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Spirited Debate

A former mayor rises up to oppose a controversial development.

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There he was, appearing before Pittsburgh City Council just in time for the holidays — like something out of a Dickens story. 

Tom Murphy, the Ghost of Pittsburgh Past.

Since leaving office in 2005, the silver-haired Murphy had scarcely been seen in the City-County Building prior to Dec. 5. But Pittsburgh City Councilor Patrick Dowd had invited him to weigh in on a controversial redevelopment plan, a proposal for 55 acres between the Strip District and Downtown. The Buncher Company, which owns most of the land, wants to demolish a landmark produce terminal and tap $50 million in tax subsidies, all to facilitate a $400 million commercial and residential development.

Murphy was unimpressed, as Dowd — a critic of the plan — had no doubt expected. "You need to get this development to be world-class," Murphy said. And you couldn't blame project backers like Luke Ravenstahl, the Mayor of Pittsburgh Present, for feeling haunted by the spirit before them.  Murphy launched his political career by beating Ravenstahl's grandfather in a state legislative race in 1976. And way back in 1985, Murphy was criticizing Buncher in terms similar to those used by skeptics today. Buncher's "history of development has been office buildings," Murphy told the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press. Sites like the old steel mill site now known as SouthSide Works, he added, "should be used for a higher level of development."

The Buncher plan has problems. According to a preliminary plan filed with the city, it will be dominated by five vaguely horseshoe-shaped buildings facing the river. Its main public amenity is, in contrast, decidedly modest: a "piazza" that will jut into the water, looking a tiny bit like the fluke of a thoroughly beached whale. Other drawings raise more questions than they answer: The preliminary plans show buildings that may be as low as four stories tall — or as high as 20. (By comparison, the nearby Wholey's warehouse is just seven stories tall.) To me, those aren't two potential visions for a project; those are two different projects entirely. 

Still, you can say this for the Buncher proposal — and backers say it all the time: It would be far better than the sea of parking lots that is there now.  And even if you agree with Murphy's diagnosis, you may have doubts about his remedy. "You have a public plaza... but with no retail and nothing that animates" the space, Murphy said. The site should be a place "where people go to hang out and celebrate" — one with "retail and stores ... and tables" for merchants. But there's already such a place nearby: It's called "the Strip District." Do we need another one next door? 

In fact, Murphy's warm welcome from council —"Where were you when I needed you?" he joked — was a bit ironic, too. Murphy's administration was often accused of the sins Ravenstahl is faulted for today: a lack of transparency, too-cozy relationships with developers. Such accusations probably come with the (tax-subsidized, rezoned-by-request) territory.

And maybe the best lesson Murphy can teach us comes not from his successes, but from his biggest failure. A decade ago, he pitched a massive redevelopment of Fifth and Forbes avenues — ousting small, downscale merchants in favor for national chains — as the cure for Downtown's ills. The proposal failed, yet somehow the city didn't collapse. Instead, the area has undergone a slower, more organic redevelopment. As Murphy acknowledged Dec. 5, "[W]hat you've done there is world-class." But it all started with what we didn't do. We didn't succumb to high-pressure tactics, or fears that no developer would ever love us again. One thing the Murphy years taught us: There will always be another chance to subsidize development with tax dollars. 

I'm not a fan of the Duplo-block development suggested in the preliminary plans. But I'd also prefer to avoid another SouthSide-Works-on-the-Allegheny, a prepackaged mixed-use urban funzone. I'd love to see the site become something truly unique — for the city, if not for the world. Make it America's biggest urban farm, or a post-industrial wildlife sanctuary. Put a steel mill there, just to mess with people's heads.

Hey, a guy can dream. After all, there's a mayoral election coming up next year. And we have yet to hear from the Ghost of Pittsburgh Future.

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