Downtown Pittsburgh as a College Town

Do college students hold the future of Downtown Pittsburgh in their hands? Be careful what you wish for; maybe Pittsburgh really will end up as Berkeley (or Madison)-on-the Mon. Independent bookstores; head shops; itinerant tie-dye t-shirt sellers; really good, unlimited free wireless. What's not to like?

Given Pittsburgh's dual fascinations with reinvigorating its Downtown and with replicating the economic success of Silicon Valley, a recent piece in The Economist is worth noting. San Jose, at the Valley's urban core, is struggling with the same issues:

San Jose has attempted to create a commercial heart by selling city-owned land or even giving it away to developers. The city offers tax breaks and uses a portion of the property tax to pay for improvement projects. Since the late 1970s the redevelopment agency has shelled out $2 billion, almost two-thirds of it on downtown. It has built museums and theatres to lure people to the centre. Trams have been supplied to entice them out of their cars.

Such largesse has indisputably made the middle of San Jose more appealing than it used to be. By any measure other than an historical one, though, the campaign has been a failure. The office vacancy rate in downtown stands at 21%—higher than it was four years ago, during the dotcom slump, and almost twice as high as the Silicon Valley average. The theatres, which were supposed to lift downtown, now depend on the council to bail them out of trouble. In a city of 912,000 people, just 30,000 passengers ride trams each day. All this in a wealthy metropolis that has higher house prices than anywhere else in America, according to the National Association of Realtors. . . .

Not so long ago, downtown shops could at least claim to offer an urban alternative to the strip malls and boxy stores dotted about the suburbs. No longer. Santana Row in San Jose is a shopping street with distinctive, French-accented architecture, art galleries, shops and pavement caf├ęs, with some apartments mixed in. It is exactly the kind of urban environment that the downtown boosters say they want, but for two details. Santana Row is three miles from the city centre, and was built in 2002. This fake downtown, with ample parking and no homeless people, is doing so well that similar schemes are mooted elsewhere.

“San Jose needs to be more than just a nice, suburban community,” says Mr Reed, the mayor. But perhaps it does not. An unconvincing downtown has not held down home-prices in San Jose, just as it has not arrested Las Vegas's extraordinary growth. All it has done is give officials a sense of inferiority.

[full story by subscription only]


1 Response to "Downtown Pittsburgh as a College Town"

Anonymous said... 7/16/2007 4:09 PM

Over 400 college campuses will be represented at the US Student Association 60th National Congress at the University of Pittsburgh July 21-26.

Student leaders are convinced they can make a difference on their campuses and throughout the country.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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