Saks wants more space, City fears retailer will go to suburbs
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After losing two department stores Downtown two years ago, the city is working to ensure that a third, the upscale Saks Fifth Avenue, doesn't slip away.
The O'Connor administration is trying to find ways to provide Saks with more loading dock space and parking at its location at Smithfield Street and Oliver Avenue, across the street from the vacant Lord & Taylor store.
Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Jerome Dettore, Parking Authority Executive Director David Onorato, Public Works Director Guy Costa, a representative of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and other officials met Thursday with Dennis Regan, Mayor Bob O'Connor's chief of staff, to discuss strategies.
The meeting came amid some concern that Saks, one of two remaining Downtown department stores, could bolt for the suburbs unless its needs are addressed, particularly now that Nordstrom is moving into Ross Park Mall in the North Hills.
In fact, there is some talk that Simon Property Group Inc., Ross Park's owner, could be pursuing the department store to serve as a co-anchor to Nordstrom, which is scheduled to open in 2008.
Saks is now the sixth-largest anchor in Simon's regional mall portfolio, right behind Nordstrom. Its 20 stores occupy 2.3 million square feet of space in Simon malls.
"Saks is one of those kinds of jewels that every shopping mall would like to have as a destination," said Mike Edwards, president and chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.
Mr. Edwards said Saks has given no indication that it intends to move out of its Downtown store, but he noted city and Downtown Partnership officials want to "make sure everything operates so Saks doesn't have a reason to leave."
"They've given us the indication that they like Pittsburgh, that they're looking to have a store in Pittsburgh," he said. He added, however, that Saks wants to "improve how its Downtown store operates."
Mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar said Mr. O'Connor initially met with Saks representatives in May to discuss ways to improve the department store's operating conditions Downtown. Thursday's meeting was a follow-up to that, he said.
He said Saks is looking for more docking or storage space for its building and also is interested in improving parking for its customers, particularly on weekends. Saks now has one small loading dock on Oliver Avenue at the rear of the store.
Oddly enough, one possible solution could rest in the old Lazarus-Macy's department store, which closed in 2004, and which is now in the middle of a $59 million transformation into an office, retail and residential complex.
The building, owned by Washington County developer Millcraft Industries Inc., has three relatively new loading docks on Oliver about, 150 to 300 feet from the rear of Saks.
City officials plan to talk to Millcraft about giving some of the space to Saks. Lucas Piatt, Millcraft vice president of real estate, said he already has had discussions with the store about using some of the dock space.
"It's an important neighbor to us and it's important to the city," Mr. Piatt said. "We'll do whatever it takes to help them and make life easier for Saks."
Mr. Onorato said he wasn't sure exactly what parking improvements, if any, Saks was seeking. He said department store officials were supposed to get in touch with him if they had requests but have yet to contact him.
The city, Mr. Skrinjar said, also will be increasing police patrols around the store. It is putting the issues related to Saks "on the fast track" in hopes of getting improvement in time for the holiday shopping season, he said.
"We're doing what is the right thing to do for any business in any one of our neighborhoods," he said. "If a business needs help and some consideration, especially during the peak retail time of the year, we'll roll up our sleeves, pitch in, cut through the red tape and redd up that situation for them."
Saks officials could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Edwards said Nordstrom's commitment to Ross Park Mall has "certainly altered the game" for cities in that it was previously thought that such highly coveted one-of-a-kind stores would locate only in Downtown areas because they were so centrally located.
While Saks has not indicated that it is looking to move, Mr. Edwards said he would not be surprised if malls are courting the retailer.
"I'm sure a store like Saks has options," he said.
Les Morris, a spokesman for Simon Property Group, said the company's policy is not to comment on speculation about stores or discussions it is having with potential retailers.
But he added that with the opening of the Cheesecake Factory at Ross Park Oct. 30 and the anticipated arrival of Nordstrom in 2008, "there's a lot of momentum" going for the mall. "Ross Park is a hot property," he said.
The Lazarus-Macy's and Lord & Taylor stores closed within six months of each other in 2004, dealing a huge blow to former Mayor Tom Murphy's efforts to revitalize the Downtown retail corridor.
Despite millions in public subsidies, Lazarus-Macy's closed in May 2004, five years after opening. Lord & Taylor followed in November. The J.J. Gumberg Co. bought the Lord & Taylor building on Smithfield from the May Co., but has yet to find a tenant.
Besides Saks, the only department store left Downtown is Kaufmann's, which will become a Macy's next month.
First Published August 26, 2006 12:00 am