Pittsburgh's Hub

It is an article of faith among both Pittsburgh traditionalists and most Pittsburgh reformists that Downtown Pittsburgh is one of Pittsburgh's gems and must, at almost all costs, be preserved.  Downtown is sort of the Primanti's sandwich of regional economics.  For all of its obvious flaws, you can't really call yourself a Pittsburgher unless you're willing not only to stomach it, but praise it.

Like some others who have recently come out of the sandwich closet, I am no Primanti's fan.

And I wonder, out loud, about Downtown Pittsburgh's centrality to the region's economic health.

I'm prompted here by the newest "Next Page" musings by Bob Firth, he of Bob's Maps, about the interminable failings of the Port Authority and the public transit system that it administers.  Not surprisingly, Bob has a fix.  Surprisingly, to some (and to me), the fix makes Oakland the hub of Pittsburgh's transit universe.  Take a look at the core, if you will, of Bob's vision for the future:

That map doesn't make Oakland *the* hub of Pittsburgh.  It makes Oakland *a* hub of Pittsburgh.  A key node, if you will.  And skeptics will note, rightly, that Oakland-as-node privileges the better-off neighborhoods just to its east.  I don't see Homewood on that map, or the Hill District, and Uptown comes off as flyover territory.

But even granting those important qualifications, consider the relative economic weights of Oakland and Downtown.  To be brutally reductionist:  Oakland might be characterized as the best of Pittsburgh's future:  research and development and education (the students who are helping to make Pittsburgh younger) at Pitt, CMU, and UPMC; Downtown might be characterized as the best of Pittsburgh's past:  banks (what banks Pittsburgh has left, anyway), law firms (Pittsburgh's largest are now global brands more than Pittsburgh assets), and a cultural scene that owes most of its vibrancy to decades-old philanthropy.  Pittsburgh's future depends, conceptually, on leveraging the assets of Oakland.  Investment in Downtown is investment in keeping a legacy infrastructure alive.

It's easy to come up with significant exceptions to that broad-brush portrait, so consider it a rough, working hypothesis, which I throw out here to provoke reaction. 

How do we think differently about economic development strategies in Pittsburgh if we put Oakland at their center, and Downtown at the periphery?


6 Responses to "Pittsburgh's Hub"

David Troyer said... 5/23/2011 8:17 AM

I get the sense that Oakland, with all her resources, will take care of itself. Furthermore, if you look at transit maps, I would argue it is already *a* hub for Port Authority.

BrianTH said... 5/23/2011 11:12 AM

Oakland does have a lot of buses running through it. However, almost all of those buses are routed between the East End and Downtown, and PAT's TDP already contains a plan for upgrading many of those routes (within its Rapid Bus plan).

What Oakland conspicuously lacks is dedicated rapid transit lines from other areas, which is contributing to congestion problems all over the region. Accordingly, I also made Oakland the hub of my proposed network of aerial gondolas in Pittsburgh:


Anyway, to somewhat address Mike's question, I don't think we really have to choose between Downtown and Oakland, nor do I think we should (I'd call it merely recognizing Oakland as the second focus of the ellipse).

And that is because I don't think Mike is right that the growth of professional and business services is all in Pittsburgh's past. Rather, I view the eds and meds associated with Oakland as a welcome diversifier for the local economy, not a replacement for all other sectors.

Jonathan Potts said... 5/23/2011 1:01 PM

There's another argument to be made, and I believe Chris Briem has made it, that downtown is in much better shape than all our angst over it would indicate. It still is home to a high share of the region's jobs, in contrast to the central business districts of many other cities.

That said, it is frustrating the lack of direct routes into Oakland, even before the Port Authority cuts. It should be treated as on equal footing with downtown.

RoboticGhost said... 5/23/2011 1:42 PM

Oh, I dunno. The banks and the lawyers aren't going anywhere anytime soon. BNY Mellon employs more people now than when it was just Mellon. PNC is announcing their next big whatever right this minute, and you can't throw a rock downtown without hitting a lawyer, posing a serious challenge to those looking to throw rocks inexpensively. The business infrastructure that supports all of that also supports other, quieter downtown industries. Non-profit pops to mind, and IT services, where more business innovations have taken place than any of the innovators ever got credit for. Investing in downtown not only feeds the dinosaurs, but a lot of the little mammals as well. Sure, the housing initiative is a mixed bag, to say the least, lets see what happens as financing comes unglued and gas prices get spiky again.

I guess my point is differentiating between downtown and Oakland as old vs. new isn't very productive. Rather these areas provide different collision climates that evoke different kinds of innovation, both worth of investment.

The question now is when do the powers that be look at how spiffy downtown is, declare victory, and turn their attention to other venues. Turning Hazelwood in Oakland Part II, for instance.

Anonymous said... 5/23/2011 2:35 PM

Oakland to downtown shouldn't take 20 minutes or more and it currently does.

With Oakland being the third largest commerce center in the state of PA, perhaps it should be the hub. I would have to think that getting in and out of the Oakland area inhibits the schools from being able to hire the best and brightest to some degree. I know as a former Pitt staff member, we had lost people who just didn't want to do the commute. Myself included.

Tim Murray said... 5/24/2011 11:30 AM

Nothing changes. Back when Andrew Carnegie et al were creating Oakland purposefully to rival the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago of 1893 (Carnegie Tech's campus was designed after the Fair's midway), Prof. Franklin Toker explains in "Pittsburgh: A New Portrait," (2009) that Oakland nearly became the dominant city center back then.

Please notice where Pennsylvania put the official Historic Marker of Andrew Carnegie, the second wealthiest man in history. Not in Homestead where his biggest mill was located, or near the Warner Centre downtown on Fifth Avenue, where his steel company was headquartered. Rather, in Oakland, in front of his library. Fittingly enough. His ruthless partner H.C. Frick's official marker is downtown, on Grant Street.

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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]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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