Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Banking on the Future (of Downtown Pittsburgh)

History is written by the victors they say.  That is about the only explanation I can come up with for how much of Pittsburgh's economic development history is not just forgotten, but literally unwritten from the record for the most part. This all came to mind because of some developments scheduled for today down at the City's zoning board on some proposed redevelopment for a new Pittsburgh Playhouse Theater.  Just spurred my thinking on what was once Pittsburgh's central effort to invigorate Downtown.

The new playhouse site is across from what was once called the Bank Center, a series of building's once known as Pittsburgh's Wall Street. Redevelopment of the Bank Building into an indoor urban mall (a modern Jenkin's Arcade?) was in itself a $10 million development effort (in 1976 dollars!). The redeveloped building included a range of shopping and entertainment venues including a disco named the Library (actually a franchise of a chain of disco clubs), and even included a movie theater. Actually what liked best was the quote that the site had a coffee shop named 'Cappucino' described as "an idea borrowed from the streets of Europe."  Who knew the retail coffee biz was a going to be a big new thing?

Foreign journalists used to point to it as an example of urban rebirth here saying things like "...Pittsburgh has the Bank Center." Local reporters called the project "an early entry into Pittsburgh's Renaissance II.." or as Pittsburgh's "Beauty mark" (I can't make this up) or even "Pittsburgh's Grand Bazaar."  Think the goal of a 24 hour destination is something new?  Prose that seems to have been excised from the modern media once described the omniplex when extant thusly:
"The Bank. 
The terseness of the title belies all that it connotes: A city-within-a-city complex where strolling shoppers scuff white marble... where society blends in an amalgam of disco dancer, yogurt-fancier and notion-hunter.. where the dishwasher's apron brushes indiscriminately against milady's mink.. where bookworm, moviegoer and girl-watcher function in unison and singular purpose during a morning, noon or night on the town."
The original project eventually went bankrupt and was pretty much shuttered by 1986. It would be a decade of effort before the site was redeveloped again, with great fanfare, by a partnership between Point Park University and the Carnegie Library which made the site into the Downtown/Business branch of the library system.  That lasted for another decade when the library moved across town to its current location across from the Gimbels Building (obligatory anachronistic geographic reference) and Point Park eventually acquired the building. Then there was the unrealized plan otherwise known as Fifth and Forbes which I suspect would have had a minor impact on the site, if it had happened.

With everyone now looking to Pittsburgh for answers, I wonder if we are picking and choosing the stories to tell? Might be more to learn from what we want to forget than from whatever the latest PR has to say.