Condolence Card | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Condolence Card

A Fifth/Forbes holdout departs the scene

 Mayor Tom Murphy finally got something he wanted this week. Patty Maloney, one of the most vocal opponents of the mayor's controversial "Fifth/Forbes" redevelopment plan, is closing her card store on Wood Street. And the city didn't even have to use eminent domain to get rid of her.


"I grew up Downtown," says Maloney. "It's really a part of who I am. We love the city, and it's going to be hard to leave."


You may not remember when "eminent domain," a government's power to buy property even if the owner didn't want to sell, was a hot-button issue. These days, we worry about all the things the city can no longer pay for, not about whether it abuses its power to buy. But five years ago, Murphy's $522 million plan to redevelop Fifth and Forbes avenues -- which involved razing scores of buildings and replacing local businesses with national chains -- was supposed to be the key to the city's future.


Maloney was a leading opponent of the project, which she learned about the hard way: "We were told that the city wouldn't be paving our sidewalks because they were going to demolish our building." The plan fell apart in 2000, in the face of public opposition and a pullout by retailer Nordstrom, the scheme's linchpin.


Fifth-Forbes itself has been falling apart ever since. Maloney's Card Center is only the latest casualty. Nearby storefronts, many of which are now owned either by PNC Bank or the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, are vacant and have been for years. Some storefront windows are still trying to drum up a little business, offering paintings for sale. But more often than not, the only decoration is a sign posted by the URA itself, which sunnily insists it is "Preparing Downtown for a brighter tomorrow."


Patty Maloney's store won't be around to see that day. Neither will two other locations her family owns on Smithfield Street, one of which closed a few months ago. The family has sold greeting cards Downtown for half a century. Their businesses have outlasted wars and recessions, even the collapse of the local steel industry. The one thing they couldn't withstand, ironically, was Murphy's belief that retail could help save the city. Instead, Maloney says, even as retail expanded in places like Lazarus and Lord & Taylor, customers began disappearing as Downtown office vacancies climbed.


Maloney was warned: Fifth/Forbes backers issued economic forecasts showing that things would get worse in Fifth/Forbes unless the redevelopment went forward. "What they predicted would happen did happen," Maloney admits. "But it happened at their own hands." In early 2001, after the original plan collapsed, a group called the "Plan C Task Force" issued an alternate proposal city officials and local merchants agreed on. Among the "action items" were ideas like "create nightlife in the Fifth & Forbes core." Nearly four years later, almost none of it has happened. None of it is going to happen any time soon. Maloney can't remember the last time she talked with a city official. "They've had a lot on their plate" -- the 9/11 terror attacks, an economic downturn, a city in financial receivership.


In fact, Maloney and Murphy now have a lot in common. While Murphy used to sneer at retailers like Maloney; today he pleads on their behalf. Every chance he gets, he argues that thanks to huge tax loopholes, "mom-and-pop" stores pay more city tax than some of Pittsburgh's largest corporations.


 "I found that terribly ironic," Maloney says, given that city officials were willing to kick her mom and pop's business to the curb. But she says, "There are a whole lot of places that don't get taxed; you can't expect small businesses to bear the brunt," she says.


You certainly can't expect the Card Center to do so anymore. And in going out of business, Maloney is in good company. The Downtown Lazarus is shuttered, and the Lord & Taylor is closing too.


In fact, Maloney notes, Pittsburgh's plight might be even more dire if Fifth/Forbes had gone through. With the massive tax subsidies required for the project, the city's debts might be piled even higher, the unfairness of its tax structure even more pronounced.


"I don't know if [city officials] should hate me or send me a thank-you card," Maloney says.


If they choose the latter, they'll have to find somewhere else to buy it.

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