Mayor's roundtable to beef up Downtown retail district

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Faced with the loss of Saks Fifth Avenue, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is turning to developers, building owners and other stakeholders in a bid to attract more retail Downtown.

Mr. Ravenstahl convened the Downtown Retail Working Group within the past few weeks and charged it with finding ways to keep existing retailers in place while enticing others to move into the Golden Triangle.

Yarone Zober, the mayor's chief of staff, said the goal is not to try to re-create the grandiose Fifth and Forbes plans floated by former Mayor Tom Murphy, but to appeal to retailers that might be a "good fit" for Downtown.

"We think things are going well from a retail perspective," he said. "Now the question is how can we enhance it, retain what we have and build on Downtown Pittsburgh's strengths."

Mr. Zober insisted that the initiative was not related to the decision by upscale retailer Saks to close its doors by next fall when its lease expires at its Smithfield Street location. He said the plan already was in the works when Saks made its announcement.

While the focus will be on Downtown as a whole, the group also will look at the 28-acre Civic Arena redevelopment proposed by the Penguins, the mayor's plan to revitalize 80 acres of riverfront land between the Strip District and Lawrenceville, and the ongoing activity on the North Shore.

It also will examine what can be done to improve parking Downtown and make it more competitive with the free parking offered by suburban malls and shopping districts.

The panel will look at the potential for free parking "during limited periods" as well as incentives to attract shoppers Downtown, said Herky Pollock, the CB Richard Ellis executive vice president who helped put together the working group.

"We're exploring all options to allow us to be competitive with other retail districts and malls," he said.

Mr. Pollock said one goal of the group is to get developers, building owners and others to work more hand-in-hand in planning for retail development Downtown.

He noted, for instance, that at shopping malls, the leasing agent and ownership group usually are working together to advance retail activity at the property. Downtown, however, there are countless developers and builders pursuing separate agendas.

"In order for us to go to the next level, it makes sense to work together as one unit as opposed to working for our own selfish individual gain," Mr. Pollock said.

Among those participating in the effort are developer Millcraft Industries, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Point Park University, Downtown building owners McKnight Realty Partners and Rugby Realty, Oxford Development Co., the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Penguins, the Buncher Co., and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

"I think of this group as a Who's Who in Downtown retail," Mr. Zober said.

The group, he said, will focus on three main areas: ways to better market retail and restaurants Downtown; streetscape, parking and other improvements to enhance the retail environment; and ways to retain existing merchants and reach out to others that aren't Downtown.

He added the goal is not so much to upgrade the retail climate as it is to build on what already exists. He noted, for instance, that Downtown is bustling with new restaurants -- 24 alone around the Market Square area since 2007, by the PDP's count.

Mr. Pollock said the group will explore potential retailers and "retail categories" that are missing Downtown and that Mr. Ravenstahl has offered to meet with retailers as needed "for purposes of securing them for our urban core."

One focus could be on soft goods such as women's fashions, a category in short supply Downtown.

Jeremy Waldrup, PDP president and CEO, said he thinks Downtown can gain an edge by offering unique boutique shops not found in suburban shopping malls. He said it is already trending that way with some of the men's fashion stores on Fifth Avenue and the S.W. Randall Toyes and Giftes store on Smithfield.

He welcomed the mayor's initiative.

"I think it's going to be an opportunity to align the goals of the mayor's office and major stakeholders around specific types of retail, how Downtown is marketed with regard to retail, and to find opportunities to collaboratively work together with property owners on tenanting space," he said.

Likewise, the Penguins said in a statement that CEO David Morehouse had discussed the initiative with Mr. Ravenstahl and that it had the team's "full support."

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.


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