At a party in 2000 I ran into Tom Murphy, mayor of Pittsburgh, who was casting around at the time for ways to revive downtown Pittsburgh. The city itself was doing fine; the problem was (and is) that most people commute downtown from suburbs where they pay less taxes, but they use city services all day so city dwellers pay even more taxes to cover roads and police and EMTs for the commuters. Downtown was and remains mostly a dead space. Want a coffee? Need a prescription refill? A pint of milk and a bag of carrots? Fetch your car and drive ten minutes to the Foodland (or whatever they call it now) on Liberty in Bloomfield. Downtown and the fun services that go with being where people live dries up as soon as commuters leave at five.
I told him that downtown downtown needs a couple of grocery store/pharmacies and a coffeehouse or two. Nobody wants to move downtown if they need a car to get the most basic life amenities, and abundant cheap lofts won’t fix that.
Ignoring me, Murphy instead spent millions recruiting a Nordstrom’s high-end department store on the theory that a lot of people driving downtown to park at the Nordstrom’s parking lot to shop and then leave would sort of look like revitalization (to be fair I think I was criticizing him after the fact). Predictably Nordstrom’s passed for a cheaper site in a suburban mall.
Where did I get the idea? When I volunteered for Jim Roddey’s (successful) 1999 run for County Executive in Allegheny County, the campaign manager spelled spelled it out for me (to get Roddey, think of the John McCain Republica who only exists in David Broder’s fevered imagination). The Democrat, Cyril Wecht, makes Jack Murtha look upright. K., a profane, high-strung veteran who only manages Republicans, stayed downtown for the race. He told me, at some point or another, that Pittsburgh had one of the worst downtowns he had ever seen. The reasons he gave helped me realize how we could wake the city up again. How much would it cost for the city to subsidize a few grocery stores and late night coffee? Certainly less than the tax breaks that Nordstrom demanded.
Anyhow, I’m glad to see that the idea has caught on a little.
Another true story: Murphy narrowly beat me in Pittsburgh’s first Race for the Cure. Over and over I would pass him on the straights and then he would catch me on the uphills. Pittsburgh isn’t that big a town.