More on Herb Burger's op-ed in today's Post-Gazette.
And why downtown redevelopment is doomed. At least if we define redevelopment in a peculiar way. From the op-ed:
We need to sort out more qualities that will add warmth and charm to the new Downtown -- make it attractive physically and economically.
No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
Please, God. No.
Redevelopment agencies can do a lot of things. They can redistribute money. They can generate interest. They can broker deals. But they can never, under any circumstances, do charm.
Ever. And they look ridiculous when they try. See, charm is an organic kind of thing. It arises spontaneously--an elusive identity that emerges to define a place, an institution, or even a person. When sought, designed or ordered, that identity more often veers into some kind of sappy, saccharine joke. A Disney-fied version of "authenticity" that deserves all the derision it generates.
Take Baltimore, which is known as "Charm City." Go visit once if you haven't already. It is, in fact, a charming place. But if you think even one ounce of that charm resides in the Inner Harbor, you are some kind of chump. Sure, there is a Phillips Crab House, which I guess is kind of local. But there is also a Cheesecake Factory. A Pizzeria Uno. An ESPN Zone. Nothing wrong with these things, per se. I don't like them. But some people do. And they provide services people like.
But get this straight: They do not provide charm.
And, in fact, I don't even think they claim to do that. I mean, if you want local color, walk about two minutes north to The Block. You'll know it when you get there. Believe me.
So should every inch of Baltimore be The Block? Hell no. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that a bunch of politically connected chain restaurant owners, granted licenses and subsidies from a redevelopment elite, will deliver charm.
Another example: The Waterfront in Homestead. Look, I am no authenticity-hungry prick who is going to slam every corporate development. For all its detractions, I go to the Waterfront a lot. To shop. To eat. For coffee, even. But the minute I go there for charm is the exact moment I gain lifetime membership in the Society of Ridiculous Turds.
Chiodos had charm. It didn't have a Target. And it didn't have a Loew's. But it had charm. Now it's gone. I am not going to cry any rivers over that, but I think it is important to avoid fooling ourselves into thinking something is there that's not.
Or that downtown will in anyway be "charming" when the redevelopment projects are finished. That does not necessarily argue against the projects. But to sit around and have charm as a goal is to set a benchmark that guarantees failure.
Much better to be honest: Times change. Cities change. There was a lot great about the Old Pittsburgh. But people live differently now. Want different things from their living space. So to survive some of that Old Pittsburgh has to go. So let's just admit it and move on and stop talking about how downtown is going to be some kind of new, culturally distinct "Pittsburgh." It's going to look exactly like the development around Columbus Ohio's hockey arena. And all the other mixed-use developments going on in every other mid-sized city around the country. There is a lot of good stuff to be had there. Stuff people like. Great.
But if you really want charm? Sell off all the URA properties to small businessmen, with a covenant making sure the properties never get into a developer's hands. You'll end up with a lot of wig shops and Chinese take-out and bail bondsmen, etc.
It might not be pretty, but it would have a lot more charm than a Cheesecake Factory. Seems like Pittsburgh would rather have the Cheesecake Factory and places like it. So go ahead and build it.
Just don't say the C-word.