Making Pittsburgh New by Keeping it Old

A critic of development joins the other side

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Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation

In 1997, Arthur Ziegler, founder and head of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, was vigorously leading the opposition to a plan by then-Mayor Tom Murphy to demolish 64 historic buildings in five square blocks of the city’s downtown in order to build a standard enclosed shopping mall.

Eventually, the proposed mall fell under the weight of its own ill-conceived vision when Nordstrom pulled out as a potential anchor. Ziegler’s PHLF had offered an alternative proposal that would have demolished three blocks of mostly nondescript buildings, leaving the rest to be restored by individual owners with retail on the ground floor and apartments or offices above. Murphy rejected this idea.

Now, two mayors, two governors and 15 years later, Ziegler and PHLF have been hired by the city to oversee the redevelopment of those 64 buildings in an effort to advance economic revitalization of the downtown.

One corner before and after development. Courtesy Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation

Before the mall proposal, the stores in these buildings were occupied and people were showing interest in converting the upstairs to dwellings. But by the time the battle was over, most buildings were empty and badly deteriorated.

Nothing happened for years but the city, under Murphy’s successor, the late Mayor Bob O’Connor, sold PHLF three of the deteriorated buildings, which it then set out to rescue and rehabilitate. "No one would support us," Ziegler says, referring to public agencies and private foundations alike. But restore they did.

The results were the needed catalyst for a downtown turnaround. A longtime men’s store that had moved out of downtown in the 1970s came back to occupy one renovated store. An old shoe store, not doing well in another part of downtown, moved nearby. Both were an immediate success. Now other men’s stores are moving in, and Ziegler is hopeful some women’s clothing stores will follow.

Courtesy Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation

Seven new apartments were created in the upstairs, now occupied mostly by office workers but also two students and a retiree. A waiting list has 51 applicants for future apartments. The project is one of six federal rehabilitation tax credit projects nationwide to earn LEED gold certification. The right people were convinced this strategy had merit and so the city turned to Ziegler to continue the momentum.

"We showed by example what could be done and so the city came to us to do this next phase," says Ziegler.

Founded in 1964 at the height of urban renewal demolition, PHLF has been a national leader in restoring historic housing for low-income tenants and historic commercial buildings for mixed use.

Courtesy Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation

 

Pittsburgh should have escaped the elusive draw of the mall. More than most other cities, Pittsburgh saw its urbanism reinforced with historic preservation as the primary tool, following an active demolition phase. This classic industrial city had started early on the urban renewal path, ruthlessly ripping apart its urban fabric, clearing neighborhoods and a vast portion of its commercial heart at the tip of the city, known as the Golden Triangle, to create a large, underutilized park and series of dull and dreary buildings.

Ziegler, then an English professor at Carnegie-Mellon, and architectural historian Jamie Van Trump were both outraged by the city’s "Renaissance Master Plan," which targeted beautiful but rundown neighborhoods for demolition. Forming the Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundation, they set out to prove that historic preservation was an effective tool for community revitalization and urban rebirth. They targeted otherwise doomed neighborhoods, combining foundation grants and available government funding that had to be refashioned to meet renovations needs. They bought, restored and resold their first building and established a revolving fund to continue the process.

Under pressure, city officials reconfigured their urban renewal plan to include a renovation strategy for several architecturally rich neighborhoods, one of which author Jane Jacobs called "the working man’s Georgetown." This effort turned into the country’s first historic preservation program for low-income residents, combining both homeowner assistance and affordable rentals. "We saved taxpayers $30 to $40 million through our investment and, more importantly, we saved neighborhoods," says Ziegler.

They analyzed each neighborhood on its own terms, studied its history and demography as well as the architectural quality of the buildings. "In making presentations to the residents," Ziegler says, "we emphasized the uniqueness and goodness of the neighborhoods – not the deterioration – and the need to save buildings as a significant housing and cultural resource for the city." The local urban redevelopment authority stressed how bad the neighborhoods were, how strategic it would be to clear them and stave off the decay. But Ziegler’s approach was about adding the positive to diminish the negative, not erasing the negative and expecting a positive to emerge.

In the end, the PHLF approach has been enormously successful. A variety of strategies, as opposed to a master plan, were established that could be applied according to different local conditions. Residents were involved in the process from the beginning. The worst vacant properties were purchased from absentee landlords and restored.

The three downtown blocks that Ziegler’s original 1997 plan focused on are now being developed, including a new hotel complex. In all, 64 historic buildings will be restored.

Pittsburgh, as a city, is still struggling along with many Rustbelt locations. Yet, 98 percent of its Class A buildings are leased and 70 percent of the Class B. Some of the Class B could be candidates for residential conversion.

"Historic preservation becomes a modest tool for growth," Ziegler observes when asked what the lesson of this success is for other cities. "There’s too much focus today on shrinking and greening over our cities," he adds. "If you make it appealing, they will come." And so they are in Pittsburgh.

About the Author

  • Roberta Brandes Gratz is an award-winning journalist and urban critic. Her newest book is The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.