Sometimes headlines drive me nuts. Note the PG story today: Is Downtown Becoming a Ghost Town
?. Great illustration of Grants though.. I just barely remember Grants. Let's all angst over why Grants went out of business.
(update... did they change the wording of the headline online? It started online and in print as this
, now online it is this
? The two versions would seem to go with different stories?)
but really. A Ghost Town? About as crowded as a George Romero film then I guess. Cue Seth and Andy please.
So what is one of the densest concentrations of jobs in the US is somehow a 'Ghost Town'. Imagine what the fellow who is touting a Marcellus Shale inspired construction boom Downtown
must be thinking? Is it a Marcellus Shale inspired ghost town?
They both are terribly confused. I said it before, and I'll say it again. Is Downtown Dead? Hardly.
That whole oped was inspired over all the overwrought angsting that Lazarus was departing Downtown after what was really a very short and mostly TIF-induced stay. What it said about the core issues Downtown I still do not know. Downtown Pittsburgh has about as steady an employment count over the last half century as most anywhere in the nation. Not just a few jobs, but downtown proper hovers at 100K employees today as it it did a decade ago and as it did a half century ago. All in the CBD of a city that has lost half its population in the last 50 years and almost 9% in just the last decade alone. It is a remarkable story for the region.
Clearly there are also more non-institutionalized residents (i.e. not in the jail) than at any time since after WWII. Add in the fact that from either, actually both, employment and residential perspecives, nearly all the immediate environs of Downtown are doing better than they did decades ago. The North Shore, which in a sense didn't even exist decades ago, the Strip District, at least the Crawford Square edge of the Hill District, even Uptown all have spillovers from what is going on Downtown. I don't want to forget even the pretty remarkable growth and focused planning by Point Park which is on its own transforming a chunk of Downtown as well. The great mystery here is not why things are empty, but why so many jobs actually remain so sticky in what is a very crowded area with the highest parking costs in the region.
Not to say there has not been a construction boom on top of all of that. The Downtown jobs space has been transformed by not one, but two large bank operations centers built in the not too distant past. One of the first new skyscrapers in years has opened with another on the way. I mean, people are fighting to redevelop parking lots on the North Shore even? Not Downtown I will say in true parochialness... but not much more than a first down away from Downtown proper.
Ghost town... because Saks is closing? One restaurant is reorganizing because it's upstairs tenant left? (you have to wonder how much reinvestment they made in those upper floors in recent years?) An aluminum infused building isn't quite up to spec for modern demand?
OK... in all seriousness. The article today misses the real story, but so does everyone else to a degree. There is this thing called displacement
. Is there some vast failure Downtown? Everything can be improved, but from sheer investment or activity Downtown is not lacking. Yet the story exists and vacancies are there and some of them don't seem to be finding new uses anytime soon. So what gives? On that note can we please, please, stop referring to it as the former Lord and Taylor buiding. Lord and Taylor was a brief brief epilogue for the building. The building was known for most of its existance as the Mellon National Bank Building and was essentially vacant before Lord and Taylor showed up; displaced by a past round of new construction
in old Pittsburgh's Downtown. Sometimes I think we just confuse ourselves.
To a big degree, Downtown is a victim of it's own success and it is really important to not confuse cause and effect. The aforementioned construction over the last deade has been in many ways vertical growth. Downtown Pittsburgh remains one of the more vertical cities around. The 100K jobs number is impressive, but it probably isn't growing. I'm not so sure Downtown can really support much more than 100K jobs.. especially not with so many public transit routes being cut and only limited growth in parking supply. So fixed jobs and a lot of new vertical space? You get where this is going.
Which all gets to the real point. Building without a plan has consequences. Investment is good, but don't confuse the secondary impacts of new construction as unconnected. We clearly have a lot of very old, and sub-market office supply Downtown. Is it that hard to see how part of the market is going to be under ever more presure if new construction keeps opening up? You need to have a plan
, and you need to actually use it for the properties left behind or else the result is in part what you see popping up in that story.