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Don’t compete with malls

What Downtown needs is to provide the kinds of services that we can get in the suburbs (and some we don’t), and to do it at a competitive price while making it easy enough for those of us in the suburbs to want to go Downtown to get it. What Downtown doesn’t need is to try to compete directly with the suburban entities as if it’s a level playing field, because it’s not.

Example movie theater. A multiplex Downtown is not going to attract me when I’ve got 42 screens less than five minutes from my house. The parking is free here, and it’s close to the theaters. The kind of theater that’s going to attract me Downtown is a theater that offers me stuff I can’t get here old movies, limited release stuff. Think Pittsburgh Playhouse. And the parking has to be convenient and cheap enough that it’s not a deterrent. If I have to park by Kaufmann’s and walk to Market Square, guess what? I’m not showing up.

Downtown doesn’t need a Planet Hollywood or a Hard Rock Cafe. Those places are not going to attract me on a regular basis. Once you go in and see the exhibits, what’s left to see on a second or third visit? I’m not going back for a $9 cheeseburger. The only franchises of that ilk that will work are the ones that provide something different, like an ESPNZone or a House Of Blues. It can’t serve as a Rosebud/Metropol clone. If that’s all a chain club does, I’m going to spend my money on the local businesses, not the chains.

As for retail, what Downtown needs is not another upscale department store. I have yet to hear anyone working or shopping Downtown say, “If only Nordstrom were here.” Retailers who come in have to respect the local clientele as well. I think an overlooked part of Lazarus’ problems Downtown was the animosity that was built up by rerouting the buses away from the store. That kind of haughty attitude won’t fly here, and I think Lazarus is paying for it now.

What Downtown retail has to provide is what it lacks, not more of what it already has. Some of the stores mentioned in Murphy’s plans would have been welcome additions, but others were more of the same. A Borders with a music department would be most welcome or another big record store to compete with National Record Mart. How about an electronics store bigger and more varied than Radio Shack? What about a place where you can actually buy computer equipment and software other than the Apple store? How high tech can Pittsburgh be without such a place?

The restaurant crowd will have an even tougher task, because they’ll have to appeal to people on two levels. One is the nighttime crowd, but more important is the lunchtime crowd. You can talk all you want about developing Downtown into an 18 hour or 24 hour marketplace, but the restaurants will have to survive on the lunchtime crowd for a while until that marketplace develops, and a big, overpriced place won’t cut it with the average working Joe. A better variety of fast food places and nicer restaurants is needed. Every place doesn’t have to be Top of the Triangle, nor does it have to be McDonald’s. Give us a good solid variety, and you’d be surprised what can thrive Downtown.

Use the space wisely. Not every store and restaurant needs to be ground level if the buildings are designed or used properly. Make the signs visible and entrances obvious, and the audience will find you. Spread a store over two or three floors instead of making it a one floor monstrosity.

But most of all, don’t ignore the merchants that are already here. The best thing about Downtown is that you can still find the little businesses that still care about all their customers. National chains, by their very nature, aren’t going to be able to provide what our merchants do. Especially when they insult us and tell us they’ll come as long as it’s on our dime.

Outdo suburban malls

1. Don’t populate with stores and cinemas from the mall. Suburbanites can drive a shorter distance from home to go to the malls/cineplexes, park for free and shop or see a movie. There is a need for retail shops that will make the population from the suburbs drive past the malls and cineplexes in their neighborhoods and into town for a Nordstrom or Lord Taylor.

2. Make parking easier and cheaper for after hours and weekends.

3. Instead of the multiscreen cineplex proposed by Urban Retail Properties, why not something like Rockefeller Plaza with a skating rink? Bring in some restaurants offering different types of food and price ranges to attract a wide variety of people. Maybe even one of the TV stations would relocate to the Plaza just like NBC Studios in New York City. Would a Heinz, a Hillman, a Schenley or a Mellon, etc. consider something like this?

FYI, I was in downtown Chicago five years ago and went through one of Urban Retail Properties’ downtown mall on a Thursday evening after work. Guess what? It was nice but not busy!
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And a lot of the stores were chain retailers found in the malls!

Glad old plan died

So we killed the Fifth and Forbes bit, did we? Good. It was a bad plan, and I say that as a newly planted Austinite. I’m not sure I can give you any good advice, but I can give you some perspective.

I grew up in Pittsburgh. I went to grad school at CMU. When I interviewed for jobs, I knew I needed to experience a different place, different people and different growth. My choices in cities were Boulder, Colo.; Annapolis, Md.; San Jose, Texas; and . In the end, it was Austin. I chose Austin because it offered what I had known in Pittsburgh, but with a positive attitude. More than anything, though, it gave me my neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, Austin is already losing those neighborhoods to unthinking developers. Pittsburgh is fortunate that it has been unscarred by the kind of yawning yellow machined destruction of economic nationalization. There are a few exceptions where it has snuck into the ‘Burgh: the Pointe on 60 and 22, Monroeville, Pleasant Hills and Allegheny Center come to mind. But Pittsburgh is still mostly a virgin forest of human scaled living. I breathed easier when Murphy finally let go the idiotic plan he was foisting on the city. Thank y’all for holding down the fort.1. Housing Put some real (and real affordable) housing Downtown. Again, I turn to Austin, a city that made the mistake of having a thriving downtown scene without any real housing. As a result, all the people moved northwest of the city, drove in, got drunk and drove back out. Until Austin can build that housing, tax money goes to Round Rock, while the city of Austin cleans up the vomit.

2. Grocery stores and hardware stores Subsidize those things that people need, not those things that people want. I live where I do ( just outside the city proper, like a smaller version of Bloomfield) because I have a grocery store, a coffee shop and a drug/hardware store all in walking distance. I don’t live where I do because I can walk to a Nordstrom. I more often need eggs and bread than I need a new pair of pants.

3. Attract those people who do not want a suburban experience. Yes, we exist. And we like foot traffic, spending time with our neighbors and a diverse population. And it is the diversity I want to emphasize. Pittsburgh looks like a grand mix when it is compared to Austin. Make Downtown the new centerpiece to a new diversity in Pittsburgh. Reach out to community groups of different kinds to be active in the housing effort. Remember that the shops in the “corridor” now serve a largely African American population. Don’t crowd that population out.
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