Brian O'Neill: ‘Tear down Heinz Field’ and other fresh ideas
February 3, 2016 12:00 AM
See that stadium? Move it to Cranberry.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I’d never met the artist John Morris, but when our Facebook exchange about the North Side’s decline in population this past century escalated, I suggested we descend from our virtual soapboxes.
We met in a Downtown coffee shop because mass transit is about the only way this Brooklyn expatriate gets around.
Mr. Morris, 51, moved to Pittsburgh in 2004 because the New York City borough was becoming one of the most expensive places on earth. Now he’s seeing some formerly affordable East End neighborhoods here soaring out of the range of middle-class incomes.
“Everyone seems to be shocked by this,” he said. “I’m not.”
He has a blog, Digging Pitt, but he attracted my attention on a Mexican War Streets Facebook group when he tossed out the quixotic notion of leveling Heinz Field. That’s a unique way to break the ice in Steelers Country.
“A true urban market is built on convenience and that means reclaiming the waterfront across from Downtown first,” Mr. Morris wrote. “Perhaps you can’t tear down the stadiums right now, but you can stop the owners from stopping development to protect their parking.’’
When I pointed out that the Steelers and Pirates were behind all the development between the stadiums in the past 15 years — the hotels, restaurants, office buildings and soon a 250-unit apartment building — Mr. Morris was unimpressed.
Having to wait on apartments while yet another soaring parking garage is built to replace the hundreds of spaces taken by the construction — that’s no way to handle some of the most valuable land in the city. The Steelers ought to be playing somewhere near Cranberry, in Mr. Morris’ view.
My friend Carol Peterson, the great Pittsburgh house historian, had the last word when she posted simply, “Windmills. You’re tilting at them.”
The idea of taxpayers kicking in for another stadium is a non-starter, but I was drawn to the way this newcomer was eager to gore sacred cows as he scanned our city with fresh eyes, connecting dots few even saw. Over coffee, he told me, “It’s a fairly small town so it doesn’t take that much pressure to cause problems if you waste land.”
The city’s 55-square-mile footprint (huge chunks of it taken up by universities and hospitals that don’t pay property taxes) is hardly news. But the increasing desire of more people to live within its borders still is. The metro area escaped the housing crash that decimated so many American regions circa 2008, and most of the places with the highest average gain in home prices in Allegheny County since are in the city.
That doesn’t surprise Mr. Morris. When he moved here, he immediately noticed a lot of Pittsburghers had framed pictures of the Golden Triangle on their walls. It seemed curious so few had been looking for similar views out their windows.
The city’s real estate boom has been uneven, which presents problems. City Councilman Dan Gilman proposed this week a limit on the city’s appeals to kick up real estate assessments of recently purchased property, just as a matter of fairness. Last month, Mayor Bill Peduto reached a deal to keep 143 affordable-rate apartments in Crawford Square for another 30 years, after a potential sale of the celebrated 348-unit Hill District development put those rents in jeopardy. And so on.
Mr. Morris, a libertarian by nature, would love less restrictive zoning and more building. Period. We took the T to the North Side from Downtown so I could grab a company car, and I took him on a tour to show the homes that have been going up on the back streets of Manchester and the Central North Side.
What he’d like to see is people living in the huge industrial neighborhood of Chateau between Route 65 and the Ohio River. It had a large residential population before the big road was built decades ago, and Mr. Morris sees people living in what are now warehouses. That happened in DUMBO (the Brooklyn neighborhood Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).
I’m doubtful, but who knows? Twenty-five years ago, a friend bought a rundown, two-story brick home near the Doughboy Statue in Lawrenceville for $10,000. Last July, a similar house next door sold for $254,000.
Maybe they were both good buys. Maybe this surge can continue into other neighborhoods. Or maybe a bubble is coming. Your hope there may depend on whether you’re a buyer or a seller.
I expect Mr. Morris is right about at least one thing. Newcomers will continue to find value in neighborhoods that most Pittsburghers had given up for dead.
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.
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