Monday, July 13, 2015

How I learned to stop worrying and love Downtown retail

As I type there are almost 200 comments on the PG's coverage of Downtown Macy's store to close. Basically, the closings of the Macy's location (née Kaufmann's) is some sort of emotional touchstone for all things Pittsburgh. That scale of commentariat borders on the kvetching you might get on the sports desk. Maybe it is because so many of us stared into those Christmas decorated windows.

Back when poor old Lazarus closed, after a very brief tenure in Downtown Pittsburgh, it was hard to wade through the angst it caused. People talked as if the failure of a failed investment was somehow a sign of doom for all things Downtown. If I had an oped to say on all this today, it would be close to a verbatim repeat of this from some years ago: Is Downtown dead? Hardly.  

If you want something more current, or at least more quantitative, see my post from a couple years ago digging into what is happening in Downtown employment trends.I'll summarize by pointing out that the number of jobs located downtown today is almost identical to what it was 50 years ago, or 20 years ago.. but there is a big change in the composition of those jobs. As time as gone by the retail jobs in downtown has clearly gone down as institutions like Gimbles, Grants, Hornes, Buyers' Mart, briefly Lazarus and Lord and Taylor, Saks, Ralphs, and now Kaufmann's/Macy's have departed or are about to be gone. Most all of those stores were pretty sizable job centers unto themselves.

So if the total number of jobs has remained even roughly the same, then other jobs must be growing. Now realize that retail jobs are not very well paying, and the jobs that have been growing Downtown clearly have been better paying. Thus that big jump in average pay per job located Downtown that I detailed in that post.

Obligatory to mention of course the vast Fifth and Forbes imbroglio that was a touchstone far beyond this.  I really wonder if there was not such an emotional pull to save the hat store and the wig store in the demolition footprint, if the history might have turned out differently.  Those shows, or maybe even the new stores that could have replaced them, might have soon found themselves in the footprint of a new skyscraper getting closer to completion right now.  I wonder how many of the 120 or so businesses that everyone fought so hard to save, are around today? The idea was that Fifth and Forbes should be replaced by smaller scale initiatives in the corridor and keep the buildings individually owned. How did that work out?

Still, Downtown retail really is one of those things virtually everyone seems obliged to 'save'. See this from a few years ago: Mayor's roundtable to beef up Downtown retail district. Just one of innumerable commissions we hear about, but rarely see much follow up on.  If the question is jobs.. jobs uber alles right? then remember that there really is no jobs gain from any shift in local retail activity. It is all displacement from an ever declining pie.

And if you really care about figuring out what is happening in Downtown retail.. maybe it is time to repeat a study once completed long ago (or just yesterday in Pittsburgh time) by my friend Jim: Who shops Downtown and why?  Probably won't happen.  Easier to kvetch.

as an addendum or cheat sheet...  You either know about Ralph's or you don't. If you are old enough you know about W T Grant.  But Buyers' Mart is another matter altogether.  Once a major retail establishment just on the edge of Downtown that the URA supported the Buncher company to redevelop in an attempt to revitalize the Strip District.  A strategy repeated in several different decades.


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