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.

"It's amazing," Bonnie says. "Someone can pay a mortgage and pay taxes on a building they think they own, and all of a sudden the city can come in and decide they can claim your building. I think it's a disgrace."

The city's plan offends the district's shoppers as well as its shop owners, adding a current of racial politics to the issue. If you visit the National Record Mart, G.C. Murphy, or Revco Drugs, you'll find the racial mix is about 50-50. The window displays at Bradley's Book Cellar always include the latest books by black authors. The Card Center carries the entire Mahogany line of greeting cards to serve its black customers.

At Headgear, about 70 percent of the customers are black. They are Fifth Avenue regulars like James Hill, a tall, dapper, 32-year-old clotheshorse who lives in the city and rarely shops at suburban malls. When I met him, the radio ad salesman was wearing about $900 worth of clothing, most of which he bought at Fifth Avenue thread shops like Mo-Gear, a short walk or bus ride from his apartment.

Hill says the mayor's plan to attract choice high-end retailers like Nordstrom (which will reportedly demand upwards of $40 million in city money before it comes) and Lord & Taylor (which has already gotten $12 million of city dough) makes no sense. "There is no reason to take away something that has been here and is a tradition," he says. "You don't have to have totally upscale. It means you only want one kind of person downtown. That is discrimination against the underclass."

Unfortunately, neither the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People nor black councilman Sala Udin has stood up for the black victims of City Hall's plan. Udin's district includes downtown Pittsburgh and several of the neighborhoods its black shoppers live in. Asked why he and other minority leaders aren't raising a fuss about the plan's racial implications, Udin hints that it's "a racist misconception" and "stereotypical" to assume that black people want to shop at jewel and wig shops but not at Nordstrom or J. Crew.

Udin says he's willing to risk the mayor's plan, as long as the process is slow and "responsible" and includes as much input as possible from all corners of the public. As for eminent domain, Udin "dislikes displacing one private interest for another private interest." But he also thinks "there are times when the city has to move forward in the public interest."

In its bulldozing simplicity and arrogant certainty, the city's redevelopment scheme sounds suspiciously like the urban renewal disasters of the '50s and '60s. Since 1950, the local Urban Redevelopment Authority has leveled more than 1,500 acres of land. Any Pittsburgher over 40 can name the three poor and/or black neighborhoods that the bulldozers revitalized nearly to death: the Lower Hill District, East Liberty Circle, Allegheny Center. Urban renewal reduced hundreds of acres of these once-vital communities to sterile concrete wastelands, a condition that remains four decades later.

Less well-known projects have damaged nearly 70 acres at the tip of the Golden Triangle. In what are known locally as Renaissances I and II, City Hall and its mostly Republican friends in the area's corporate power structure erected modern office plazas, such as Gateway Center, and city-block-eating monoliths, such as Fifth Avenue Place. They look great on postcards and when Pittsburgh's muscular skyline appears on Monday Night Football. But they also turned huge chunks of organic city into artificial office parks devoid of human street life and retail commerce. History-drenched blocks filled with priceless old buildings were destroyed, along with railroad tracks and warehouses. Hotels, restaurants, scores of small businesses, and hundreds of residences were wiped out.

What's more, the Golden Triangle's streets were ripped up or blocked off for several years in the early '80s while the authorities built the T, the city's absurd three-stop subway and suburban light-rail system. Patty Maloney, whose family has owned several greeting card shops downtown for nearly five decades, claims that the turmoil caused by subway construction was what finally killed off downtown shopping. Stores that once stayed open until 8 or 9 p.m. started closing at 5 or 6.

The Maloneys have spent their lives playing dodgeball with City Hall's demolition experts. Four years ago, for instance, one of their stores was forced to move from Fifth Avenue, where it had been for 38 years, to a building they bought on Wood Street, a road that intersects both Fifth and Forbes. The shop was one of seven booted to make way for a $78 million Lazarus store that City Hall built as a virtual gift for its owners, Federated Department Stores. (Federated got $48 million in public funds, plus a secret sweetheart rent deal based on future sales for the store. This, City Hall hoped, would jump-start Fifth Avenue's retail rejuvenation.) So the Maloneys spent $350,000 refurbishing their new property–and now it's doomed by the Fifth and Forbes plan.

Many of the property owners on Fifth and Forbes are happy to sell out to the city. After all, property values have jumped since the city's plans were announced. These owners will be getting their just compensation, and most will be happy to settle.

But Maloney won't. She's leading a new organization of doomed businesses that has commissioned a gentler plan to spruce up the district without blowing everything up. Nor will landlord Gerald Schiller voluntarily sell out. The Schillers bought three buildings on the corner of Forbes and Wood more than 30 years ago as a long-term investment. The rental income from the buildings, which are now paid off, was to provide them with a stream of annuities and money for college educations. The money they'll get if they're forced to sell won't begin to provide that kind of financial security.

Mayor Murphy hopes he won't actually have to use the city's powers of eminent domain to get the Kleins, the Maloneys, and the rest to move. Usually, he gets his way just by threatening to bring in the law. That's what he did last year to try to force the Pittsburgh Wool Co. to sell its land to H.J. Heinz Co., so Heinz could expand its large warehouse and distribution center (and so the mayor could take credit for keeping about 1,200 jobs here). He's threatened eminent domain proceedings so often, in fact, that he's attracted the ire of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, which doesn't usually concern itself with Pittsburgh's local politics. And it's worked: In his seven years in office, Murphy has had to pull the trigger only once. (In that case, the victim was an adult movie theater that mounted a stiff First Amendment defense. The court battle continues to this day.)

How does the city get away with this? In large part, it's because Pennsylvania's courts have consistently allowed local governments to give private property to other private entities, as long as it's part of an effort to eradicate "blight." And the courts generally trust the judgment of the local authorities when it comes to what qualifies for that designation. As broadly defined by the state's 1945 redevelopment law, blight is essentially in the eye of the beholder: It can be everything from dilapidated buildings to inadequately planned streets to substandard lot sizes. In the last half-century, Pittsburgh has declared virtually the entire downtown blighted.

Bill Robinson, the state legislator who represents downtown Pittsburgh, is pushing a bill that would amend the redevelopment law to include "a more precise definition of blight." His carefully worded amendment includes the sentence, "In no event may private real property acquired by an authority through eminent domain proceedings be sold, leased or otherwise transferred to a private person."

It's easy to get support for gentrifying Fifth and Forbes from suburban editorial writers and others who don't shop on the streets now. To them, Fifth and Forbes are too messy, too ugly–too urban. City Hall and its downtown allies agree. They're too busy patting themselves on the back to notice the damage their wrecking balls have been doing.

But City Hall's plans have opponents from across the political spectrum. There is Rep. Robinson, and there are businessfolk like Maloney. There are historical preservationists, including Arthur Ziegler, the nationally known developer behind Station Square, the former train terminal that is the city's top tourist destination. Ziegler says the Fifth and Forbes plan is "the 1950s revisited" and predicts that relying solely on national retailers is guaranteed to fail. Trying to make the best of a bad situation, he had his influential Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation commission a New York architect to draw up a more sophisticated, commercially diverse, and street-life-friendly alternative. It too would use eminent domain to remove unwilling property owners, and only about 25 percent of the existing businesses would be able to stay. It saves more buildings and adds about 700 residences above the stores; as a bonus, it includes a new Market Hall over Market Square that would be home to food stalls and a rooftop skating rink. Thus far, Urban Retail Properties has ignored these ideas.

A more hard-core opponent is the Allegheny Institute, a pro-market Pennsylvania think tank that's less interested in designing a more livable plan than in stopping the city's power to impose such plans at all. Funded by local billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife (of Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy fame), the institute has organized rallies against the mayor's eminent domain abuse. Scaife's Pittsburgh Tribune Review has also railed against the plan, in contrast to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's relentless editorial cheerleading. The city's two alternative weeklies also strongly oppose the plan.

There are even a few opponents within the city government. By January, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the City Planning Commission, and the Historic Review Commission–all of whose members are appointed by the mayor–had approved the plan with no squeaks of dissent. Most people expected the all-Democrat City Council to rubber-stamp the plan as well. It's been less compliant than expected, though, with leftist councilman James Ferlo mounting the fiercest fight.

Ferlo believes he can scrape together a 5-4 vote to stop the Fifth and Forbes project. Few insiders agree. They predict most council members will cut private political deals with Mayor Murphy. As of late March, it's too early to tell whether Ferlo will prevail, or if soon only the lawyers will stand between the district and the wrecking ball.

Assuming that the city gets the go-ahead, there's at least one more problem with the Fifth and Forbes plan: It probably won't work. Since the malls came, Pittsburghers have shown a deepening disinterest in the Golden Triangle: About 125,000 people work there by day, but virtually no one but the opera-and-symphony crowd goes there regularly at night. Pittsburgh's nightlife is on the South Side and the Strip District–two neighborhoods largely untouched by city planning. A rebuilt Fifth and Forbes shopping and entertainment playground would have to compete with those districts, with new developments planned for Station Square, and with the urge simply to head home to the suburbs after work. Furthermore, though serious, predatory crime is rare, the bums, pushers, and prostitutes who haunt the area's sidewalks can't be ignored. Their numbers are small, but they are visible enough to drive most suburbanites away.

Even if the Fifth and Forbes project succeeds in resurrecting downtown–a wild crapshoot at best–its costs will be high and many. The middle of the Golden Triangle will be torn up for another three years. At least 62 old buildings, some of them architecturally precious, will be lost forever. Pittsburgh will lose the only shopping market in the center city for poor people and people dependent on public transportation. As many as 1,000 jobs will be lost. And scores of small and medium-size businesses will have to move.

Assuming, that is, that they can find a place to move to, in this downtown that's been steadily stripped of its character and vitality by government planners and their demolition crews.

Bill Steigerwald (bsteige@stargate.net) is a feature writer, reporter, and columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.