Open up the debates on downtown futures

October 17, 1999|By Neal Peirce

AMERICA'S downtowns are recovering from decades of neglect, basking in fresh investment, refurbished streets and squares, hot demand for their condos, lofts and town houses.

But there are clouds on the horizon. One hazard: e-commerce. The Internet's phenomenal growth, coupled with catalogs and 800 numbers, may trigger a 20 percent to 30 percent drop in retail trade, predicts Joel Kotkin of the Pepperdine Institute.

And the blow will land on downtowns, suburban malls and big boxes alike, he tells the Los Angeles-based Planning Report.

E-commerce's full impact, Kotkin predicts, won't be felt for a decade or so. But he notes empty bank facilities are already cropping up in commercial districts; travel agencies, brokerages and shops could follow.

There's an even more immediate threat, say others: Commercial giantism, developed out of the suburban chain store model, could imperil center cities' individuality, the special character that's their stock in trade.

Ground zero of the struggle right now is Pittsburgh, whose rich variety of downtown architecture, ranging from Italianate, Gothic, Victorian to Art Deco, is found in few other U.S. cities.

Deteriorated

There's a problem, though: Several blocks along Fifth and Forbes have deteriorated commercially. Today their storefronts offer a melange of wig shops, pager stores, lower-grade clothing and discount jewelry shops.

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy found a "solution": acquire several city blocks, demolish at least half the buildings, move 125 existing businesses, and turn the entire area over to Urban Retail Properties Inc. of Chicago. The Chicago firm would reconstruct the area, recruit tony stores, put in a multiscreen theater, major restaurants, clubs and other entertainment features.

The goal: a 24-hour-a-day district, focused on national chains -- stores such as Nordstrom and entertainment outfits such as Planet Hollywood. And to compete with the Pittsburgh region's top suburban malls.

What Mayor Murphy didn't anticipate was local merchants' reaction. They weren't consulted in advance; they fear forced removal through eminent domain. And now -- as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports -- they're "angry as hornets, vowing to dig in and hold out, threatening lawsuits."

Nor, it seems, did Mr. Murphy reckon with an elemental force in American preservation and town reconstruction -- Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, the man who developed the highly successful Station Square complex just across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle. Simply demolishing buildings with tenants so that a developer can have cleared land to attract national chains "sounds 1950s," says Mr. Ziegler -- a repeat of government-sponsored urban renewal plans that turned out to be "human, economic and architectural disasters."

Is Mr. Ziegler going overboard? No, I heard from Donald Carter, of Pittsburgh's own Urban Design Associates, one of the nation's most respected city planners: "I do walking tours through that area. It has a 90-to-120-year-old fabric that's irreplaceable."

Mayor Murphy seems to have softened his stand, noting that the buildings in the Fifth-Forbes corridor have beautiful facades that should be saved.

But the critics are hardly mollified; so few facades would survive that there'd be just "a pimple of preservation" in each block, according to Arthur Lubetz, president of Pittsburgh Preservation.

Below it all, says Mr. Ziegler, is a big process problem too -- failure of the city to consult early, to tap the talents and energy of local preservationists and downtown stakeholders anxious to help shape the area's future.

Pittsburgh's dazzling modern-day skyline is beautiful but "prosperity and growth for all our citizens is not occurring," says Mr. Ziegler. The city needs, he says, "to recognize and use our existing resources, whether it be reusing buildings or involving a much broader public in the planning process."

Historic buildings

The thought's a powerful one: identifying historic buildings and citizens as twin, vital resources to the city. So Mr. Ziegler's History and Landmarks Foundation has actually commissioned a New York-based firm, Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn, widely experienced in downtown mixed-use developments, to draw up (based on extensive local soundings) an entirely independent plan for the Fifth and Forbes area.

A major feature of that plan will be substantial downtown housing -- missing from the city's plan but "the most essential ingredient," says Mr. Ziegler.

What's assured, in short, is a lively, very public debate about downtown Pittsburgh's future. And not just about design, but also whether the city, rather than inducing large chains to move in, should focus on creating housing that puts people on the streets all hours, plus helping local entrepreneurs expand into downtown stores and operations.

With those kinds of targeted discussions, the early 21st century could usher in ripe opportunities for cities and their downtowns --finding ways to re-adapt, survive, go forward, adjust to every movement from e-commerce to chain merchandizing. And not again be victims.

Neal Peirce writes a syndicated column.

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