Lack of retailers seen as a weakness in Downtown Pittsburgh
January 8, 2016 12:11 AM
Arthur Ziegler, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation president who has spent much of the last decade renovating old buildings Downtown and adding retail and residential.
Former Mayor Tom Murphy, whose $522 million plan to revitalize Fifth and Forbes avenues collapsed when Nordstrom bailed out.
By Mark Belko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Years ago, Tom Murphy and Arthur Ziegler battled tooth and nail over their respective visions for redeveloping the Fifth and Forbes corridor Downtown. But these days, the two antagonists agree on one thing: the need for more retail in the city’s core.
Although Downtown has been teeming with new restaurants, residences, offices and hotels the past few years, the missing ingredient remains retail, said Mr. Murphy, the former mayor whose $522 million plan to revitalize Fifth and Forbes avenues collapsed when Nordstrom bailed out.
He’ll get no argument from Mr. Ziegler, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation president who has spent much of the past decade renovating old buildings Downtown and adding retail and residential.
“If you live Downtown, you don’t want to have to leave Downtown to do your shopping,” Mr. Ziegler said. “If you want a pair of shoes or socks or jeans, you want to be able to buy it by the convenience of walking up the street. No car. That’s what Downtown always was and that’s what we have to help our Downtown be once again.”
For Pittsburgh’s Downtown to become truly great, it needs strong retail with regional drawing power, Mr. Murphy said.
But with the closing of the Macy’s store in September, Mr. Murphy fears that retail Downtown is facing death by attrition. And he questioned whether the city has any strategy to attract more. “I don’t have a sense that there is a retail strategy for Downtown other than to watch it slowly disappear,” he said.
Mr. Murphy, now a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, said cities such as Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn., have done a good job of mixing retail with restaurants and other amenities. Other cities have healthy downtowns built through public and private partnerships.
While mayor, Mr. Murphy championed the Marketplace at Fifth and Forbes, a massive redevelopment that included a movie complex, Nordstrom and other retailers. The plan collapsed amid opposition from Mr. Ziegler and others, who railed against efforts to raze or substantially alter about 50 to 60 buildings to make way for new shops or restaurants.
Mr. Murphy also built a store for Lazarus-Macy’s and converted a grand Mellon Bank building into a Lord & Taylor store, both heavily subsidized by the city, only to see them fail.
With the growing residential base Downtown, he believes it’s easier to attract retail these days. National retailers also are becoming more comfortable with urban concepts. But the city needs to be proactive, he argued.
In his battles with Mr. Murphy, Mr. Ziegler championed a Main Street approach. It’s a strategy he has pursued since, rehabbing older, smaller buildings in Market Square and on Wood Street, and filling them with men’s fashion and shoes, a grocery, a candy store and, in some, apartments.
He now is revitalizing the former J.R. Weldin Co. store on Wood Street with plans to recruit a retailer.
Mr. Ziegler would like to see more apparel and shoe stores Downtown, particularly for women and younger people. He said he also is working with Mayor Bill Peduto’s office on retail for Smithfield Street.
He wasn’t surprised his old nemesis agreed with him on the need for more retail.
“He always did think there was a need for more retail. He thought it should be Virgin Records and three department stores. I thought it should be smaller side by side [stores]. I think we have evidence of which one is working and which one didn’t, despite the huge subsidies he put into Lazarus and Lord & Taylor,” he said.
As for strategy, the city “is in constant communication with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership on efforts to support economic development Downtown,” said Tim McNulty, Mr. Peduto’s spokesman.
It has teamed with the PDP on “Envision Downtown,” a plan to improve streets and intersections to make them more inviting, backed by $32 million in city capital investment over five years.
That, in turn, should help to attract and support more retail, said Jeremy Waldrup, PDP president.
Likewise, a public space and life report being prepared by Gehl Architects is expected to include recommendations for Smithfield Street, including ways to support retail growth in the corridor, Mr. McNulty said.
Although Downtown has lost Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, about 20 smaller retailers have moved in since 2010, Mr. Waldrup said. By comparison, over the same time, about 124 restaurants have opened.
Unlike Mr. Murphy, Mr. Waldrup doesn’t see retail disappearing. Stores such as Burlington Coat Factory and Brooks Brothers are doing well, he said. The redeveloper of Macy’s is planning retail on two floors.
Although Mr. Waldrup agrees there’s a need for more, he prefers to build off residential growth to get it. “That’s a very sound strategy. It’s been working for us quite well with how Downtown is changing and evolving.”
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262.
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