Death by Wrecking Ball

Pittsburgh and the politics of eminent domain.

Two years ago, the city of Pittsburgh sentenced Headgear, one of the coolest hat shops in the Eastern Time Zone, to death by wrecking ball. The store's owner, Charles Lee, never received official notice of the decree. He learned about it months later, the same way 124 other doomed businesspeople did: by looking at a map of Mayor Tom Murphy's proposed redevelopment plan in the morning paper.

To Pittsburgh's powerbrokers, Lee is just another insufficiently upscale retailer in the city's slowly dying shopping core. It doesn't matter that his store's category-killing excellence attracts customers from around the country. It doesn't matter that a hat shop has been at Headgear's address since Grover Cleveland was president. Lee and the building he leases are blocking City Hall's latest vision. Therefore, they must go.

Local officials call their plan "Market Place at Fifth and Forbes," after the two city streets it would destroy and then rebuild. They intend to tear down a gauntlet of pager shops, wig stores, discount drugstores, and homegrown retailers, and erect a $480-million-plus retail/entertainment center, with 40 high-end national retailers like J. Crew and Virgin Records, with classy restaurants, with chain nightclubs like the House of Blues, with a fancy 18-screen AMC movie theater, and with 1,000 underground parking spots. The aim is to attract suburbanites back downtown to shop and play. About $100 million of the money will come from taxpayers.

This is only the latest plan to redevelop what locals know as the Golden Triangle, the wedge of office towers and older buildings squeezed between the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers right before they meet to form the Ohio. For 50 years, as the region's steel industry collapsed and the city's population fell by half, City Hall has been mounting such projects. Most, like this one, were passed under the cover of blight removal. Most, like this one, threatened to deploy the city's power of eminent domain. And most, like this one, took private property not for public use, as the U.S. Constitution prescribes, but for use by other private entities: developers, professional ball teams, corporate giants looking for a new skyscraper base.

Pittsburgh has no monopoly on what the posters on Charles Lee's windows call "eminent domain abuse." Detroit is using eminent domain law to replace a poor residential area with a more upscale neighborhood. In Indiana, 51 homes have been condemned so General Motors can build a factory to make Hummers. In Kansas City, Kansas, 150 families had to make way for a new race-car speedway. In East St. Louis, Illinois, a perfectly good auto-shredding plant may be destroyed so a nearby racetrack can enlarge its parking lot. In San Diego, property around the Padres' new ball yard is being seized from someone who wanted to build a hotel on it. Who's getting it now? A hotel company.

But Pittsburgh's planners seem to be in a class of their own. City Hall is on a $2 billion redevelopment rampage, and four eminent domain cases now loom. Pittsburgh is way too small to have so many cases, according to Dana Berliner of the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm that intends to help local businesses fight the plan if City Hall makes good on its threat to use eminent domain. "Four cases is just ridiculous," Berliner says. "It shows how a willingness to trample on individual rights can completely wreak havoc on a single city."

Behind the plan stand Mayor Murphy and Deputy Mayor Tom Cox, who argue that it's the best way to improve the fortunes of Pittsburgh's demographically challenged retail shopping core. To complete the project by the target date of 2002, they say, the city has to act quickly, buying the existing area, razing the buildings, and selling the clear-cut neighborhood to a single big developer: Chicago-based Urban Retail Properties.

The Fifth and Forbes district is indeed shabby, aesthetically impaired, and at times uncivilized. But it is not a commercial slum: 95 percent of it is occupied, and its sidewalks bustle with activity during the day. Without romanticizing them, and without glossing over their tawdry aspects, Fifth and Forbes are two of the Golden Triangle's last real old-time shopping streets.

At noontime during the week, when office workers fill the Triangle, Fifth and Forbes' sidewalks host a socioeconomic swirl of black and white, poor and rich, old and young, dirty and clean, sane and disturbed. Mothers carrying kids mix with lawyers carrying briefcases. A vendor or two hawk flowers or hats, carefully standing on private property. Vending has been outlawed on the public sidewalks. Add a bum in a doorway, a pusher making his rounds, and a bellowing street preacher, and it's easy to see why suburban shoppers prefer the safety and predictability of their well-regulated malls.

In pre-mall days, Fifth Avenue was greater Pittsburgh's classiest shopping corridor. Not so now. Its businesses survive by serving an unusual customer mix--well-to-do downtown office workers and low-income city dwellers who arrive by public bus and jitney. Its parallel sister street, Forbes, is far funkier--and scarier to suburbanites--thanks to a small but highly visible collection of drug addicts, drug dealers, and homeless misfits. Its crumbled curbs and cracked sidewalks attest to decades of malign neglect by City Hall.

When people say the area's retail mix isn't up to par, they're usually referring to Fifth Avenue's wig shops, pager stores, and gold shops. Those are the expendable enterprises, stores that provoke snickers from everyone with class and taste. Of course, the shops' owners and customers see things differently.

Sook Kay owns Eastern Wigs, one of three doomed downtown wig stores. For 25 years she's made her living selling wigs and women's accessories on Fifth. Her poor-to-middle-class customers come from across western Pennsylvania; as with most other stores on Fifth and Forbes, her clientele is split about evenly between blacks and whites. Half buy accessories, half buy wigs--and no, they're not all transvestites. Many, for example, are women undergoing chemotherapy. "People think wigs are not necessary," says Kay. "But if they don't have hair, they really need one."

The gold shops are equally friendless. No one cares for them--except for their steady customers. David Kashi, owner of Golden Triangle Jewelers, has five or six competitors on both sides of the street, all selling discount gold chains and clunky hoop earrings. But he has obviously figured out how to please his market, which is almost 80 percent black. He's been in business for 12 years, somehow surviving City Hall's street-discombobulating, two-and-a-half-year repair job on Fifth Avenue's road surface and sidewalks, which some merchants suspect was deliberately protracted in order to kill off as many unwanted businesses as possible and make redevelopment seem even more necessary.

Kashi, an Israeli immigrant, can tell you why his business has lasted: "I am the only jewelry store that fixes jewelry on the spot. I am the only one that does body piercing. I sell pagers. I do dental gold cups." Kashi isn't afraid to adapt to change, and he doesn't care what he's selling, as long as he sells. City Hall wants him to move his shop, but there's nowhere else he can go. "It's an established clientele, and after years of trying you are forced to give it up," he says. "You are the bad guy because you are not rich enough."

Then there are Aaron and Bonnie Klein, the first merchants to contact the Institute for Justice. They run Camera Repair, a 60-year-old downtown business doomed by the city's plan. They also own the well-maintained building their shop resides in, near Market Square. The Kleins, who rent their upper floors to a beauty salon and a dental office, were outraged to learn that City Hall planned to use eminent domain to take the building they had bought as an investment for their kids' college educations. The city hasn't even made them--or any other property owner--an offer yet.

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