Beyond the angst - How goes Pittsburgh?
Some angst of late over latest population numbers for the city of Pittsburgh is a case in point. Continued decline part of vast failure or slower decline moving out from a steel-inspired 'lost decade' or two? Half full? Half empty? Both? Neither? The city clearly has issues. Pensions=bad... worse than bad... denial everywhere.. taxes high... going to go higher it seems to me. bad bad bad. Population ever lower.. at the very least not good at this point.
Depressed yet? Here is the thing. A little bit of news in passing last week was that Downtown office vacancy rate actually went down. So global economic meltdown... historic recession... and dire dire talk about the commercial real estate market everywhere and the Downtown real estate market is doing better? And that is despite ongoing construction adding to supply. It's not just Downtown. The Oakland vacancy rate can only be measured as an imaginary number. That is even as every available bit of space has office space squeezed into it. Remember Duranti's? Now some medical offices. I really want to know how the former patrons there are getting meals. Oakland has had some serious construction in recent years with new biomedical towers, new RAND building and even with Children's now gone of late. I am sure the parcel on which I work is destined to be biomedical tower 10 or 12 or whatever we are up to at this point.
OK.. I really am going somewhere. Here is the factoid of note in all of this. Read my pension rants if you think I have any reason to shade the positive, but here is something to think about. In 1960 the number of jobs located in the City of Pittsburgh was just about 300K. Today the number of jobs located in the City of Pittsburgh is for all practical purposes identical at 300K. We are approaching a fairly remarkable metric for a major city, but we may soon have more people working in the city daily than living here.
So for all who say the city is a failure and everyone is leaving. That may be true for residents, but you can't begin to say that for jobs. Consider the loss of population from the city and realize that roughly 70% of all jobs in the region are there providing goods and services to the population here. What does that mean for the competitiveness of the city as a place to work? Clearly a lot of jobs supporting the residential population moved out to the suburbs along with the population movement. Yet the city has the same number of jobs in total. It must have grown in those jobs that are not merely providing retail and services to the local population but are supporting a larger clientele regionally or beyond. In other words it has become more competitive as a place to work. In normal circumstances that would be amazing. Add in all the bad things that have happened here and its something else altogether.
What's it mean? Lots of things, but for now it's just the point that there isn't any one answer as many want to ascribe for everything. For everyone who says that X or Y (fill in your policy of choice) is going to force businesses to flee the city for the suburbs you have to think about how that argument has gone over the last 50 years. Things like high parking taxes or occupation taxes or fill in the blank have not resulted in jobs leaving the city. Could there be a counterfactual loss of even more jobs that could have been located here if things were different? Maybe, but you have to ask yourself where would those jobs go. Hard to fit more jobs in present Downtown or Oakland. Building up is always a possibility. Both Downtown and Oakland are relatively pretty vertical places already.
OK... enough I guess. The 'why' to explain all of that I can't begin to answer. Why has Pittsburgh as a city gained competitiveness as a place to work where most comparable old center cities have gone the other way ravaged by suburbanization, edge cities and. More people commute out of Detroit everyday for work than commute in.. think about that a bit. Transportation obviously has a big part of that. No real ring road and the edge cities they inspire, but think about transit and the radial Port Authority routes some like to (Searching for Mr. Squiggly) critique... for some reason Pittsburgh supports a greater center city employment concentration than most anywhere else. I find it hard to believe that the Port Authority of the past helped support that. Consider that as we continue to strip the Port Authority down to it's minimalist (i.e. cost efficient) end game.
Not ignoring the population loss. We'll get to that.