Strolling on Fifth Avenue downtown, you might take note of the three department stores anchoring Pittsburgh?s so-called central business district. Well, it?s not so much three as one, with the erstwhile Lazarus and Lord & Taylor having closed over the last year. Surely, though, the venerable Kaufmann?s name will remain indefinitely as the symbol of downtown retail commerce.
Not so, actually: The latest projections have the Kaufmann?s name disappearing entirely from western Pennsylvania and New York after an announcement of a buyout offer by Federated Department Stores, owners of Macy?s. The loss of the 130-year-old name is just the latest blow among the city?s repeatedly failed attempts to revitalize a downtown plagued by suburban sprawl and pockmarked by empty and underused buildings.
Over eight years ago, Mayor Tom Murphy (D) started working on the first Fifth?Forbes plan, a plan that had the city paying for two-thirds of the then new but already defunct Lazarus store at Fifth and Wood. The city also bought many nearby properties but drew protests when it threatened to demolish 60 of them to build ?big box? retailers: impersonal franchises that would lend no uniqueness to downtown. Many of the companies wooed by the city have settled instead at the Homestead Waterfront or South Side Works, while Nordstrom, the Seattle-based department store, has abandoned their exiguously defined plans to enter the Pittsburgh market.
A new plan involves thousands of residential units along Fifth Avenue and between Fifth and Forbes, some fronting on the city?s historic diamond, Market Square. Retail and hotel projects have taken a backseat to residential ones this time around.
Enter Carl Dranoff. On Thursday, the city reworked its Fifth?Forbes plan again, this time to formally add Philadelphia residential developer Carl Dranoff to the mix of planners taking part in the corridor development. Dranoff is the successful developer of many condominium properties in Center City and University City, Philadelphia. He has been working with the city?s ad hoc development committee since June.
A key characteristic of his company, Dranoff Properties, is that it converts extant historic buildings and continues to operate all the facilities it develops. Dranoff is among those responsible for turning University City ? home to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University ? from a crime-riddled neighborhood into a community that is to Philadelphia as Cambridge is to Boston. The historic conversions have gained quick approval from community and historic preservation groups. This is the difference that will finally get the project approved as the city council pushes the corridor and the completion of Pittsburgh?s ?Renaissance II? back into the spotlight this year.
Dranoff is also committed to serving the community around the buildings his company converts. The city expects that there will be retail fronts on the ground floors of the residential buildings on Fifth and Liberty Avenues, replacing decrepit, failing businesses. PNC, the Pittsburgh-based financial corporation, is the corridor?s largest remaining property owner, except for the city; to this end they announced Friday that they will support this newest plan for their corner of the city by making some of their twelve properties available for development if the plan comes to fruition.
Pittsburgh has one of the oldest populations in the United States at a time when many cities are experiencing downtown residential booms as young professionals and childless couples move in. Pittsburgh heretofore has had neither the housing nor the drive for these demographics to return to the business district. Drawing them with this residential and light-commercial community within a city solves one of those two issues; Pittsburghers taking pride in their downtown should fill the units handily.
A formal proposal from Dranoff and Pittsburgh?s Downtown Partnership is expected within a couple weeks. It may also include final disposal of the Lazarus building by subdivision; watching his company?s success in Philly, it is certain to be the final plan needed in any case. Murphy has decided not to seek a fourth term partly on the basis of his Fifth?Forbes failure, and the city of Pittsburgh is in financial despair and unable to subsidize development any further: What can finally solve the Fifth?Forbes question is an outside developer who lacks quixotic ideas but who possesses the capital power to make his plans happen.
Adam Greenberg (agreenbe@) is a senior in civil and environmental engineering and a contributing editor to The Tartan. He informally recommends importing Harvard Square to Pittsburgh, brick by brick.