Monday, March 02, 2015

Downtown Pittsburgh is Dead; Long Live Downtown Pittsburgh

Just a passing note that Downtown Pittsburgh has been ranked #1 for 'livability.' See Trib: Pittsburgh's Downtown tops ranking of small to midsized cities.  One of those stories I bet everyone covers, and I'll add links when more coverage comes online.


But a decade ago there was so much talk of how quickly Downtown Pittsburgh was dying that I was prompted to write:  Is Downtown Dead? Hardly.

What a difference a decade makes?  Of course there have been a lot of changes Downtown, but a decade ago the talk that all things Downtown were imploding was so pervasive, and so unsupported by data, that someone had to point out the incredibly persistent strength of the job concentration in the city's core.  For slightly more recent parsing of Downtown employment numbers: Nullspace August 12, 2012 .

Of course the new ranking is about the 'livability' of Downtown, and  the sheer number of people living Downtown is a story unto itself.   Downtown Pittsburgh, i.e. the Golden Triangle, was once a place almost devoid of a residential population outside of a small handful (or less) of large high rise residential buildings.  A Downtown 'neighborhood' would have been hard to describe the non-incarcerated population was so small. I actually think the true Downtown 'neighborhood' was that which was once called the "Lower Hill District" (for more see "The Downtowners" in the last issue
of Pulp Magazine from 2004) which was as many know was unceremoniously quite ceremoniously leveled in the 1950s.  But that is another story, though a story coming up more and more often of late.


Nonetheless, the current numbers living within the Golden Triangle, whether that be the Census 2010 count of 3,629, or higher numbers others have estimated, is an achievement.  Probably worth keeping in mind that the population jump Downtown was highly subsidized achievement with a lot of construction supported by various forms of public or public-private investment.  Expensive, but a determined strategy and in large part it worked.  Note it is a somewhat different causal story in Pittsburgh than some similar population growth in Center City Philadelphia which has (arguably) been driven by a comprehensive tax abatement program on residential construction there.  

But how did we get here from there, or there from here? It might be interesting to look at the Downtown Pittsburgh plan from the mid-Murphy years.  Yes, it does include the vision for the maligned and abandoned Fifth and Forbes retail development (I'll point out there is a big skyscraper going in where the hat shop everyone was trying to save used to be), but there is a bit more there and quite a range of participants in the process. Read closely and find the small illustration for the plan to reintroduce a street grid across the Strip District, which is still my preferred plan, if the least likely to be implemented comprehensively.

On one last note. Recall that in 2000, the hope for Downtown living was so hard to defend that folks jumped any anything, any sliver of data, even if completely misconstrued, to believe. Below was a page 1 headline and story about the big jump of downtown residential population that appeared to show up in the 2000 census.  What was completely overlooked was that the expansion of the county jail had generated new population that exactly matched the net population growth Downtown.  So a lot of new, mostly young, people were indeed living Downtown, but I am just not quite sure that is what anyone really meant.






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