Monday, October 04, 2010

20-Somethings Hot Spot Pittsburgh

If people in other states are saying it, then it must be true. Chris Briem (Null Space) noticed a surprising claim about Pittsburgh in the Michigan press:

Now regarded as a prime location for 20-somethings, (Pittsburgh, Pa.) is rebuilding its economy, redeveloping former mill locations, and embracing its universities and hospitals as catalysts to attract new investment and retain top talent.

That statement is from gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder. I tracked down the source of the quote:

Michigan can also integrate lessons learned from Pennsylvania following the steel industry collapse of the 1980s. At the time, nearly all of the Pittsburgh steel mills were closed and there was a huge exodus of young people, similar to what Michigan is experiencing today. However, 25 years later, Pittsburgh is rebounding. Now regarded as a prime location for 20-somethings, the city is rebuilding its economy, redeveloping former mill locations, and embracing its universities and hospitals as catalysts to attract new investment and retain top talent.

The dramatic turnaround leveraged long-range planning, innovative zoning, and the city’s universities and hospitals, high-quality design, cultural amenities, and access to the Allegheny River to create a “quality of place” atmosphere that redefined the region’s image. Pittsburgh ranks 5th in LEED-certified buildings7, has nearly 200,000 people working in the downtown area8, and is home to a diverse group of businesses including American Eagle Outfitters, Bayer Corporation, Mellon Bank, PNC, and Westinghouse, to name a few.9 The city is continuing to execute its long-range plan by developing more downtown retail space and constructing a mass transit system to service the downtown and surrounding region.

“People no longer ask, `Why are you moving to Pittsburgh?’” says architect Don Carter, president of Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates. That’s certainly a strong indicator that Pennsylvania’s second-largest city is transforming itself from a city heavy on industry to a thriving cultural center and knowledge-based city that draws visitors, businesses, and residents alike.

The city has also made a name for itself as a leader in green development. “We’ve gone from a smoky to green city and are now ranked fifth in LEED-certified buildings,” says Rebecca Flora, executive director of the local Green Building Alliance.

How has the City of Steel been able to make the dramatic leap forward? “The prime reason is that it was able to transform its industrial economy based on steel mills and heavy manufacturing in the 1970s and ‘80s to one focused on technology and knowledge due to its universities and hospitals,” says former Mayor Tom Murphy, now a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. The transformation and resulting loss of jobs was extremely painful, however, for multiple generations of families, including his own, Murphy says.

Murphy, who served as mayor from1994 to 2006, was an instrumental part of the solution. Because the city doesn’t offer ocean views or a balmy climate, he felt high-quality design, amenities, and access to the Allegheny River were critical to Pittsburgh’s growth. A key decision: The city purchased 1,500 acres of vacant steel mills and is transforming them into a mixed-use site of housing, retail, technology, and parks along the riverfront. American Eagle Outfitters is among the companies that relocated its headquarters from the suburbs to this urban locale.

Pittsburgh also boasts one of the highest percentages of Class A office space in a downtown of any mid-size metro area in the country, says Carter, whose firm is helping revitalize the city with a number of residential and commercial projects.

Plus, the city has gained a thriving cultural district featuring a new convention center, new football and baseball stadiums on the other side of the Allegheny River, and new condo and apartment development. What’s more, it has refurbished 19th- and early 20th-century loft buildings into rental and condo units. Carter estimates that 140,000 people work downtown, with an additional 50,000 working in Oakland, a second “downtown” 4 miles from Pittsburgh’s central business district.

To fund development, the city, under Murphy’s leadership, relied on a variety of sources including its own development fund of $60 million and city-generated sales taxes. Non-steel corporations and foundations raised another $40 million. Also instrumental was a healthy collaboration among regional, county, and city organizations and leaders. The group modeled itself after the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, an initiative started after World War II to help clean up the city.

Despite Pittsburgh’s major resurgence in recent years, the city still has a ways to go, especially in terms of growing its population. But leaders are confident that the population will increase in the next five to 10 years.

I enjoy tracking down the source of place-based narratives. Pittsburgh boosters are in control of the regional brand. However, I suspect that Snyder is taking cues from Lou Glazer of Michigan Future. The overlapping policy discussion is about strategies to attract and retain talent. Over the last few decades, few regions have done a better job than Pittsburgh on that score.

Fact or fiction, a Michigan politician is selling Pittsburgh to voters in that state. That's the best ringing endorsement for the region I've encountered in over 4 years of blogging. It's like telling everyone in Detroit to move to Pittsburgh.

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