Monday, July 13, 2009

Beyond the angst - How goes Pittsburgh?

There have been some great comments here of late. One post last week had a brief discussion of Edmund Burke as metaphor for Pittsburgh. Whether one agrees or not I'd love for mayoral debates or city council sessions to be quoting political philosophers. Generally though, on the general theme of how Pittsburgh is doing comments here and everywhere seem to boil down pretty quickly to folks who think its all great or all horrible around here... especially with regards to the city. Is it ever that simple?

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.

20 Comments:

Blogger joe said...

No angst here - Pittsburgh getting some nice press today from kos on the front-page of Daily Kos (120K+ daily readers):

I suspect attendees will be shocked at how different Pittsburgh is from popular conception. Rather than the crumbling steel belt town of old, it's quite the dynamic city.

He goes on to list some of the good press/ratings we've received of late.

And read the love for the city in the comments of this Guide to Pittsburgh diary on Daily Kos - by someone who doesn't even live here anymore!

Netroots Nation is only 30 days away. Gonna be bigger than the G-20 :)

Monday, July 13, 2009 10:10:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

Also, our very own Carbolic Smoke Ball was so successful at constitutionally protected satire that Snopes had to do an article on their Sotomayor piece.

http://www.snopes.com/politics/quotes/sotomayor.asp

Monday, July 13, 2009 11:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given the philospophical opening of your entry, I'd offer that there have been winners and losers in Pittsburgh's restructuring, and that affects the different assessments of the city's direction. This is not a very earth-shaking observation, but an important consideration in the context of understanding the impacts of any statistical trends.

As far as the concentration of jobs in the city core, that has been a fundamental goal of the ACCD since 1947. That conscious effort by civic leaders has been significantly helped by the coincidental rise of eds and meds nationwide, and the city's support for what Jack Robin called "the overbuilding of Oakland".

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 9:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in a closer analysis of Downtown job versus Oakland. Maybe Oakland is propping up the citywide numbers and stability over time. Also, working Downtown is a fairly different experience from working in Oakland, in my experience. Also, Downtown and Oakland have plenty of room to expand along Forbes and Fifth in Uptown. No need to build up.

And thanks for pointing out the Kos story Joe.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 9:12:00 AM  
Anonymous RoboticGhost said...

Workplace density and transit use seems like a chicken and egg riddle to me. While I too have reservations about the Port Authority's overhaul, I also recognize there is a lot of waste in the system. I also think state transportation dollars are better spent on improving transit options in the urban metros than repaving miles and miles and miles of pointless roads out in the boonies, but our rural-majority state legislature disagrees.

In any event Downtown and Oakland are dense and that's that. Remember when there were parking lots in Oakland? I don't know where excess capacity for downtown expansion would come from, but I have an idea about Oakland if what's happened in Lawernceville is any indicator. Lawrenceville became home to the ETC, the new Children's hospital and so on because land was cheap, its a quick bus ride/ car trip/ shuttle to Oakland, and there wasn't any community interest in opposing development, ala Chicken Hill. Taking a look at a map of Pittsburgh, the neighborhood that best fits that description today is Hazelwood, no?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 9:54:00 AM  
Blogger RoboticGhost said...

I also, albeit with a more restrained enthusiasm than Joe, am excited about Netroots Nation and am surprised that hasn't been a bigger story in the news and in the local blogosphere. I suppose the lefty bend makes folks uncomfortable, but having that many talking heads in town, and for the reasons they are in town, is a good thing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 10:10:00 AM  
Anonymous MH said...

Oakland has plenty of room for densification. Just look at South Oakland. But, if anybody wanted to move me to Hazelwood, I'd be happy about the easier commute and irked because of the lack of places for lunch.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

Ok... but lets rephrase. Within the boundaries that the market is defining Oakland there is no room. I hear from folks within the university that they would take space if they could find it for lots of things. Why that does not impact demand in say South Oakland or North Oakland is a question. There was a lot of talk of that North Oakland Craig corridor. I am not sure the status of the big project that was slated for Centre and Craig which certainly has space now that the Giant Eagle closed.. but much of what is around it could/should probably be rebuilt.

Nonetheless.. right now folks find themselves unable to rent what they want to in Oakland from all that I hear.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

There's 1000 sq. feet for rent across from Magee.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

ha. 1000 sq feet here, 100 sq feet there. Add it up and you might get a dentist's office.

assuming you are not missing a zero that is.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Anderson said...

To a large extent Oakland and Downtown are very different real estate markets. UPMC pushes Oakland, while banks and lawyers push downtown.

There are a few projects on the drawing board in Oakland. FWG had proposed 900,000 square feet near Carlow College (prior to FWG's financial issues). The former ACHD building is going to be demolished and turned into office space. Four projects have been planned near S. Craig Street. Most of these can't get off the ground because of financing/pre-leasing issues.

These projects require substantial pre-leases in order to get financing, which is virtually impossible in todays market.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 12:58:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

Nope, not missing a zero, just reading a sign. Also at this end of Oakland, they've emptied the laundry and the (extremely ugly) adjacent building and put up a big sign that it is open for development. I keep waiting for the Arby's to go under as I can't figure out how it makes enough money to even offset the income they could get by turning it into a parking lot. Maybe it gets a big drunk crowd at night?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 1:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know about Netroots Nation. 1,500 people doesn't seem like a particularly large event. More like one of those typical internet-hype things--lots of brouhaha online, but little impact in the non-virtual world. Kind of like DeSantis' campaign. (Zing!)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 1:01:00 PM  
Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

This just wound up in my inbox. Somewhat relevant, I guess:

http://www.nypost.com/seven/07142009/entertainment/travel/pitt_stop_179068.htm?page=0

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 2:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Craig-Centre intersection is remarkably trashy and underutilized. That should be an epicentre of future Oakland-related growth. The closed Schenley High School could represent an opportunity for huge amounts of office space as well.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 2:33:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

"The closed Schenley High School could represent an opportunity for huge amounts of office space as well."

Where's Mark?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 2:38:00 PM  
Anonymous RoboticGhost said...

Framing Oakland and explaing my possibly nonsensical Hazelwood boosterism...

I remember reading somewhere that if you add it all up, Oakland has about 1 million sq. ft of available capacity and needs about 3 million sq. ft this year. I'm not sure where I got those numbers, but they stick in my head. Anyways, even if that figure is nonsense and the ratio is closer to, say, 1:1.1 for the year that still leaves a shortfall for this year and constrains further development in subsequent years. There are options:

1. Demolish what can be demolished and replace with taller buildings. (Good idea)
2. Rezone residential student areas and build there. (Bad idea)
3. Build somewhere else as close by as possible. (Good idea, bad lunch options)
4. Plow over public gathering spaces and other green zones like the Pitt quad (yeah right)
5. Discourage growth of Oakland-based institutions somehow. (Bad idea)

Scenario: in 2011 CMU gets a big grant and decides to build a new Center for Advanced Blacksmithery and Horseshoeing. They need lab space, offices, classrooms etc... basically they need a new building that students and faculty can get to safely and easily. The surrounding neighborhoods: Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Uptown, South Side, Greenfield, Bloomfield, Hill District, Polish Hill, Hazelwood, and East Liberty. Where would it A. make the most sense to build a new facility B. be cost effective for the University, and C. have the greatest impact on neighborhood development with a eye toward Riverlife's goals, the ACCD's vision, Uncle Morty's take on things, etc...

My questions: There is wiggle room in Oakland proper, and some potential in North Oakland (I didn't know the Giant Eagle closed), but is it enough? South Oakland seems like a non-starter to me. Housing demand there hasn't slumped has it? Was the proposed Peduto Express an indication that I am not alone in seeing Hazelwood as fodder for the future?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 3:21:00 PM  
Blogger n'at said...

Craig-Center development will be the tortoise to the Bakery Square's hare.

Give it time, Schenley will soon be festooned in veritas et virtus, and renamed - just as the Masonic Temple.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 3:21:00 PM  
Blogger joe said...

Sorry to hijack the thread for Netroots Nation talk Chris, but there are at least a few sessions that might be of interest to folks here:

*Green Economy in the 'Burgh
*Local Blogs: Covering City and County Government and Empowering Activism

and of course

*Writing an Effective Blog Post

For fellow history buffs, here's a good diary I came across on dKos on Pittsburgh history (intended as Part 2 of a guide to Pittsburgh for NN attendees).

And to bring it all back to the topic at hand in terms of businesses downtown and density...did you know the city had 30 breweries in 1864? Those were the days.

Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:38:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

that's ok.. I was talking with an organizer for NN about possibily being on one of the NN panels but then have not heard from them in a while so I don't think I am doing anything. I had suggested some other folks in town might be better.

Friday, July 17, 2009 8:30:00 AM  

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