Right now Pittsburgh is in the midst of what local leaders are calling, in capital letters, the city's "Third Renaissance." For the first time in decades, people are moving back downtown. Commercial offices are anchored there, and residential occupancy rates are touching 95 percent. In recent years the city has hosted the G-20 economic summit, been named America's most livable city, and been called one of three metros to recover completely from the great recession.
But one major piece to the renaissance puzzle has been missing: downtown retail. Lazarus struggled and finally failed a few years back, the old Lord & Taylor building never made a comeback, and earlier this year Saks Fifth Avenue closed its downtown store too. Those setbacks prompted Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to convene a task force of city officials, developers, and business leaders, that recently released a three-year plan [PDF] to change the city's retail fortunes.
"You see people living in downtown Pittsburgh again, you see skyscrapers being built," says Yarone Zober, chief of staff to Mayor Ravenstahl. "We knew retail had to be different than what prior regimes had done. It had to be quintessentially Pittsburgh."
The multi-pronged plan has several elements that focus directly on retail. City leaders will make a push to attract new businesses while retaining old ones, says Zober, and will encourage them to form a retailer's partnership group that works together as a community. More importantly, the plan will have a substantial indirect impact by creating what Zober calls a strong "sense of place."
That type of local identity has been a focal point of Mayor Ravenstahl's administration. One of his first tasks in office was a major redevelopment effort to make Market Square a more inviting place, capped by a "grand reopening" of the square in the fall of 2010. As part of the new retail plan, city leaders hope to expand those livability principles to other parts of downtown Pittsburgh.
"How do we change that and make every part of downtown, through this action plan, much like Market Square: a special place that people want to walk and bike down again?" says Zober. "They're doing it to live and to work. How do we do it so they also want to shop there?"
Answers to Zober's rhetorical questions can be found in the changes outlined for three specific downtown corridors. Wood Street, a key link to the retail center for students at Point Park University, stands to benefit from "historic façade renovations" and basic street upgrades. Smithfield Street, a major crosstown connector, has untapped retail potential that stands to be enhanced by a strong bikeway. Forbes Avenue, which terminates in Market Square, could also use a bike lane and other street improvements that invite pedestrian interactions.
Image courtesy of the "Downtown Action Strategy," prepared by the city of Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
ourtesy of the "Downtown Action Strategy," prepared by the city of Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
The strategy is not so much to lure major retailers onto certain sites and hope the people follow, but rather to create places that Pittsburghers want to go with the belief that businesses will follow. City leaders expect to attract large national retailers: Brooks Brothers just extended its downtown space for five years. At the same time, they're just as eager to attract local boutiques and stores with ownership ties to the city, says Zober, who is also head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
The plan, which was announced in mid-November, is already in motion. City planners are already working with construction crews and the public works department to map out the street improvements, says Zober, and other officials have started giving retailers the pitch. The plan doesn't give any cost estimates — the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently put the figure at $18.5 million — but it does make clear that the private sector will split much of the burden with the city.
"Mayor Ravenstahl has a strong vision for what has to happen," says Zober. "This particular plan is about downtown and retail, but overall that vision has led us to a third renaissance and a city that everyone around the world is recognizing as a really special place."