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Places: Pittsburgh should watch other cities as they redevelop downtowns

Saturday, November 20, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like Pittsburgh, most major American cities have developed or are considering plans for retail and entertainment districts downtown.

Why now? The stars are aligned: A strong economy is feeding developer interest at a time when the overbuilt suburbs are losing some of their appeal for both retailers and families. And young people are marrying later, fueling the singles housing and entertainment markets in cities.

What will these retail/entertainment districts look like? The handful that I've researched have some elements in common. They all have theaters with stadium-style seating, and they seem, to a greater or lesser extent, to be trying to combine elements of the suburban mall with an urban street plan.

In Kansas City, AMC Entertainment, which is headquartered there, will develop 12 blocks into the Power & Light District, 30 acres of theaters, shops, offices and housing. The plan calls for bridging over parts of two streets and creating glassed-in pedestrian walkways that run diagonally through retail and theater blocks.

The developers seem to be hedging their bets on whether suburbanites can be lured downtown without providing some aspects of the protective mall bubble. But those paths will, by breaking up the big blocks, make it easier for visitors to navigate the district.

Generally, however, the more these places emphasize linkages only to other shops within their districts, the less they will benefit what is around them. They will become isolated islands of activity and prosperity every bit as much as suburban malls. These new downtown developments should be designed so they will become not only economic generators of tax revenue, but traffic generators for nearby businesses.

In Denver, the Denver Pavilions project was built on two city blocks that had been surface parking (no preservation issues here) in the middle of downtown's main retail street, known as the 16th Street Mall. Now a year old, the Pavilions comprise a 15-screen movie theater, Hard Rock Cafe, Niketown and other national retailers.

The plan is a mall/open streets hybrid, bridging over a street to connect four basically distinct buildings. But free and frequent shuttle buses take shoppers from one end of downtown to another. And in Seattle, shoppers can hop on any bus in the downtown free zone and ride from store to store.

Some cities, such as Indianapolis and Seattle, still are embracing the enclosed mall concept. Seattle's Pacific Place retail and movie theater development is five stories of interior mall connected by a skybridge to a flagship Nordstrom store in a renovated former department store building.

In urban design terms, the plan for Pittsburgh's Market Place at Fifth and Forbes gets high marks. There is no mall; there are no skywalks and no extension of buildings over streets to siphon pedestrians from the street. But the new development does call for the demolition of historic buildings, an issue they are also facing in Baltimore.

Baltimore's downtown hasn't reaped the benefits of the city's Inner Harbor development, even though it's just a few blocks away. So the city is launching a $350 million revitalization plan that would transform 18 blocks on the west side of downtown with new housing, public open space and commercial development.

Although the West Side Action Plan calls for the renovation of some older buildings, enough others would be demolished that the National Trust for Historic Preservation this year added downtown Baltimore's west side to its annual list of endangered places. Local preservationists have nominated 24 blocks to the National Register of Historic Places.

Both Baltimore and Kansas City believe that providing more housing downtown in the projects' early stages is of the utmost importance.

Baltimore's Downtown Housing Initiative estimates that 500 new market-rate apartments will be under construction or completed by the end of the year.

Kansas City's Power & Light Project, originally budgeted at $453 million, now will cost $628 million because new members of the development team thought that in order for the project to succeed, they would have to add more offices and housing to create a 24-hour city and a "captive audience" for stores.

The public subsidy, incidentally, remains unchanged at $175 million in tax increment financing, but the developers must lease at least 40 percent of the retail space before any public money is released.

In Minneapolis, they're making plans for what's being called the BlockE development -- E for empty, now that the landmark Shubert Theater has been moved to an adjacent block. A multiplex movie theater is one of the cornerstones of this retail/entertainment development, but the city is also making separate plans for more downtown housing.

"Efforts made in the '80s to build retail as a way to create an economic engine were flat-out wrong. You've got to have the people first and then provide what they need," Dick Zehring, a St. Paul real estate developer, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Every city is unique; what works in one may not work in another. Anyway, none of these projects has been around long enough to be a proven model. Still, there may be some lessons for Pittsburgh is all of this.

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