Sunday, May 29, 2005

Talk a walk on the South Side

As I was driving down East Carson Street last night, I noticed that Rynn's Luggage, near 19th Street, had closed. But fear not, loyal Rynn's customers--it turns out it is merely moving a few blocks down the street to the new SouthSide Works. Now, there is nothing out of the ordinary about a business changing location. Businesses need to go where they can maximize profits. It's possible that they've needed a better location for quite some time, and the new SouthSide Works will give them newer digs while remaining in the same part of town.

Unfortunately, SouthSide Works might not exist were it not for the subsidies its developer received through the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority. And when retail development occurs absent an increase in the local population or its buying power, then existing stores and retail districts will suffer. And let's not forget that the promise of all the region's subsidized retail complexes is that they will bring in new businesses, not poach existing ones.

You know, the free market, while messy, works pretty well most of the time. This city might want to look into it.


Blogger fester said...

I don't want to rehash an argument that we have had many times before, but unless there is regional disarmanent on development incentives for stupid retail projects, then we get a case of bugger thy neighbor --- If Pittsburgh does not subsidize (and for the Southside works, it was mainly parking and land remediation), someone else will and grab retail tax dollars. From a regional perspective, I completely agree with you, but from the city agent perspective, the incentive is to strongly subsidize.

10:16 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Yes, but in this case, the city may end up hurting one if its most successful retail districts, not merely, for example, the Waterfront. And of course the incentive to subsidize retail flows from the assumption that more retail is needed, or is an end in itself. I take issue with that.

Which reminds me--I see the URA is trying to woo an engineering company into building a new headquarters in the city. At present, the company is headquartered near the airport. So much for regional cooperation.

10:24 AM

Blogger Maria said...

As a Southsider (and not getting into the funding aspect at all), I have to say that the shops at Southside Works don't seem to overly conflict with the rest of E Carson Street stores. The clothing shops on the rest of E Carson tend to the funky side whereas Works clothing shops do not. There's no kitchen/linens shops on lower Carson and now we're getting one. There was no theater (film) and now we have one. There's no comparable book store to compete with the new Works one. Moreover, Works shops seem more upscale overall. Considering that much of the new housing that's gone up is much more expensive than what was here before, it makes sense to add the stores that are coming to Works.

Note: I'm not saying that I'll patronize many of them, but they aren't really meant for me. They are meant for all the Republicans moving into the neighborhood.

That's the real change going on here. When we were canvassing for Kerry/registering voters, we very quickly stopped canvassing all the new housing that went up behind Giant Eagle -- they were all Republicans.

11:24 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I will say that despite my belief that subsidizing retail is the wrong approach to economic development, SouthSide Works seems to be the best-designed and best-executed of these projects. It may be the one to prove me and like-minded critics wrong that these area always bad. Time will tell.

I, for one, am glad to see Republicans moving into the city.

12:19 PM

Blogger Maria said...

Perhaps if more Republicans move to urban areas, we can get over the wingnut stereotypical view of city-dwellers as poverty-level parasites -- that would be a good thing. Republicans need to feel that they have a stake in our cities so I will agree with you there. I even think a little (and I do mean little) competition between the parties could be a good thing. But I would hate to see this neighborhood change it's stripes too much. Surely some Democrats with money can move here too!

Funny though, it seems the Dems with a higher income than the Old Time SouthSiders typically had were the ones who bought and rehabbed existing buildings and the new homes are overwhelming being purchased by Republicans. Are Democrats just more adventurous? Better bargain hunters? What's the deal?

4:23 PM

Blogger fester said...

My guess, and this is a complete wild ass, uninformed piece of speculation here, so take it for what you may: Most neighborhood development types will say that you have to love artists because they are completely risk oblivious and are willing to go anywhere there is VERY CHEAP RENT. If a successful artist colonization of a neighborhood with rehabbable builds occurs, the second wave to go into an area are very recent college graduates. Recent college graduates have high long run income potential but short term cash deficiencies. If you combine the populations of young adults with college degrees and a bent towards urbanism at time 0 then you get a lot of liberals and Democrats. Nothing particulary moralistic or altruistic here. At Time 0, the first round of new rehabbers with some access to stable jobs and credit markets are still relatively cash poor but are able to borrow against future expected earnings to rehab their houses and begin the gentrification process so that (hopefully) the virtous cycle takes over with ever slightly less risk adverse individuals and families coming in over time. As this time, the original rehabbers are seeing their incomes increase due to experience in the workforce and capitalization of their investment in eduation AND they are also seeing their previously cheap homes appreciate in value as there are network effects (My house is more valuable because your house has received a new paint job, signifying a neighborhood that values constant reinvestment).

So you get a bunch of thirty somethings with money and some are looking to move in, and some are looking to move out; if the neighborhood is "safe" enough for couples with children, you are dealing with an older population, a slightly richer population and a more married population than the original rehabbers. Those three groups trend GOP. Nothing altruistic, or moralistic in this explanation.

9:32 AM

Blogger Maria said...

Well, all I can say that having lived as a renter at the very beginnings of gentrification in three NYC neighborhoods (Alphabet City, Hell's Kitchen and Harlem) it is far better to be on the owner side now of a neighborhood that is already beyond the baby-steps of gentrifying. Even in rent-controlled NYC, gentrification can be brutal. Harlem was particularly bad as it was like an episode out of Law and Order. One owner of a building on the block purposely moved in a crack dealer to clear the building of the real tenants in order to have an easier time of either selling it to cash in on the speculation or go co-op.

10:24 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Fester's theory is pretty sound. I would also speculate that since Democrats are more likely to live in cities, particularly older, Northeastern cities, then they probably have more experience, either first or second-hand, with rehabing houses. They might be more likely to know that old doesn't always mean crumbling. They might be more likely to know about places like Construction Junction, they might know, through friends, good contractors, etc.

I don't get terribly excited over gentrification. Neighborhoods that evolve organically are going to change over time. It's inevitable. And I think this city needs a lot of political competition.

3:37 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The paramount point of JP's, I believe, remains the most valid: The South Side blocks were rehabbing organically, with the market creating its own mix of shops that worked, or didn't, that employed service labor, or didn't, and created housing, or didn't.

The plat developed by a range of nonprofits (hospital, union), government (FBI, Immigration & Customs) and highly subsidized industry (Steelers, Cheesecake Factory) might be somewhat successful. But these very same businesses simply moved from other locations regionally (mostly from the downtown wards), didn't pay taxes to begin with and, in the current rebate/TIF arrangement, won't pay a fair share of the real cost of development for quite some time.

Worst of all, the mega-mall concept developed for the back washes of Carson St. compete with the unsubsidized mix of organically developing shops. Now, most of the time, competition isn't bad. You want a diverse mix of restaurants, retail outlets and taverns, and certainly someone with a yen for the diner isn't going to be caught in Qdoba.

But if you're the smart guy at URA -- and not everyone who works there currently -- wouldn't you want to pimp the South Side brand as a funky, eclectic, self-sustaining and rising mix of youth, money and fun?

Or would you rather block off that future by plopping down a f-ing Cheesecake Factory for the codgers from Blawnox to ogle when (or if) they come to town?

Maybe O'Connor can strangle the URA, although there are enough entrenched interests in a handful of large developers (large, but not necessarily successful in this state without help from the taxman) to keep it business as usual.

1:15 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous would much rather see the former South Side Works as a pile of contaminated rubble than a Cheesecake Factory.

But that's OK 'cause the URA is dumb, right?

10:32 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Ideally, the government would intervene to remediate brownfields and then sell them on the open market, without favoring particular developers or particular uses beyond existing zoning/building use codes, and respecting the existing neighborhood design.

8:50 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The URA is made up of horribly stupid, at times criminally incompetent buffoons.

But for politicians, these incompetent neer do wells are good at one unique task: Shaking down federal and state taxpayers so that they can wield eminent domain to steal property and give it to a select group of developers, who happen to make sizable, timely donations to the campaigns of the aforementioned politicians.

Not that I'm biased.

Despite my obvious, but informed, vitriol on the subject, the question remains: If not the local, albeit incompetent, leadership at URA to run the brownfield show, who?

Uhhh, how about DEP? This radical approach to remediating former industrial sites -- allowing the state recipient of the federal funds to clean a site and put it up for open bid -- is used by the majority of states and territories, and has its precedent in the sale of military bases after World War II.

This is NOT the way it's done in Western Pennsylvania's largest county, which is why we see such Stalinist approaches to land development as sticking a Cheesecake Factory at the head of a neighborhood organically developing into something very different.

Indeed, likely killing that organic development before it starts.


Nice to see that the local development agency so understood the nuances of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods! Good thing we didn't have the local office of state DEP people doing this! They would have probably sold the land to the highest bidders, helping recover the cost of fixing it up for taxpayers, and ensuring at least local developers got a chance.

It's always instructive to hear URA chiefs bemoan such "horrible" developments as Homestead's Waterfront, failing to understand that these properties seem to be making money, providing services and hiring people.

So what do they do when they get the chance? They replicate all that in a faux Waterfront for the South Side. Ugggggghhhhh!!!!!!

But at least UPMC, the IBEW, FBI and Steelers are happy. Local taxpayers don't do enough for them anyway.

12:32 PM

Blogger Jeebas said...

All valid points and arguments aside our tax dollars shouldn't go to shitty chain stores. You would thinkw eall learned the lesson from Lazarus and Lord and Taylor (both buildings still lay dormant for well over a year now BTW)

10:57 AM

Blogger Proud Pittsburgh said...

As I long time South Sider ( My office has been here since 1982 )I feel very strongly that South Side Works has strengthened our existing business district, not hurt it.

As far as I know, only one or two Carson Street businesses have moved off Carson and into the Works. The Soffer Organization has an informal agreement with the community development organizations not to poach from the existing busines district.
( Obviously, no one can stop a business that is determined to relocate, but Soffer is not on Carson Street activley luring businesses away- nor does he need to. )

Most of the businesses in the Works are unique to Pittsburgh, and are regional draws.
For example, neither REI nor Cheesecake Factory would ever consider locating on Carson Street. These businesses draw customers from the entire Pittsburgh region and beyond, and this is the key to Carson Street's continued success along side the South Side Works. People who might not venture into the City very often are coming to the Cheesecake Factory in droves, and they have to drive down East Carson Street to get there. I am not a big fan of the Cheesecake Factory's food, but it does bring dollars into the City.

Your intuition might tell you that Cheesecake Factory is hurting East Carson Street Restaurants, but if you ask the owners of Nakama, 17th Street Cafe or Bruscetta's they will all tell you that the South Side Works has been good for their business. ( Just try to get a seat at the Sushi Bar at Nakama tonight. )

Basically, the theory at work on the South Side is " A rising tide raises all ships".

The tax dollar argument is valid in the case of Lord and Taylor and Lazarus, but in this case I believe that most of the money went to cleaning up the old steel mill site, and not to individual retailers. If I am wrong, please correct me.

One last thought- Rynn's luggage would have probably moved elsewhere if South Side Works was not built, and a funky new clothing store called "Original Cin" moved into their Carson Street space almost immediatly after Rynn's left. Keeping Rynn's and adding Original Cin is a win-win in my book.

9:18 AM


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