Thursday, April 11, 2013

Downtown is dead, long live Downtown

So various stories on the state of Downtown Pittsburgh of late. PG today: Upheaval and losses hurt, but Downtown Pittsburgh emerged from economic turmoil renewed, and the Trib a few days ago: Downtown home to younger, wealthier residents, study finds. Note my comment in the latter about the role of college students living Downtown. I do believe that over the last decade a slim majority of the increase in actual Downtown residents has been college students, something that kind of gets lost in the talk.

But how is Downtown doing? There are really two Downtown issues.  How is Downtown doing as a place to work, and as a place to live.  Beyond the headlines there is a simple truth that the number of people actually working Downtown has remained, through good times and bad, one of the most stable trends around.  Much the same number of people work Downtown as did a decade ago, or 5 decades ago. What is amazing is that how much sentiment changes.  Years ago I had to point out the obvious when I wrote Downtown isn't dying, despite nearly universal prognostication to the contrary. The only parsing of that is that the former concentration of jobs in 3 major department stores is gone, decreasing some of the lower paying jobs, but the average and total payroll of jobs Downtown has been trending upwards.

How about Pittsburgh as a place to live?  Now things get complicated. Here are two stories running last month that reference the same exact data point: the population trend in Downtown Pittsburgh. Yet somehow the exact same reference point has two extremely different 'facts' for what nominally should be pretty straightforward. So take the Detroit Free Press and its story mostly on Detroit obviously: Downtown Detroit has more wealth, diversity than city as whole, report says, but take this dour (for us) graphic that ran with it:

So that says Downtown Pittsburgh is down 27% over the last decade. Now take the Trib's story over the around that time looks at all the new folks living Downtown: Downtown Pittsburgh undergoes retail, residential rebirth. That story says the 2010 Census has  7,796 people living Downtown.  To get anywhere near that number with 2010 Census data you have to have a pretty big definition of Downtown. Downtown as it has been defined by the city for a century has half that population in the 2010 Census.  It also says the number is UP 21% from 2000. Technically speaking, the census count of Downtown residents went down from 2000 to 2010, but that is all wrong as well. 

Why is it so hard to get a count of Downtown residents?  Which story is right?  Downtown population up or down?  The answers are: counting is not as simple as it seems, neither, and yes.

More seriously, the first answer explaining all this is just sheer geography.  What your definition of 'Downtown' can give you most any answer you want to hear. Lot's of inconsistent definitions of what 'Downtown' is floating out there, and there are different numbers associated with each different definition.  But that is the starting point.

I hate to mention again, but I use this example fairly often as a teaching point as well as here. Below is a page 1 story from March 2001 about all the new Downtown residents the decenial census just said had moved in since 1990.

Of course, it just was not true one iota. Remember this is a story from over a decade ago talking about all the residential growth over the previous decade. There were two big things wrong.  The article had all sorts of great quotes about all the new young faces people saw living Downtown and why they all were moving there for the amenities Downtown.  It actually was true there were more young people.  Some may recall that the Allegheny County Jail downtown was rebuilt between 1990 and 2000. It also was expanded from around 1,200 to 2,500 capacity at the same time and was pretty full by the time the 2000 census came around.  The 'increase' in Downtown's population over the decade matched exactly the increase in the jail's population, which is pretty much entirely a young adult population. (just say no to BGB joke that would flow in right here) No joke, and not mentioned in the story anywhere. Story was all vapor. 
But there was another error in the 2000 census data for Downtown.  The new jail is actually not Downtown, but in a Census tract part of the Uptown/Bluff neighborhood. The census gnomes didn't catch the fact that the jail moved and so the whole population of the jail shows up in the wrong location. That only gets fixed in the 2010 Census counts. Screws up all sorts of analysis if you are trying to figure out trends.  That Detroit Free Press article and the 27% decline in Downtown's population?  Entirely an artifact of the census correcting the mistake dating back to the 1990s of the jail relocating into a neighborhing census tract, and thus creating the nominal population decrease.
So I once tried to sort this out and get a reference number for the change in Downtown's population.  If you want to go through it what I came up with is online here.  I had come up with 1,100 new Downtown residents over the decade, about 374 of which are net new college students in dorms.
But that is wrong as well. In data that has come out since then, it turns out my previous calculation is incorrect because of yet another bad datapoint in the census data for Downtown's population.  It turns out that the 2010 Census data missed a big new dorm that the Art Institute built Downtown over the previous decade. The uncounted dorm has had secondary impacts on other data. Basically the inclusion of dorm's population in the 2011 population estimates for the first time (even though it was occupied years earlier) is pretty much the entire reason there appears to be an increase in the entire City of Pittsburgh population between 2010 and  2011
What does it all mean? A few things.  Are there more non-institutionalized people living Downtown? For sure there are given the new condos and apartments that have gone in over the last decade. If you are really talking about Downtown (not the Strip, not the North Shore...etc), what I now think is the case is that the majority of the net new residents are college students. That gets infinitely less press than the nominal new residents of condos and apartments Downtown, even though I think there really are more college students. Another question I have is whether the 'occupied' condos Downtown are really occupied.  To be counted as a resident, at least in the census, you only get counted at the place of your primary residence.  Seems to me a lot of population counts Downtown.  Lots of what I read makes me think a lot of condos are bought by some fairly well off Pittsburgh expatriates looking for a stake in their hometown.   I wonder how many folks are really full year residents?


Anonymous Benjamin said...

"are really..." what? The suspense is killing me!

Related: I'll be a new Downtown resident as of next Tuesday. So make sure to add one more tally mark.

Thursday, April 11, 2013 11:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At a base of $1,200/month, doesn't take a genius to figure out college kids aren't living in the new condos and apartments downtown.

Thursday, April 11, 2013 1:42:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

Of course some college kids are unusually well-funded, and packing in the roommates can help make places a bit more affordable, but I agree that it is very likely that most of the folks in the new market-rate apartments/condos are not students.

However, I hope there is still some more dorm building and maybe some new student-oriented apartments in Downtown's future, because I think students are a useful addition to the overall mix.

Thursday, April 11, 2013 6:57:00 PM  
Blogger joe said...

Come on Pittsburgh, build an urban Green House downtown for all the parents of the $ expats. They're doing it in New York and Boston, even Baltimore.

Kind of disappointed the students down there or at CMU have yet to find some way to celebrate/visually restore the Hump Cut from a century ago. If only there were 448 photos and schematics for doing so somewhere.

Thursday, April 11, 2013 10:29:00 PM  
Anonymous RMS said...

"Story was all vapor."

Consider the source.

Friday, April 12, 2013 12:51:00 PM  

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