Monday, September 26, 2005

Fifth and Forbes, Steigerwald's opinion: Give the free market a chance

Fifth and Forbes & the highest bidder - It's time to give the free market a chance to fix Fifth and Forbes.
Government has proven it can't redevelop the two once-proud downtown Pittsburgh shopping streets; it can only strangle and kill them.
Thanks to decades of City Hall's ineptitude and serial abuse of its powers, the Fifth-and-Forbes corridor today is a shabby, undervalued and embarrassing wasteland.

Then he calls for an ebay sell off of the entire URA.

I too have called for the liquidation of the URA. It is an office that should be downsized to nothing.

The URA is holding a lot of property. Those properties number more than 5,000 lots. Those properties are not even on an inventory listing. For starters, let's see a map of the city with the URA Properties clearly marked. The URA can't provide that.

The URA properties don't generate tax incomes. So, those of us that own properties ourselves have to pay more in taxes to support the URA holdings.

However, there are a few problems with the total sell-off of the URA's properties. First, if the URA dumps 5,000 properties onto the marketplace at one time, all the other properties in the city and county are going to nose dive. The supply and demand formula is going to get shaken to its core. In due time, the prices and the marketplace tumbles will self correct. So, perhaps we take a big hit now and ride it out. In the long run, we'll all be much better. In the long run, our properties will then grow in value as our city rebounds in other services too.

Another problem with the total sell-off of the URA assets is the fact that the buyers would be entering Allegheny County. Our population growth is flat. Our economic outlook is questionable. Process problems about taxes linger. And, our leadership is about to change from one one grey-haired, white Democrat to another of same age who can hug and kiss a bit better than than other, more abrasive one. A bulk of the leaders in the past and present are cut from the same cloth that allows corporate welfare and hates to trust the free market and the people of the region.

So, a sell off of the URA property with eBay would help, no doubt. But, the sales needs to be staged. Furthermore, the liquidation of all authorties need to begin. And, system-wide reform is necessary as well.

If we had a splendid landscape of reforming attitudes and systems, then the sell off of the URA properties would cause a windfall for the city and generate a buzz throughout the nation.

I've ranted in the past that we should sell off the side-lots to homeowners who are within a 200-yard distance to the vacant land right away. Then extend the distances each season.

In the early months of 2006, the city needs to get serious about enforcement. If you have over-grown side lots breeding rats, cracked sidewalks, garbage without closed dumpsters and such -- warnings and tickets need to be issued. We need to get the city to do its job with rodent control, and that can occur in two blinks. Then we need everyone's expectations to change.

We need a rebirth in terms of respect for the city. Where you park your car; how you handle your trash; and when you scream your head off (i.e., not in the wee hours) matters. City-life needs cooperation among its citizens. Police and inspectors need to give attention to these basic jobs as well.
Considering eBay and auctions: Pitt's throwback uniforms are for sale now.


Anonymous said...

Fifth and Forbes & the highest bidder

By Bill Steigerwald
Sunday, September 25, 2005

It's time to give the free market a chance to fix Fifth and Forbes.
Government has proven it can't redevelop the two once-proud downtown Pittsburgh shopping streets; it can only strangle and kill them.

Thanks to decades of City Hall's ineptitude and serial abuse of its powers, the Fifth-and-Forbes corridor today is a shabby, undervalued and embarrassing wasteland.

Both streets are studded with vacant storefronts and down-scale retailers. Lazarus' sprawling white tomb sits empty, a monument to the vision-impaired Murphy Gang.

Property values already are rock-bottom. And with the ever-present threat of another mega-redevelopment scheme being hatched by City Hall (and backed up by the threat of eminent domain), they can only go lower.

It's been a government-rigged, government-botched real-estate game since the mid-1990s. No sane private real-estate investor or developer not in cahoots with City Hall would buy a flower pot on either blighted street, much less a building.

No one but the city's in-house economic development agency, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, would be stupid enough to purchase property in the Fifth-Forbes corridor today.

Which is exactly why the URA now owns more than a dozen parcels there, costing it $13.3 million. It recently gobbled up Candy-Rama Inc.'s small 212 Fifth Avenue property for $246,000 -- a steal compared to what its owners paid in 1982: $300,000 ($608,000 in today's money).

Some cynics might say that this destruction of the private real-estate market by City Hall is part of a diabolical long-term plot to cheaply acquire the properties it needs to pull off an awful, block-leveling development project. Other cynics might say it gives the Murphy Gang too much credit for knowing what it's doing.

In any event, City Hall -- not capitalism or a failed real estate market -- has essentially killed the Fifth-Forbes corridor and is now cannibalizing its corpse.

In a perfect world, the URA would be immediately liquidated in January by incoming Mayor Bob O'Connor. Its 1,800 properties worth $150 million would be sold off to the highest bidders and returned to tax rolls. Plus the entire city Planning Department would be placed under arrest.

It'll never happen. But what if O'Connor were to put those URA-owned properties along Fifth and Forbes up for auction on eBay? Its real estate section lists thousands of commercial properties, including a 5-star hotel in Italy for $35 million.

Why not get the city out of the redevelopment biz and see how many of eBay's potential 147 million buyers around the world would want to buy one, two or all of the Fifth-Forbes parcels?

Stanford Davis, the chief partner at Pittsburgh's Harry Davis & Co., which auctions off millions of dollars' worth of real estate a year, naturally likes the eBay idea. Not only would it bring Pittsburgh lots of national media attention, he said, it also would probably bring in more money than the city expected. "It's a novel idea," he said. "Tell the URA to give me a call."

Everyone knows that will never happen, either. But why not let the global free market -- and not a cabal of politically, morally and mentally challenged government insiders -- get a crack at determining the future of Fifth and Forbes?

Why not see which daring and rich entrepreneur wants to invest in -- and lead -- Pittsburgh's post-Murphy resurrection?

Bill Steigerwald can be reached at (412) 320-7983 or

Cope said...

Think of the publicity that would bring -- Pittsburgh is still a major enough city that selling huge tracts of land on eBay would getting international press coverage. If it's done right, it could become a model for mis- and micro-managed cities around the Globe.

Mark Rauterkus said...

Publicity is one thing -- as is the "IMAGE WAR." However, that doesn't pay the bills.

For example, someone (not me) could jump of a bridge naked and get a lot of publicity too. It was suggested that a candidate could do that and get onto the front page of the newspaper and on TV news too. But, at the end of the day did it help or hurt the bottom line.

We can get publicity -- but let's not crave what might not help us in the end.

An eBay sell off could tank local property owners' fortunes for a decade or more. Let's think it through. Sadly, the URA just owns so much land now.

I'm okay with a 20-percent liquidation in chunks. If that takes a season -- so be it. Sell it over the course of a few years if necessary so as to not flatten all other values.