expand and attract more visitors, leaders say.

“What we're really going to focus on is providing activities and programming that encourage more people into Downtown at night and on the weekends,” said Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership.

Some point to Market Square as an example. Once a habitat for the homeless, the square is drawing lunchtime crowds, nighttime cocktail patrons and weekend tourists. It reopened in 2010 after a yearlong, $5.1 million makeover. In June, Cecil-based Millcraft Industries proposed building The Gardens at Market Square — an $81.8 million office, hotel and garage.

“I've seen foot traffic increase a lot since Market Square (reopened),” said Anna Ciaccio, sales manager for Boutique la Passerelle on Wood Street, one of the newest shops Downtown. “Market Square is hopping. I was there on a Tuesday night, and all the tables were filled.”

John Paul Malezi, 42, of Mt. Lebanon, a doorman at Omni William Penn Hotel, said he has noticed a change in people arriving for weekend visits.

“I'm seeing a lot more pickup trucks,” he said. “It's guys who work in the gas industry.”

Carl “Guy” Herrmann, the fourth-generation owner of Carl W. Herrmann Furs and Fine Outerwear on Smithfield Street, said the city made a big mistake in the 1990s when it offered chain department stores such as Lord & Taylor subsidies to locate Downtown. Instead, he said, they should have helped the little guys.

PNC Bank bought Lord & Taylor's long vacant store on Smithfield last summer. Other large department stores are gone — Saks Fifth Avenue closed in March, Joseph Horne Co. closed in 1994 and Lazarus, which assumed Horne's, closed its taxpayer-subsidized store Downtown a decade later. Macy's has significantly downsized its presence in a 13-story Fifth Avenue building that once housed Kaufmann's.

“Who's left?” Herrmann asked. “That type of sweetheart deal is what the city should have done back then to draw in the small, independent businesses.”

John Valentine, executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corp., said 20 boutiques are interested in moving to the Golden Triangle.

Ravenstahl said the city received at least that many inquiries from businesses interested in Downtown locations, but he doubts all would move in.

The development corporation is working to set up a dog park where residents could walk pets leash-free, and a public entertainment venue where people could enjoy panel discussions and musical, dance or theater productions.

“We're creating an urban village, more than a mall,” said Valentine, who has lived in Gateway Towers for nine years. “People in the North Hills are going to go to a mall in the North Hills. We have to give them a reason to come Downtown, whether it's atmosphere, whether it's offering them things that aren't in a mall.”

Ed Fritsch, CEO of Highwoods Properties Inc. in Raleigh, N.C., which owns several Downtown skyscrapers including the landmark PPG Place, said Pittsburgh's diversified economy attracted the company to invest Downtown. He said his first visit in 2011 surprised him.

“My overall impression was it might very well be one of the best kept secrets in America,” Fritsch said. “It is a good place to invest, and it is a good place to live, work and play.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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