The Politics of Place: Contentious Urban Redevelopment in Pittsburgh | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Politics of Place: Contentious Urban Redevelopment in Pittsburgh

By Gregory J. Crowley, University of Pittsburgh Press



The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently reported on the anguish outgoing Mayor Tom Murphy felt when signing up for his pension benefits. The moment was "bittersweet," the mayor said. No doubt his constituents feel the same way: The city's pension debt may yet bankrupt Pittsburgh, which means Murphy will be messing up our finances long after he's gone.



Equally bittersweet, however, is that even before Murphy leaves, researchers are using his failed Fifth/Forbes redevelopment proposal as a case study -- in how to thwart high-handed government officials.


Due out next week, The Politics of Place is written by Gregory Crowley, the research director for the Coro Center for Civic Leadership. Coro's mission is to encourage greater political participation, so Crowley's agenda isn't surprising. In a city whose leadership is as insular as Pittsburgh's, he asks, how can citizens have a voice in controversial development schemes? Or, as Crowley puts it, how can "contentious collective action" -- public protest -- "create the conditions for strong democratic participation?"


Crowley addresses the question by comparing Fifth/Forbes to an earlier generation of development proposals: David Lawrence's post-war renaissance. Lawrence's efforts are celebrated today, but they had opponents at the time, and Crowley begins by examining attempts to stop four of Lawrence's proposals. These range from the creation of public housing to the razing of a Hill District church, but opponents stopped only one, an abortive plan to put the Civic Arena in Highland Park.


This is a social-science text, and its jargon may frustrate non-academics. (Example: "The movement gathered force through a sequence of four crucial mechanisms...: social appropriation of resources (SAR), attribution of political opportunity (APO), object shift (OS) and brokerage (B).") Unlike many social-science texts, however, this one is a brief 156 pages, and the case studies themselves are breezy, useful reads. You may be surprised to learn, for example, that the site of the St. Clair Village housing project was once a strong ethnic German neighborhood.


But the real purpose of these early case studies is to provide contrast to the  Fifth/Forbes debate. In the late 1990s, Murphy planned to "revitalize" this modest Downtown retail district by razing scores of buildings and displacing merchants in favor of out-of-town retail chains. Initially, the scheme was opposed by a motley, or at least mottled, crew of preservationists, property-rights advocates and Downtown merchants. Yet despite the meager opposition, Murphy's plan collapsed.


Why? "How is it that some urban social movements succeed while others fail ...?" Crowley asks. "In what sense was citizen participation in Fifth and Forbes stronger than in the other cases?"


Crowley offers a few answers. First, political power has splintered since the renaissance. For example, city councilors are elected by district, rather than at-large, as in Lawrence's day. Councilors can now safely oppose the mayor, Crowley observes, if they have a strong base in their district fiefdoms. During Fifth/Forbes, a few did just that.


Crowley also contends, less convincingly, that Fifth/Forbes opponents succeeded because they offered alternatives. Shut out of Murphy's plans, they drafted plans of their own. Drawing on support from preservation and property-rights advocacy groups, they created a "Main Street" plan to save the district without destroying it. They held public meetings that gave citizens input into their plan -- and a stake in its success.


No doubt Crowley offers useful tips for opposing the city's next harebrained development scheme. First, opponents must mobilize as soon as they hear redevelopment is in the works; otherwise, the "urban growth elites" will "try to make their projects faits accomplis by getting them as far along as possible without ... public input." Second, it helps to recruit outside groups who are financially and politically independent of pro-development forces. Third, define yourself by what you support, not by what you oppose. Unlike those who opposed Lawrence, Crowley writes, Murphy's critics didn't mobilize merely for "saying no to the city's redevelopment agenda. They were serious about showing that alternatives to the city's agenda were possible ..."


But I'd add a final piece of advice, one at odds with the tone of Crowley's book: Don't assume any of that will make a difference.


The lesson of Fifth/Forbes, Crowley concludes, is that if leaders don't "involve the community," they risk seeing "the collapse of their proposals in the heat of controversy." If only it were so. But Fifth/Forbes didn't collapse due to public controversy. It collapsed when its anchor tenant, the Seattle-based Nordstrom department-store chain, pulled out. And Nordstrom made that decision as part of a nationwide corporate restructuring, not because of local opposition.


Nordstrom's withdrawal meant Murphy's plan "could no longer be supported, financially or politically," Crowley acknowledges. But he devotes less than a single paragraph to that decision. His emphasis is on the effectiveness of citizen action, not the ineffectiveness of elite action, even if the latter was more important.


Indeed, readers will be shut out of the mayor's office as thoroughly as Murphy's opponents were: Crowley relies almost entirely on newspaper accounts and interviews with opponents. He has almost nothing to say about the mindset of Murphy's backers.


And while Crowley ends his account with the collapse of Murphy's schemes, the story since then shows the limits of citizen power. The alternative plan never took root, and many of Murphy's opponents left the district anyway. Today, the city is "land-banking" -- acquiring properties in Fifth/Forbes as they become available, perhaps saving them for the next harebrained development scheme.


Opponents delayed Fifth/Forbes long enough for the 1990s economic boom to cool. In doing so, they did us a huge favor: Had Murphy developed his plan on schedule, we might have three empty Downtown department stores instead of two. Beyond that, however, it's too soon to write the story of opponents' success.

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