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Pyramid Schemes

Why it's your fault Lazarus closed

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"When Tom Murphy first took office in January 1994," the city's official Web site burbles on its "Meet Mayor Murphy" page, "Pittsburgh was suffering from one of the worst inferiority complexes in its history. After two terms in office, the Pittsburgh that Tom Murphy inherited is a dim memory. Replacing it today is a high-energy, cosmopolitan city that glows with optimism about its future."

 

Or, as Percy Shelley said in his poem "Ozymandias": "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."

 

In the poem, Shelley's fictional Egyptian king leaves his words engraved in stone, a caption for the ruins of his once-mighty empire. Over the centuries, Ozymandias' legacy had crumbled into dust, making a mockery of his boast. In the Internet age, however, everything happens faster. Ozymandias was interred in his tomb before his legacy collapsed; Tom Murphy is watching much of his empire -- his retail and entertainment facilities, not to mention his tax base -- crumble while he's still in office.

 

As Murphy acknowledged Jan. 15, the Downtown Lazarus department store will close in May, even as the garage beneath it will be charging a 50 percent parking tax by then, thanks to the city's most recent budget. The closure of what was one of Murphy's first and most controversial redevelopment schemes is just the latest setback: Lord & Taylor, whose store was Murphy's other big-ticket Downtown retail project, will close as well. The new stadiums across the river are still standing, but the teams playing inside them are in shambles. So are the city's finances, with Pittsburgh being designated as financially distressed. Even Murphy's dream of reshaping Fifth and Forbes avenues Downtown has died: The development company he hired to pursue that project, Philadelphia-based Kravco, was just bought out by a mall developer with little interest in urban renewal projects.

 

Maybe the old Pittsburgh really was "a dim memory" after two of Murphy's terms in office, as the city's Web site claims. But after three terms in office, whatever excitement Murphy created is a memory now as well.

 

"We are really back to where we were six or seven years ago, but even farther behind," Murphy admitted on Jan. 15.

 

That disclosure came at an event to kick off a fund-raising drive for NEED, a charitable effort to help African Americans to pay for college. Though maybe the students should be helping the mayor: NEED beneficiaries have at least gotten financial help from those who've let the city rot. The head of their fund-raising campaign this year, for example, is the regional president of Citizens Bank, which like many of the city's larger employers pays no city business privilege tax. Citizens Bank will help a Hill District kid go to college; just don't ask them to help pay for the police patrolling his neighborhood.

 

Murphy remained fairly upbeat throughout the event, which is to say he's still faulting others for what's gone wrong. "This obviously is not good news for Pittsburgh," he acknowledged. But, he added, "We knew at the time [Lazarus was built] that we needed to develop additional retail" -- a reference to his scuttled plans to raze much of Fifth and Forbes avenues to bring new retail chains to the area. Murphy claimed that all along, he knew that if the project didn't happen, "we would risk exactly what we are starting to see today." But sadly, "This community could not come together" on a development plan.

 

So this our fault, see. Downtown is failing not because our trust in Murphy was misplaced, but because we didn't trust him enough. And never mind that Fifth/Forbes wasn't halted by public objections: It was a decision by the project's proposed anchor tenant, Nordstrom, to pull back expansion plans nationwide that doomed Fifth/Forbes.

 

You couldn't help admiring Murphy's candid appraisal of where the city was heading...but you couldn't get over how resolved he was to keep going down the same path. To see Murphy in action is to be impressed by his singular devotion to his job -- and to be convinced that he needs to stop doing it.

 

Despite the Lazarus closing, Murphy pledged that he would "continue to take appropriate risk...to make things happen." Because after all, "If I look around the country at successful cities, the one thing they have is a very vibrant downtown."

 

No doubt. Then again, if you look at successful Egyptian pharaohs, one thing they had were vibrant pyramid-building programs. That doesn't mean building a pyramid will make you a pharaoh. In fact, building pyramids these days, now that the Bronze Age is over and pyramid construction makes less economic sense, might just make you look silly.

 

Both Murphy's allies and his enemies have been distracted by those projects, and have used them to distract others, from the city's real problems. During the days when Pittsburgh was allegedly "glowing with optimism," such projects diverted attention from the city's deeper but less immediately obvious problems. Today the city is glowering with pessimism, but those same projects allow lightweights like state Sen. Jane Orie (R-McCandless) to not bother finding solutions. After all, Orie has suggested, Pittsburgh could get a cash infusion by selling the land near the stadiums, right?

 

Orie apparently agrees that the mayor's big-ticket items are the key to the city's budget problems. And despite everything, Murphy still believes it too. Even today, he is confusing cause with effect, mixing up the trappings of a successful city (like a bustling Downtown) with the reasons a city is successful -- like its ability to draw employers who create wealth rather than just give people different ways to spread it around.

 

What else can be done? To his credit, Murphy is belatedly grasping at one possible answer: He recently announced plans to explore merging some municipal services with neighboring Wilkinsburg. And perhaps he might try to make common cause with some of the city's other poorer cousins.

 

After all, his first two terms were an attempt to cater to the whims of the city's affluent suburbs, and they thanked him by turning their backs when he called for more than the crumbs that fell from their luxury-box seats. But not all suburbs are the same, and struggling towns like Braddock may have more in common with the city than they do with Bethel Park.

 

There may be other ways for the city to merge its services, and align its interests, with those working-class communities. Murphy hasn't catered to them so far, but if he starts trying now, Pittsburgh might someday have the political muscle -- and the moral authority -- to demand a fairer distribution of the county's resources for all its working-class residents, not just those in Pittsburgh. 

 

It's a pipe dream, sure. But so was Plan B and Fifth/Forbes, and the vanity of Ozymandias. If Shelley's poem, or Murphy's first decade, teach us anything, it's this: Be sure to leave more to posterity than pyramids and idle boasts.

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