Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pittsburgh After Dark

There's been lots of chatter lately about the Pittsburgh's college corridor and connecting Oakland and Downtown via mass transit. The new chief executive of the Allegheny Conference (the new Wizard of Oz as it were) lists the connection as one of the conferences highest priorities.
"In addition to linking the two business centers, a transit link also would provide students access to Downtown, which would make the area more vibrant after dark." But will it?

Temporarily living in Arequipa, Peru, a city known for its urban crime, has given me a new perspective on downtown Pittsburgh. Last night, I ate dinner in a crowded hopping restaurant with purse "leashes" on every seat. The idea is you hook your purse to your seat so that random bag-snatchers have a harder time filching your valuables while you're relaxing over a meal. You'd think that this threat would deter the nightlife. However, central Arequipa is a very bustling shopping and socializing destination. Just this week they installed walk signals on the intersections where their ridiculously long walk-street crosses traffic streets - really an innovative compromise to traffic concerns. Alongside these throngs of people are also lots of police officers. Arequipa appears to be sparing no expense on security.

Reasons crime-ridden central Arequipa is more popular than downtown Pittsburgh?
Lots of events, attractions, and shopping. People need a reason to come downtown.
Lots of cops (without billy clubs). People need to feel safe (but not threatened.)
Lots of public transportation. Peru doesn't have mass transit, but it does have a gazillion taxis and mini-buses.

If a magic subway showed up between Downtown and Oakland tomorrow, do you really think that Downtown would become a great destination? No. Downtown needs a coordinated effort between the theaters, the universities, the restaurants, the bars, the police and public transportation. I head to downtown Pittsburgh regularly for movies at the Harris and plays. But on a weeknight or weekend, almost all the stores and restaurants are closed. Downtown feels like a ghost-town because of all the shuttered storefronts not because of the lack of people. The first time I visited downtown on a weekday afternoon (courtesy of jury duty), I was utterly amazed at how alive and happening the city was and how difficult it was to find parking.

Of course, Pittsburgh does have sure-fire ways to get people Downtown after work. The crowds flock to the city for special downtown events - from Gallery Crawls to First Night to Light Up Night to St Patrick's Day to the Thanksgiving Day Parade. But the saddest thing I noticed? Macy's didn't open up their store on the day of the Thanksgiving Day Parade until after the parade started and the crowds had been milling around for an hour. The day after the busiest shopping day of the year, and my family was waiting for Macy's to open in order to go shopping. They certainly don't stay open late for the quarterly gallery crawls. Where did my family eat the day of the parade? Sammy's Famous Corned Beef. Why? They're good and they're always open.

How about this simple idea? The next time the URA helps fund some new retail development downtown, they can add in a caveat, you must be open on the weekends and on weeknights. That's how to get people staying and coming Downtown.

So, in summation, do I want mass transit between Oakland and Downtown? YES! Do I think it will solve all our problems? NO! Do I think there are steps we can take in the meantime to help solve our problems? YES! What do you think?


Brett said...

It's kind of a chicken and the egg thing--stores and restaurants aren't open late because the people aren't there regularly, and the people aren't there late because there's no place to shop or eat.

There's need to be a big draw to bring people downtown, or something to make the current draws more appealing, and then the businesses will respond. A subway might do that, the much more pedestrian friendly arena might play a role, and possibly market square being redeveloped could play a role as well.

Paz said...

I'm not certain a big ticket item is what would draw people. I mean drawing off where I am now, I wouldn't say that Adams Morgan or really even Downtown DC have some large central draw (with the possible exception of the Verizon Center). There are a lot of big ticket draws already: the theater district, the forthcoming arena (replacing the previous arena), the stadiums, etc. People on the streets happens because there are other things to do. Restaurants are key (even in Georgetown, most of the shops are closed by 9 at the latest on the weekends). Downtown dining needs to be a focus. Plus, there should be a lot of attention on the budding community at Point Park: I really think that's going to be the spark.

Is transit oriented development a part of that? Absolutely. You know how excited I would be about a light rail line. But there's plenty of service on 71s and 61s and 500s and 100s to downtown (which I think highlights the perceptions about light rail vs. bus travel). The east end corridor is heavily provided for already, and while it could use more transit service, expansion to the North and West is just as critical.

n'at said...

There will always be the cultural district, because they have private and public funds to prop themselves up and draw out-of-towners nightly to the shows. However, theatre is an anomaly of sorts for the younger crowd - unless there's nudity.

I see the night life growing around the southern side of downtown, first, to accommodate the AI and Point Park chillums. Those kids get stircrazy and are forced to walk to the southside for good times.

Mexico City is open until 8pm and occasionally has a band play while football continues on the flatscreens, that's a good start.

Jermaine said...

So, connect South Side via light rail as well.