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Pittsburgh's Fifth and Forbes avenues: crumbling corridor

Almost a year after the collapse of a plan to remake the area, closings and vacancies are up in the deteriorating Downtown district

Sunday, September 09, 2001

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A year ago, tenants along Fifth and Forbes avenues Downtown worried they wouldn't be allowed to stay in an area targeted for a major urban renewal project. Now many are leaving on their own.

Going-Out-Of-Business signs plaster the front windows of the G.C. Murphy store, which straddles space between Fifth and Forbes avenues. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette photos)

Signs announcing closings -- both temporary and permanent -- dot the district. "For rent" signs, always a factor, are proliferating. And retailers that are staying are seeking, and getting, rent reductions.

"It seems like a lot of people were holding out for the Fifth and Forbes project," said Bernard Baker, president of Jenny Lee Bakery, which has been on Market Square since 1938 but this summer closed a smaller, second storefront along Forbes Avenue.

Baker wasn't a huge fan of Mayor Tom Murphy's ambitious $522 million proposal to redevelop the area, using the threat of the city's power to take property if the administration felt it had to. "I thought it was too much, too fast," Baker said.

"But then, it ended up being nothing."

Last November, Murphy gave up on the controversial plan to create Market Place at Fifth and Forbes, a project that would have demolished scores of Downtown buildings to make way for a lineup of hip, new shops and clubs as well as a Nordstrom department store.

The plan was in the public eye for three and a half years, and, as it slowly came together, it gathered opposition among historic preservationists, some property owners and Murphy's political foes. In the end, however, Nordstrom, the expected retail linchpin, postponed its commitment, and the plan collapsed.

For a long time, the proposed project had offered retailers an excuse to look past slowing sales and to hang around hoping something would come of all the excitement. It also gave property owners a reason to hold onto buildings that might not be fully used, but could be worth a lot if a developer came knocking.

Long a fixture on Forbes Avenue and Wood Street, Bolan's Candies held out hope the city's revitalization efforts would bring back business lost over the years.

Now, retailers are looking at a tighter economy, the uncertain future of Downtown's central corridor and the bottom line. "Business [in this part of] Downtown just keeps going down and down," said Baker.

While many hope the city and its so-called Plan C task force of community leaders will develop better ideas for the worn shopping district -- ideas that can be put to work fast -- others have decided they can't hang on any longer.

Closing their doors in the past year have been Rue 21 and Lerner New York women's clothing shops, both on Fifth Avenue, Bolan's Candies on Forbes, one of two Headgear locations on Fifth and the smaller Jenny Lee Bakery.

The large and long-lived G.C. Murphy store, which straddles space between Fifth and Forbes, could be next. It began liquidating merchandise in March and has reached the 50 percent-off-lowest-ticket-price stage. While the landlords haven't been notified the retailer is leaving, they can read the Going-Out-Of-Business signs on the windows and are contacting legal advisers to resolve the situation.

Meanwhile, other retailers seem betwixt and between. Doors are locked at the clothing store inhabiting the former Liang's Hunan Express building along Fifth. A hand-written sign promotes $4.99 hats and $19.99 kids coats that must go before renovations start, but the interior appears empty.

Gates are down at J&I Gold-N-Sound, 262 Fifth Ave., with customers referred to a temporary location nearby at Pittsburgh Sound on Wood Street. The Avenue, a plus-sizes women's clothing store, temporarily took over the Lerner New York space but has since moved on to the enclosed Fifth Avenue Place mall across Liberty Avenue.

Sweets out, hair in

Bolan's Candies had been in the same Downtown location for so long that the store's last electric bill still listed the address as Wood and Diamond streets. Most people know Diamond as Forbes Avenue, the name it acquired years ago, but Bolan's set up its electric account in 1954.

For decades, Downtown was a real sweet spot. Candy maker Peter Bolanis recalls hiring a policeman to keep the Valentine's Day crowds in order. Bulging registers had to be cleared twice daily.

But the greater socioeconomic trends turned. Malls landed in the suburbs where more people began working and living. Sweethearts discovered alternatives to paying cash for chocolate-filled hearts and delivering them in person.

Bolanis calculates that between 1987 and 1999, the number of one-pound Valentine hearts sold from his Downtown store dropped 50 percent. Even raising prices to make up for the lost volume didn't help. By 1997, the candy shop stopped making money.

The city's efforts to revive the area kept Bolanis there, through construction work on Wood Street that kept customers away and through the wait for the Lazarus store that finally came in late 1998.

He hoped sales would return. They didn't.

He thought Mayor Murphy's plan for bringing in one-of-a-kind places such as Nordstrom and AMC theaters had merit, though it might mean Bolan's would be displaced.

Hope finally seemed to die when the Market Place project did. The store's lease expired this summer and Bolan's didn't renew.

"We did hang on a little too long," conceded Bolanis, who has high hopes for redevelopment efforts near his other stores in Station Square and East Liberty.

More optimism can be found across the street from the empty Bolan's site. There, construction workers are busily laying ceramic and hardwood flooring and building sleek private spaces for pedicures and hair replacements.

Joe Cardamone, owner of Cardamone's hair salon and the nearby Nail Emporium, found an opportunity in the closing of a small accessories store on the southeast corner of Wood and Forbes. "My landlord called in March and told me the store was going to be available," recalled Cardamone, who has been doing people's hair Downtown since 1974.

This month, he'll consolidate the two 600-square-foot spaces into a two-level, 1,600-square-foot salon offering new services and plusher accommodations.

He's a committed Downtown businessman. He likes working with the office workers, the students, the passers-by. "We have a lot of walk-in business." On a good day, more than 100 customers come through his doors, and he doesn't have to work mall hours.

Cardamone is not oblivious to the shifts going on around him. He followed the Fifth and Forbes debate, backing anything that would clean things up while worrying that the city might tear his place down.

Now, as storefronts near him empty, he sees only one way to go. "It has to get better," a confident Cardamone said. "I think right now it's hit bottom."

Citified swirl

Strolling these streets is still good for a dose of urban togetherness. The atmosphere bustles. A large daytime population rushes along sidewalks and plunges into openings between passing cars. Buses whoosh busily by, stopping frequently to collect new fares. An artist adds color to the scene as she works to paint a mural on a vacant Fifth Avenue storefront.

The cramped aisles of Candy-Rama along Fifth still fill with sweet-toothed patrons. The National Record Mart on Forbes actually ships in classical music CDs and tapes that didn't sell in mall stores but are a hit among Downtown customers. Two Payless Shoe Source stores plus a Parade of Shoes site are owned by the same company and signal that someone is buying footwear.

Market research shows that within a half-mile radius of the Chart Room Cafe, on Forbes Avenue, there are almost 500 retail businesses. The mix is not a suburban one. The report from Claritas Inc. shows only three car-related retailers but 180 eating and drinking places.

And, despite the uncertain outlook, there are still tenants signing up for open spaces.

Ace Cash Express Inc., one of the nation's largest check-cashing services, will probably have its new place open by October. Renovation already has begun inside the former Headgear hat store on Fifth, although landlord representative Robert E. Gold, a real estate broker for CB Richard Ellis/Pittsburgh, said the curved glass and marble exterior will stay.

Kenny's Nail Center took the chance to open a second location in another property that Gold represents.

The real estate broker concedes he's concerned by the increasing concentration of similar tenants -- nail salons, check cashiers, jewelry and wireless retailers. "Having so many of the same places just doesn't offer enough choices," he said.

On the other hand, he is pleased to report his landlords have filled all their first-floor openings.

One of the splashier arrivals Downtown this year has been the Cricket wireless service, which opened a green-trimmed store on Market Square and handed out "Cricket is here" banners to several nearby retailers who also carry the phones.

Cricket's almost blanket coverage of Fifth and Forbes makes sense to Scott Jones, the company's general manager for this region.

"The intent is to make it convenient," Jones said. When the Downtown rush hits -- usually between 8 and 9 a.m. and then again at lunch -- customers can be dispersed between several locations.

Sundays are pretty slow, but Jones said sales overall have been strong. And Market Square is a great location because everyone knows how to get there.

Busted boom?

A year ago, the upscale Palomino restaurant opened just outside the Fifth and Forbes district, in Gateway Center. The Seattle owners also planned to put a seafood restaurant over in Station Square within a year or so.

They've since pulled out of the Station Square site, a move that triggered talk that Palomino might not be doing well Downtown.

Not so, said Roger Stilson, vice president of marketing for Restaurants Unlimited. Sales have hit $5 million, the goal set for that location.

But a slowing national economy dried up the company's expansion capital. Other projects have been scaled back, too. No new openings are likely over the next year or so.

"Just look at all cities," Stilson said. "Things are slowing down everywhere." The boom time, he believes, has subsided and people are becoming more pragmatic.

Signs of the slowdown could be seen here last year, when a decision by Nordstrom department store officials not to commit to a site on Fifth followed difficult sales across the Seattle-based chain.

Some now wonder if Pittsburgh's angst over what to do Downtown meant a missed window of opportunity in attracting retailers. In addition, there's speculation that chains signing up for Station Square and the Waterfront development in Homestead, and maybe even the North Shore project between the two new stadiums, will draw still more customers away from the city core.

Stilson of Palomino's cautions against getting too discouraged. "I know people in Pittsburgh sometimes get frustrated with how long this takes." His research regularly shows a market filled with extremely well-educated, well-traveled people who he believes will only become more attractive to retailers.

Those sticking it out along Fifth and Forbes hope for the best. When asked, they come up with similar suggestions for making things better -- clean up the streets, help landlords fix up properties and find some way to get people to live in the Golden Triangle again. Do something.

"You're never going to get everybody to agree," advised Baker. "Come up with something that's good and move on it."

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