Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lots of Ghosts Around

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. 


Anonymous n'at said...

I enjoy the perspective of the real estate broker that having property along a major transit corridor and its heavy foot traffic is a hindrance to commercial development.

so much for AOT's, TRD's and TOD's...

Sunday, October 16, 2011 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I too was struck by the claim that bus stops have "spawned grab and go thefts, in which someone steals merchandise from a store and then hops on a bus to escape." (spoken like a true senior managing director of the Pittsburgh office of Holliday Fenoglio Fowler LP, that renowned criminology think tank)

Unfortunately I don't expect that the geographic resolution of Pittsburgh crime data is high enough to allow for his claim to be readily evaluated.

It's true though that rich people don't want to walk past undesirable, bus-going types as they walk from parking garage to upscale retail facility. I hate to say it but perhaps what we need at the former W.T. Grant Co. is a wal-mart

Sunday, October 16, 2011 12:23:00 PM  
Blogger Infinonymous said...

from sheer investment of activity Downtown is not lacking

Fine point, if (and only if) investment = subsidy and activity = subsidy.

Otherwise, great Chip Diller impersonation.

Sunday, October 16, 2011 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

Saks to Walmart would be poetic

Sunday, October 16, 2011 1:58:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

and the bus comment had me thinking.  Are bus routes new to Downtown? You would think so from that comment. There is a natural experiment to test it all. Given all the route cuts, the number of individual bus-stops Downtown must be down as well. Should give some insight into whether that statement meant anything. You would think it would at least deserved a note as to what the trends have been for bus routings Downtown.  But someone said it, so it became a source. 
I was also thinking...  is any of this a new story really.  How many times have Warner Centre been redeveloped/resold? 

Any recent downturn is clearly the Soupman's fault. Go ahead and ask me and I will put that into the public record undisputed.

Sunday, October 16, 2011 3:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Dude said...

Fewer buses mean longer waits for the next bus, thus more shiftless bus riders standing around making rich suburban women feel unsafe.

Sunday, October 16, 2011 4:37:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

I was just on Grant Street today. Looks like a dozen or more new housing units are up.

Sunday, October 16, 2011 6:13:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

Residents moving into Downtown while department stores are moving out is seriously confusing the people who aren't aware that department stores have been bleeding retail share since the 1980s. Meanwhile the Downtown restaurant scene is in fact exploding overall, and churn in that area is to be expected.

Anyway, I think you could get a little net job growth Downtown despite the transportation issues from new residents in walking distance (so in and around Downtown), and perhaps along the high-capacity transit routes into Downtown (e.g., in East Liberty).

Physically that takes the form of some new low-vacancy office towers Downtown, with the older, smaller, substandard, higher-vacancy buildings being converted to residential units (plus some hotels and such).

But I agree that process will still run up against some fundamental constraints in the nearish future, unless there is radical change on the transportation side. Personally, I'm still thinking automated cars will eventually provide the means to dramatically increase the jobs density of CBDs on a cost-effective basis.

Monday, October 17, 2011 10:47:00 AM  
Anonymous The Wiz said...

Speaking of change on the transportation side there are two new interesting concepts out there.

One is a car rental company that uses cellphones and GPS systems to locate cars. How it works; You rent a car and leave it wherever you end up. The next person that needs to rent a car uses their app. It will show you the location of the nearest car. Download a code to enter and off you go. Rental cars will be randomly scattered about the city.

The other way is for people to make some money. Enter your own car in a data base that people can rent it by the hour. Post when your car is available and people can rent it by the hour using similar GPS system as above. Company has $1 mil insurance on your vehicle.

The average car is driven less than two hours a day. If these or similar business work, it will reduce the number of cars in the city easing pollution, congestion, and parking.

Sorry about the pension funds though.

Monday, October 17, 2011 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

100K people go to work downtown in the morning in automated rental cars on one way hops... they all mysteriously disappear on their own until the evening when they are taken again onone way hops back home where they are left in a Cranberry driveway waiting to be rented.

Not quite what the biggest concern is for the pension fund there.

Monday, October 17, 2011 11:35:00 AM  
Anonymous MH said...

If the cars are automated, why not just send it home to Cranberry after it drops you at work and have it come back to get you. You can buy a great deal of gas for $20.

Monday, October 17, 2011 12:04:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

Probably not all the way to Cranberry, but it would make sense to park the commuting cars somewhere outside the CBD. Land will be cheaper there so parking will be cheaper so parking revenues will be lower--too bad we didn't do that lease if it happens within 30 years.

Also note that automated cars will likely drive much faster in much closer proximity to each other and save energy doing it.

Monday, October 17, 2011 5:48:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

I'm sure the cars will fly so they can park 30 levels high at meters.

Monday, October 17, 2011 6:24:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

The thing is that automated cars are basically off-the-shelf technology at this point. So the barriers to their widespread use on a multi-decade timeframe are mostly legal and social (not that such obstacles can be ignored).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 1:02:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

Can you program an automated car to do the Pittsburgh left?

and I sure hope they don't try to navigate by GPS in the city.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 1:05:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

If you can program them to either do the P-Left or not do it--either way is fine with me--without having to go through a complex dance of eye contact, facial expressions, and hand gestures first, that would be good.

If I understand Google's announcement correctly, they actually use data gathered from the sensors on the cars to continually map and remap the environment. No word yet on whether they have a subroutine called, "Where the ___ used to be".

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 1:26:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

From this article, it seems that there is still a long way to go except maybe for use on regular or semi-fixed routes.

We live in age of tedious-to-implement wonders.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 2:21:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

That wasn't my takeaway. Nothing is stopping these things from functioning just as well or better than human drivers in mixed traffic, and all they need is one prior drive to start up (see Google Maps Streetview for the possible extent of such a system over a relatively short period).

The legal stuff is the real barrier--which is a serious barrier, but also one with no inherent timeline attached.

Thursday, October 20, 2011 2:32:00 PM  

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