Pittsburgh dilemma

Planning: In western Pennsylvania city, has redevelopment gone too far?

May 07, 2000|By Francis X. Clines | Francis X. Clines,New York Times News Service

PITTSBURGH -- There have been so many blockbuster redevelopment projects in this gritty, resilient city in the past six years that a corner of Mayor Thomas Murphy's office is cluttered with ceremonial shovels that gleam with his dig-we-must determination.

Still missing from that proud display, however, is the groundbreaker spade for one of the mayor's most debated ideas -- a plan to raze or redo 61 buildings and displace up to 125 businesses in one fell swoop through the tattered old retail core of downtown Pittsburgh.

In their place, Murphy envisions an ambitious cluster of trendy restaurants, upscale national stores and underground parking for 1,000 cars to serve surrounding office towers and lure affluent suburban shoppers back to their urban roots.

It is such a sweeping plan that, even beyond the cries of outrage from longtime merchants still able to make a profit in Market Place, the area in question, Murphy has drawn no less an adversary than the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which calls the plan "one of the most wrongheaded revitalization proposals to appear anywhere in this country in the last 30 years."

Such is the warning of Richard Moe, president of the trust, which is based in Washington, D.C., and is the nation's largest private preservation organization. Moe calls the Pittsburgh plan a "reversion to the worst of urban renewal in the '60s and '70s," when whole neighborhoods were swept away.

"It's an anomaly," Moe said, describing how the national trend in most other cities is to selectively revitalize and showcase time-worn neighborhoods, rather than to replace them wholesale.

From LoDo in Denver to South Beach in Miami, from the Lowerton district of St. Paul, Minn., to the Seventh Street renewal in Washington, preservationists are pointing to dozens of less sweeping, more selective renovation programs across the country as profitable success stories that Pittsburgh would be wiser to emulate. But the mayor insists he needs something fast and singular, on the scale of the Copley Plaza renewal in Boston, to save downtown Pittsburgh.

For all the opposition here and beyond, Murphy offers a smile of resolve and an encyclopedic accounting of the city's hard-earned recovery since the catastrophic collapse of its steel mill economy a generation ago. In $4 billion worth of current projects, he lists two new ballparks, a new convention center and hotels, office complexes offering 6,000 new jobs and a dozen other downtown projects. The weary- looking Market Place stretch, he insists, is "the hole in the doughnut" that absolutely must be redone to make the urban center whole palatable to investors.

"In virtually everything we've done, from building ballparks to dealing with old industrial properties, we have faced enormous resistance," the mayor said, looking beyond his office shovels at a master-plan map vivid with splotches of large-scale change. "Every one of these has been a struggle; it's the nature of changing."

To critics demanding a more tempered approach, Murphy, a 56-year-old son of a steelworker who rose from the nitty-gritty of civic politics to wield mayoral power, replies that the city has well employed the selective "Main Street" style of renewing building by building in other old neighborhoods. But the Market Place area, he insists, requires something more extensive and faster -- a single project of urban renewal that he wants completed in two to three years rather than 10.

"The urgency we feel," the mayor emphasized, is rooted in the fact that the region has been losing residents for 30 years, with the city fighting to secure a more eclectic future as its population fades to 350,000, half of its old blue collar high tide.

Across the executive corridor, City Councilman Jim Ferlo exults no less in the city's resurgent pattern of fresh development. But he draws the line at the mayor's Market Place proposal, viewing it as ultimately more arrogant than ambitious.

"Retailers there have been paying their tax bills for a hundred years, and suddenly they're blights on the city?" said Ferlo, a Democrat like the mayor in this one-party city.

The councilman complains that some of those taxes would subsidize the arrival of national chains that would then enjoy a monopoly position in the $480-million redevelopment, which would cover about 5 acres radiating from Fifth and Forbes avenues.

Murphy says the plan would involve $53 million in city subsidies, but opponents estimate it would be twice that.

"The construction would mean five years of social chaos," Ferlo said.

Like most other opponents, Ferlo agrees that a stylish but far more measured upgrading is badly needed in the area.

Market Place now presents a tired mix of seedy novelty shops and respected longtime merchants like the 130-year-old Original Oyster House, one of several establishments that would be exempted from removal under the mayor's plan.

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