Thursday, July 14, 2005

Liberating Fifth & Forbes, Trib op-ed by J. Potts (blogger too)

Liberating Fifth & Forbes -
Pittsburgh received what could be good news last month when developer Carl Dranoff dropped out of a plan to redevelop the Fifth and Forbes shopping district Downtown.

The op-ed ran, but just a day or three ago, the URA announced it was to purchase MORE properties.
The call of the mall - The call of the mall

New exit on Rt. 28 and bingo -- the hook is there for a new mall. Yet to come, Deer Creek Crossing, with its TIF too.
The churn and sprawl continues. Plus, it gets a good push on new energy from government funding and government screw-ups too.

When I was a kid, we went to the Monroeville Mall -- with its indoor ice rink. I fail to see how bumper cars are a new trend.

Potts writes, "the solution is simple." I generally agree. Potts calls for the sell of of URA property. I think that is wise. But, for years now I've also called for the selling of the Parking Authority properties as well. The Parking Authority is another place that needs to be taken away from the city powers and put into play with the marketplace forces.

Yes, The city needs once and for all to get out of the Downtown real estate business.

However, the two of us turn at this mention, "Free parking for residents would be a good place to start." Parking is a priority -- but the simple solution isn't to just make it free. It is rather to free the authority from itself.

Potts also hits hard upon the eminent domain issue and gets right into the talk of "blight." Right on, again. The simple solution, hinted at but not talked of directly, is to eliminate all blight downtown. Take the designation away. Without "blight" the steep climb to eminent domain is back in the favor of the owners.

My clincher isn't about turning downtown as a hub for youth, student, single, loft, and empty nesters. We don't want -- nor should we strive to do subsidized housing deals for rich folks. Rather, when we figure out that the best way to make disversity is to do housing that urban families can enjoy as well -- then we've turned the corner.

If you are trying to mastermind with the building a global village, anf if that space isn't suited for families -- then you're building a failure.


Anonymous said...

The call of the mall

Pittsburgh Mills

By Jonathan Check
Thursday, July 14, 2005

Kim Lamer brought her two children to the Pittsburgh Mills megamall grand opening this morning in Frazer, and she said the wait was worth it.
"This is so nice," said Lamer, 41, of Brackenridge. "We waited 25 years for this and you know what, we deserve it. It's just gorgeous."

Lamer and her children, Sadie, 9, and Lukas, 5, were among the first shoppers to burst through the doors when the mall opened at 9 a.m. on Butler-Logan Road. Her children got excited when they saw A Place to Grow, a play center.

"It's nice they have this for the kids," she said. "It's a nice place for when they get cranky and need a break."

Liz Smith, 24, of Orlando, Fla., in town for a visit with relatives, also was impressed.

"It's got a lot of great women's clothing stores. I love all the decoration and I'm very excited to have these stores under one roof," she said. She's looking forward to shopping in New York and Company and Victoria's Secret.

More than 100 people formed lines to wait for the mall to open. Five teenagers said they'd been there since 1 a.m. to be the first in line.

"We just wanted the bragging rights," said Rudy Leon, 16, of Tarentum. "It's going to be a great thing for the area."

The mall campus on Butler-Logan Road contains two separate areas: the Village and the Galleria. The Village resembles a more traditional shopping center, incorporating big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and restaurants like Eat 'n Park.

In the Galleria, visitors can traverse five themed mall "neighborhoods" by way of a circular track. The neighborhoods feature distinct design elements and multimedia features, dividing clusters of complementary stores in the 1.1 million square-foot center. Most of the estimated 200 stores are expected to open today. The neighborhoods:

Gardens, with stores such as Linens-N-Things and Payless ShoeSource, as well as two interactive children's play centers;

City will be home to stores like New York and Company, C.J. Banks, GNC and a Pittsburgh Sports Store, as well as a flowers court;

Fashion, where shoppers will find anchors like Borders Books & Music and Kaufmann's, as well as Victoria's Secret, Suit Factory and a decorative metals court;

The Rivers neighborhood will contain an American Eagle Outfitters, Forever 21 and Pacific Sunwear, as well as a food court; and,

SportsStreet, with a cluster of sports and entertainment anchors like Dick's Sporting Goods, a 16-screen movie theater, a virtual reality NASCAR motorway and Lucky Strike Lanes, a chic bowling alley export from the west coast.
"Every piece of the interior design has some part in building the whole theme," said Larry Costello, vice president of the Mills Corp. "Pittsburgh is a real neighborhood-oriented town anyway, so it sort of plays off that neighborhood aspect."

With the neighborhoods, shoppers will find they don't have to "wear out your shoe leather" to find all the things they need, Costello said. It will also allow families to split up and easily regroup while shopping.

"While the mall is large, the neighborhoods help our shoppers navigate," he said.

The design concept is a departure from traditional mall layouts, in which similar stores are often placed at opposite ends of a massive complex to ensure foot traffic for all stores.

"The mentality was that you didn't want to be next to your competitor," said Audrey Guskey, professor of marketing at Duquesne University.

Now, with online shopping trumping the in-person experience, mall developers are finding the need to tailor the mall to customers' waning desire to walk.

"The business, if it's a healthy store, won't shy away from that competition," Guskey said.

"One of the things they've been more attentive to is the nature of the shopper," said Michael Hendrickson, president of Hendrickson Retail Group in Collier. By clustering similar stores together --- and by implementing eye-candy and multimedia approaches --- mall developers cater to shoppers' decreasing attention span.

"Everyone's busy, so they want to get to the stuff they want to buy," he said.

Hendrickson said these trends are taking root in suburban communities, so people can expect to see more malls breaking away from the old style. The Mills Corporation, in fact, owns 41 similar malls in North America and Europe.

Guskey thinks the complex will be a positive addition to the area. New malls are a sign of sturdy economy, and the Mills will create about 3,500 new jobs once fully operational.

Still, the new kid in town will take its toll on older establishments, some people say.

"Some of the other malls are going to suffer," she said. "Other stores that have been around for a while are going to lose customers."

What people are saying

"It's crazy. People are so excited to be here. I never thought this many people would be excited to get into a mall. It'll be a nice economic boom for the community."

- Tarentum police officer Gary Hibner

"I love it. Everybody is friendly. I was surprised to see how big it is."

- Ray Williams, 37, Penn Hills

"Well, it's really nice, but I was expecting more exclusive things. These stores you can find in any other mall in Pittsburgh. The selection of shops isn't particularly impressive. Whatever -- it's another new mall."

- Drew Richards, 33, of Oakmont

"It's too flashy." He added that one advantage is the mall has a wide variety of stores and the location is an advantage because Route 28 is "an excellent place to put a mall."

- Nick Tolomeo, 19, Morgantown, W.Va.

Anonymous said...

Liberating Fifth & Forbes

By Jonathan Potts
Thursday, July 14, 2005

Pittsburgh received what could be good news last month when developer Carl Dranoff dropped out of a plan to redevelop the Fifth and Forbes shopping district Downtown.
Nothing against Dranoff personally or the work of Dranoff Properties, the third developer in five years to walk away from the politically contentious project, but his departure provides the city with an opportunity to abort, once and for all, its fatally flawed redevelopment strategy for Fifth and Forbes.

The city's plan has been doomed from the start because it is based on a false assumption -- that the best way to rejuvenate the shopping corridor is to turn it over to a single developer who would proceed from a comprehensive plan drawn up by the city and its planners.

American cities have been following this top-down blueprint for 50 years and always with the same abysmal results. Truly vibrant urban neighborhoods develop organically, with minimal interference from government and according to the needs of those who live and work there. Yet thanks to Pittsburgh officials, Downtown's commercial district continues to decay, its vacant storefronts attracting no one save graffiti artists and vagrants.

One need look no further than the shuttered Lazarus and Lord & Taylor department stores for evidence of what happens when a city attempts to impose its will on the private market. The market, alas, does not reward good intentions, only good ideas.

City Hall's latest plan to transform Fifth and Forbes is set apart from its predecessors by its emphasis on housing in addition to retail. Given the relative cost and inconvenience of driving Downtown to shop when there are so many other alternatives, it makes sense to focus on creating a residential base of customers for stores and restaurants.

But there's reason to doubt that the city's build-it-and-they-will-come approach will succeed with housing where it has failed with retail. To begin with, the cost of converting Downtown buildings into apartments is so high that developers, unable to secure adequate private financing, often turn to the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority for help.

According to Eve Picker, president of loft developer No Wall Productions, construction costs in Pittsburgh are as high as in Chicago, but landlords command only one-third the rents. So, to maximize the return on their investment, developers target the high-end market.

Most Downtown apartments rent for at least $1 per square foot per month. According to No Wall's Web site, its lofts at 947 Liberty Ave. start at $900 a month for apartments that range from 815 to 1,815 square feet, while its Liberty Lofts start at $1,225 per month. Many Downtown apartments and condos are one-bedrooms that can be shared comfortably only by couples, which excludes most college students, who are a natural market for Downtown housing. It also limits the overall diversity of residents.

Diversity, not only of people but also of housing types, is crucial to building the critical mass needed to turn Downtown into a thriving residential neighborhood. John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and author of "The Wealth of Cities: Revitalizing the Centers of American Life," says government subsidies to developers limit diversity because they restrict the pool of developers to those able and willing to exert political influence to get public financing.

Norquist, who is now the president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which promotes urban living, is a fan of Pittsburgh and is convinced that people will want to live Downtown if they are given enough housing choices. Indeed, Picker can boast that she's rented some of her lofts sight unseen.

If the problem seems intractable, the solution is simple. The city needs once and for all to get out of the Downtown real estate business. The URA must sell the 15 properties it already owns Downtown. There might not be quite the market for vacant Downtown buildings as one would hope, but even the sale of a single building would improve on the status quo.

Were the URA's real estate holdings returned to the private market, they would at the very least begin earning tax revenue for the cash-strapped city. Unfortunately, the URA announced plans this week to buy two more buildings on Fifth Avenue, so don't expect an outbreak of common sense at the authority anytime soon.

The city must also lift the specter of eminent domain that has hung over the heads of property owners ever since the URA began acquiring large chunks of Downtown in the mid 1990s. Much of Downtown sits under a designation of blight that would allow the URA to force property owners to sell their buildings to the agency, which would then sell or transfer them to private developers.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's recent decision in Kelo v. New London essentially expanded the power of local governments to use eminent domain -- a power the Fifth Amendment reserves for public use -- for economic development.

In Downtown Pittsburgh, this threat has provided property owners a powerful disincentive against making improvements to their buildings, yet these people may be in the best position to convert vacant office and retail space into housing. They could draw on the equity in their buildings, finance without subsidies and charge lower rents. And if a project can't get done without public financing, then it shouldn't get done at all.

We don't need to save Downtown overnight. Its plight is a symptom of the city's decline, not a cause of it. There are a host of other incentives short of subsidies the city could provide to make Downtown housing more affordable to both developers and residents. Free parking for residents would be a good place to start.

Would any of this work? There's no way to know. But we know what doesn't work.

Jonathan Potts, a former staff writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, lives in Brookline.