Bad News and the Future of Pittsburgh

I recently returned to Pittsburgh, and it hasn’t taken me long to realize that disaster is all around me. From reading the news reports, I more fully expect pieces of the earth to start falling from under my feet now, than I did back in San Francisco when I had to wonder when the next big one would strike.

In Pittsburgh, “big ones” seem to come with expected regularity. There’s been so little good news here that we’ve learned to see even bad news as good. Take this headline for example: City finally wins distressed status.

Yes, finally we are there. We’ve been worrying about distress for so long, we’re all finally glad it’s here so we don’t have to think about it anymore.

The notion that, alas, distress was here didn’t stop other difficulties from contributing to our imminent downfall. It quickly became clear to me that many of the gains I had thought the city made while I was away would be completely dissipated soon after my return. For starters, not one, but two, department stores that had opened in downtown Pittsburgh (heavily taxpayer-subsidized both) would soon be gone.

The papers here have even learned to disguise bad news as good news to break up the monotony. Recently another long-standing downtown department store announced it would close its upper two floors and move thirty jobs to Ohio, as well as clean the outside of the building. The headline boasted of the exterior upgrade and mentioned the bad news as a side note. This store had previously eliminated 1,200 jobs.

Back to the “distressed status.” The city is bankrupt, and the mayor and council have decided to raise its parking tax to fifty percent (while subsidizing their own parking costs at far lower rates). A fifty percent tax on anything is pretty steep. As far as taxes go, it’s not the worst of the bunch, and it could actually be of benefit by discouraging driving, as could a proposed commuter tax.

The reason one of the department stores, Lazarus-Macy’s, announced a closing was clearly a lack of sales. The lack of customers to make those registers ring out could be from to a lack of free parking, or it could be the fault a lack of people in close proximity to the store (the city also has some of the highest public transit fares in the country). If the city wants downtown retail to work, turning the store building into a parking garage as has been suggested won’t be the answer.

When these retail stores were lured to Pittsburgh, additional redevelopment referred to as the Fifth-Forbes plan was to make the district an upscale shopping destination. The plan met with opposition, and little else materialized. Had the plan been executed as first suggested, though, I still doubt the retail stores would have succeedede. One reason the plan was opposed was a lack of housing–and in fact housing is an ingredient necessary to make a city work.

These are the facts:

  • Downtown retailers drawing customers from the suburbs need parking. Even without a rise in the parking tax to fifty percent, retailers in downtown can not compete with their suburban counterparts for shopping convenienceif they are trying to serve suburbanites.
  • Downtown residents may require some parking, but a large percentage of them can visit stores on foot. They require more parking if the only shopping options are in the suburbs.
  • Downtown residents need groceries and household convenience items such as provided more by a discount retailer than a department store. A store like Target or K-Mart would much better serve downtown and city residents than a store like Lord and Taylor or Lazarus-Macy’s.

The rash of bad news would make it easy to want to throw in the towel and forget about the idea that Pittsburgh’s downtown activity can be on par with that of New York or San Francisco. What both of those cities have downtown that Pittsburgh doesn’t isn’t just department stores: it is also huge numbers of residents.

Retail stores like K-Mart or Lord and Taylor locate naturally, economically, and without subsidies where there is a residential population to draw from.

To move forward, downtown Pittsburgh should immediately increase the number of condominiums and apartments downtown. New residential construction in the city has met with more success in recent years than any commercial attempts. New residential structures will compete with retail operations to add tax money to the city’s coffers. While parking taxes and commuter taxes may be a good stopgap measure, the city should compete with the suburbs for residents. Bring in the residents, and retail will follow.

To facilitate downtown housing, the city should pursue groceries and discount retailers large and small (from Dollar General to Target), perhaps locating one in the Lazarus Building. We must make daily life in downtown Pittsburgh practical and convenient.

These stores will also draw from other neighborhoods, especially those within walking distance and those connected by the East Busway or the South Hills light-rail lines. Those customers will also support in some degree the remaining two department stores downtown–Saks Fifth Avenue and Kaufmann’s–as well as smaller stores like Barnes and Noble and Burlington Coat factory.

Improving public transit cost and efficiency should also be a primary goal. High parking rates will not push commuters onto transit if transit doesn’t work well or also costs too much.

My suggestion: run the city for the residents, and work to attract new residents. For a lively downtown, housing is the answer. And to make housing work, you must provide stores and services that support plain old daily life.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me