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sean mcdaniel

The truth might hurt here, Sam. But charm worked on the Waterfront and SouthSide Works, where Damian Sofer built his instand mini city. And SSW nicely coexists with Old South Side. In fact, the once empty storefronts between the Birmingham Bridge and 27th Street are now starting to fill in — many with local businesses staking a claim. Charm can work.

Because I traveled to Baltimore to see the Harbor Place and Camden Yards, I ended up in Fells Point and Baltimore's Italian district — both of which survived the manufactured charm.

Honestly, downtown is barely breathing. But some are trying to reviving that pulse. Personally, I'd rather see a Tiffany's there than another Mo'Gear store, even though I'll never set foot in either. And tell the truth, would you and your wife feel more comfortable at 9 p.m. on Forbes between Smithfield and Wood if the ground floor shops fronted something more than grimy pizza shops, rap CDs operations and boarded-up windows? Imagine intimate restaurants and chic boutiques. Sure, it might cost an arm and a leg to patronize those places. But it sure beats dodging bullets during rush hour because a couple of gangstas decide to turn the block into the OK Coral — where you could literally lose your life.

Trust me, as soon as one white person gets hurt or killed during a shooting involving young black males, you'll see an immediate police crackdown and public outrage. I'd rather force out the bad element through high rents than watch local cops act like the KGB.

So, Sam, quit being so charm resistant. There's a sweet compromise between the Cheesecake Factory and a sleazy porn district. Nothing's lost on Liberty Avenue now that the porns shops that seemed to occupy every other storefront during the 1970s are gone — other than rampant prostitution, open drug dealing, massage parlor explosions, gangland killings and plenty of muggings that no one reported for the obvious reasons. You may not be old enough to remember those day. Someday, you can sit on my knee while I share some memories of how that kind of gritty charm nearly drove a stake through the heart of downtown.

Jonathan Potts

It is not impossible for these kinds of projects to work. (Though I would say it may still be too soon to tell regarding SouthSide Works and the Waterfront.) The problem, however, is that the local officials are too often guided by their personal tastes, and pay little attention to what the market can bear. That's why Tom Murphy gave us Lazarus and Lord & Taylor. And I still don't see why we need a "comprehensive" plan.

sean mcdaniel

I agree on the comprehensive plan. But it's better than no plan at all. Plus, Downtown is a different case than South Side. As the city's centerpiece, it may need a direction that's more planned than South Side's uncharted organic growth. It's the difference between a backyard picnic that you put together at the last minue and a wedding reception that is in the works for a year or more.

Sam M

Well this is an interesting discussion.

I certainly did not intend to insinuate that the only places that have charm are burnt out porn districts. Plenty of places have charm. Especially places in and around Pittsburgh. Bloomfield has charm. Polish Hill has charm. Etc.

It is tough to define, really. Because people like different things. But I can see charm in a place I dislike. And "charmlessness" in places I do like. As mentioned, I like the Waterfront. I shop there. I am glad it exists. But to say it has charm? That seems a stretch. Moreover, I see no reason for it to claim charm. In the same way I see no reason for my wife to claim to be an excellent airplane pilot. The fact that she can't fly a plane at all does not detract from her character. So why claim it?

So what do the places that do have charm have in common? I think it has a little to do with age. A little to do with uniqueness. A little to do with what I called "organic" growth. By that I don't mean sans pesticides. I mean that it arose in response to a need. That the area arose un-self-consciously, as opposed to a place that tries and tries and tries to be a neighborhood.

I might add that charm is not permanent. Sean mentioned Fells Point. I lived there for a long time. I am not sure it has nearly as much charm as it once did. And, in fact, I suspect it had a lot more charm in the decade prior to my arrival. That is because all of the attributes mentioned above have inevitably slipped over the years. A lot of the locals who inhabited the bars and schools and churches have died off. So their faces and stories are no longer in constant rotation. Their presence isn't there. Like the old lady down the street from me who sold perogies out of her house. She's dead now. That's no fault of the young people who snapped up her house and renovated it. Good for them. But I think that it's indisputable that the neighborhoods elusive "charm quotient" took a hit in the process. Same as when a beloved local dive becomes a cigar bar or a hookah bar. Or an Applebees. or anything else you can get someplace else.

What happens is that the place becomes less "itself." And this is where we get into bullshit measurements of "authenticity." But in this case it is a lot like the classic definition of porn: You know it when you see it.

And if you can see charm at the Waterfront, well, I guess we have different definitions.

My overall problem with this idea of building "charm" and "neighborhoods" is that Pittsburgh already has a lot of both. I guess it might make sense for people to try to build on those things. But does it? We are also a city of rivers. So should we dig a big ditch so the new neighborhood could have a river, too? Well, no. The city already has rivers. So why fake one?


Look. Pittsburgh has a whole bunch of charm. And a whole bunch of available housing. So in response, our leaders are proposing to spend millions of creating--a charming neighborhood.

Perhaps next year we could build an enormous dome for the entire metropolitan area, one that ensures short summers and gloomy winters.


sean mcdaniel

Hi Sam,

You did mention the block in baltimore! And it is the porno district. But that's balmer. look, you can find plenty of homegrown charm very close to downtown, about 6 blocks east of the convention. it's a little place we call the strip.

despite losing a lot of it's ruff and tumble character over the last 20 years, it still covers the gamut from $1.5 million lofts where movie stars and millionaires live; discount sellers of shoe, groceries and whatnot; fish mongers and produce shops, great breakfast places, and I'd go into more detail but the 3 rolling rocks in the last hour are impairing me way too much.

the point is (and i really should use that phrase for my blog title) that the strip is probably 99 percent homegrown organic. I don't hate starbucks and panera, but it was heartening to see that they couldn't make a go of it in the strip.

i agree that applebee's and cheesecake factories don't belong downtown. but prada, hermes and versace probably do. and don't worry, those stores might be chains, but they ain't the gap or banana republic. and i hope i never see a f**king ESPN in the golden triangle.

downtown doesn't need charm...it needs class.

by the way, i just re-read the last part of your original post...fifth ave.already has the wig shop, chinese takeout and check cashing stores. have you been on the ave. lately? those types of stores are cancers.

Sam M


I agree. The Strip has charm. But why?

I think it has charm to the extent that it resembles its original iteration as a warehouse district.

At one stage it was just that, I imagine. Warehouses. An industrial sort of place where no one other than workers needed or wanted to go. But then it also had a retail component. Markets. And through the years it added bars and restaurants. At some stage I suppose it will be all bars and restaurants. Cease being a "real" warehouse district. People will lament its lost "authenticity." Like the meat packing district in New York. And it will become, as the kids say, played. The drinks will become more expensive. Only thirty-somethings lamenting their inexorably expanded distance from coolness will consider it cool. And it therefore will not be cool.

Has that happened already? How the heck would I know.

What I am getting at is that charm, specifically with regard to neighborhoods, operates on something of a bell curve. The golden age, the peak of that curve, occurs when the area is close enough to its roots to show some of the old character and characters, but established enough to be safe. Or at least safe-ish. People will accept a little edge. But there are limits.

Fells Point went through this a while back. Hampden, an emerging neighborhood when I was in Baltimore, is going through it now.

My whole point is not to argue that this bell curve is a bad thing. Or to explain it. I am only saying that "inventing" this charm simply doesn't work. It comes across more like pathetic and sad.

By the way, guess where the new Greenwich Village is. Williamsburg, you say, out in Brooklyn? Come on now. That's so, like, two years ago. Maybe even three or four. Gasp.

I hear the cool people are all in Newark now.

With the wig shops and bail bondsmen and cheap beer and flying bullets.

Go figure.

sean mcdaniel

C'mon Sam,

You know why the cool people are moving to Newark. Williamsburg, DUMBO, Greenpoint, Harlem and whatever else was affordable last year are out of reach. It's not the bullets and bling emporiums reeling them into Newark (although have you ever eaten in the Portguese places behind the train station? Wow.)

It's all about the real estate. Newark is a 10 minute PATH ride under the river from Manhattan. So once all the bohos from Soho, Noho and elsewhere make Nooark seem attractive to those 30 somethings with salaries in the $250,000 range, guess who will be moving on to the next new hot place?

You can see the same thing here. Take a look at Lawrenceville. Quick. While you still can buy a near crumbling pile of bricks for under $100,000. South Side is no longer "affordable." Same with Shadyside and North Side (which baffles me). These days, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times, even property on the South Side and Allentown is starting to skyrocket. And have you seen what's happening on Penn Ave. in Garfield? And some of the once scary streets in Highland Park?

Hmmm...maybe it won't be too long till the cool people are moving to Bellevue...aside from a couple of restaurants and a coffee shop, you'll find 2 charming check cashing stores, 2 chinese takeout restaurants, a nail stylist shop, 2 tax preparation stores, a outpatient mental clinic and a neighborhood on the brink, where one guy and some friends are trying to make sure it doesn't go over the edge with all that charm.

All that being said, i hear that Camden, NJ, is the next big thing. Ready to do some real estate speculation with me?

As for the strip, actually, you need to drive through some day to note all the restaurant/bar failures. The place across from Wholey's is empty after a succession of clubs that never caught on. The place just past the 16th street bridge (don't know what it's called now, but used to be whiskey dicks) is ever changing. Metropol and Rosebud went under. Sure, there are some trendy shops there. But Enrico Biscotti, the P & G Diner and other seem to retain the integrity of the Strip. And Penn Mac, Benkovitz's, the new hot dog shop, Mancini's and all the rest are as authentic as you can get. Nothing manufactured or process there.

As I replied to J. Potts, the strip, south side, lawrenceville and other neighborhoods are like a 4th of July Picnic. Sure, you invite people to the party and tell them to bring whatever. The fun is in the spontaniety. But Downtown is like a $30,000 wedding. You need to plan all the details so that you create a memorable upscale experience.

I'm not sure how many of the local bloggers who decry Pittsburgh's plight and compare it to NYC or Baltimore or Chicago realize that those cites' neighborhoods aren't separated by hills, rivers and tunnels. Just imagine if Downtown flowed seamlessly into the N. Shore, Station Square and the South Side, the Strip, Bloomfield and Oakland, and that those neighborhoods flowed into the adjoining neighborhoods...kind of like what happens in NYC, Chicago and Baltimore, San Francisco and ....well, you get the idea.

Hey, I like sparring with you!

sean mcdaniel

hey, i apologize for any typos, grammatical errors and anything that might be untruthy...the rolling rocks are catching up to me.

Mark Stroup

Forgive me for not knowing my prophets or scripture, but it was either William Whyte or Jane Jacobs that held State College up as an example of a single developer creating successful urban atmosphere, that is, charm. I assume that such a single developer effort, though, would be difficult to attain in Pittsburgh's Downtown.

But if the City creates a few simple rules for development and rewards those who follows the rules -- say property tax breaks for following required streetface guidelines -- you could have some centrally planned and controlled structure for multiple developers.

Amos the Poker Cat

One man's charm is another man's kitch.

sean mcdaniel

one man's charm isn't quite another man's kitsch. it seems that a lot of local bloggers think it's either going to be check cashing stores or crate and barrel (which isn't all that high class)along forbes and fifth. Yes you might see an applebee's downtown sometime, but take a look at the restaurants that haven't opened there in the last few years. kitsch is hardly the word to describe them. it's kind like looking at jerome bettis or jason bay and saying they'd be janitors if not for sports.there is plenty of middle ground in both cases.

i really think downtown needs some careful planning. It's fine for a gypsy clothing store to open across the street from a upper scale japaneses steakhouse on Carson street (or vice versa), but I think Downtown really does need to be a higher end neighborhood. It's our hotel district, the convention and meeting center, the cultural district and home to those haute cuisine eateries i mentioned earlier. it's where out of town visitors will most likely form a first impression about pittsburgh.

so maybe the consignment shop and CD exchange really don't belong on the same block as the yves st laurent store. there's plenty of charm and kitsch on carson, liberty in bloomfield and even squirrel, east liberty and lawrenceville. hey, rich people need a shopping/enterntainment district they can call their own, too. and if you don't want to bump into elsie hillman (though you'd be missing an amazing oppportunity to meet an amazing person, even if she is a republican)at dinner sometime, then Nico's Recovery room is ready for your on Friendship. any of you guys been there lately?

Jonathan Potts

There are a couple of problems, as I see it. We should not redevelop any neighborhood, Downtown included, based on how hypothetical visitors are going to perceive it. This first and foremost needs to be a good, safe, and affordable place to live and work. And Downtown, for all its problems, still functions as one of the region's largest employment centers. Any development that might have occurred spontaneously over the past 10 years, based on this, has been stunted by the city's interference. Again, we have no idea what might have become of Downtown, because the largest property owner, the URA, has become an absentee landlord.

I would love for Downtown Pittsburgh to be a high-end district. But wishing it will not make it so. Perhaps Downtown is home to places like Candyrama and the CD Exchange because that is all Downtown can sustain. The build-it-and-they-will-come mentality failed with Lord & Taylor and Lazarus, and in my opinion it's not functioning nearly as well as is perceived on the North Side. (Consider that many of the corporations setting up shop over on the North Shore are merely moving from--wait for it--Downtown.)

Now, certainly, we can set some guidelines, which the mayor is trying to do with Urban Design Associates--so long as they are not overly restrictive. (Years ago, for example, businesses in Mt. Lebanon were forbidden to put sandwich boards on the sidewalks outside their establishments.) We can prohibit certain very narrowly defined classes of business--like porn shops.

But anything more is a recipe for failure, in the same way that Point State Park and Gateway Center, Allegheny Center and the East Liberty pedestrian mall was a recipe for failure. We must treat our cities as they are, in the real world, not as we wish them to be.

sean mcdaniel


downtown is becoming a high-end district. i'm gonna bet that even if we combined our salaries we really couldn't afford the new condos people are lining up to buy (hey, i'm not suggesting a vito/johnny cakes relationship between us). so the lazarus and
L & T deals were failures because downtown isn't a field of dreams. in this case, they'll build the stores after the people come to live in the golden triangle.

you may say i'm a dreamer (but i'm not the only one, really) for trying to imagine a new downtown. But i think you might agree it's better to develop a plan for the future rather than dwell upon what might have been if the URA hadn't hoarded valuable property. the point is, they did it. and we can't change the past. but we sure as hell can try to shape a tomorrow that avoids yesterday's mistakes.

right now downtown is on life support. but i don't think it's a terry schivao situation. so let's not pull the plug.

by the way, del monte, which is one of the corporations setting up shop on the north shore is merely moving from - wait for it - the north shore. it's a vertical shuffle from the old heinz headquarters near the 16th street bridge. my geography tells me that's the north side. not downtown. and i could be wrong (because my feeble old mind isn't as sharp as those of you young whippersnappers) but Equitable Energy started off as Equitable Gas on wait for it-the North Side, when it was called allegheny. You know that steam factory near one of the bends across from Allegheny Center, yep, Equitable built it when the company was headquartered on -wait for it - the north side.

finally, as for alcoa, it did indeed move across the river a few years ago -- but well before the new north shore development. but from what i could find on the internet, the company's original HQ was - wait for it - in the Strip, when the fledgling company was known as the pittsburgh reduction company. so none of the three HQs (current or otherwise) started in - wait for it-downtown.

so let me say it, the point is, we can try to do something feasibly constructive downtown (with something for everyone, even hot dog vendors on the corners) or we can swim out past the breakers and watch the world die (c'mon someone has to know that reference).

Jonathan Potts

Equitable's headquarters were spread out among several locations, including Oxford Centre. And Deloitte, I believe, is moving from Downtown to the North Shore.

Alcoa did have a Downtown location, and I think--and I could be wrong--that unlike Equitable, their new HQ got some kind of public financing.

The problem, Sean, is that we keep repeating our past mistakes, and as long as we do, I'm going to continue to dwell on them. I'm not saying that an upscale Downtown would not be desirable, but I'm not convinced that there will be either the residents or shoppers to support it. Let's not forget that there are several other upscale housing developments in the works throughout the city , many of which are receiving some sort of public subsidy or tax break.

All I ask at this point is that whoever gets to redevelop Downtown pays market rate for the buildings and spends their own money.

Sam M


Again, I am not saying it has to be Saks Fifth Avenue or check-cashing stores. There can be some kind of in-between. I just don't see any reason at all to trust the URA or the Allegheny Conference to strike that balance. Do you?

Remember, this whole thread got started as a discussion about charm. Because the outgoing guy from the Pittsburh Task Force said what the city needs is for the people in charge to bring some charm in.

Well, I stand by my original position. You mentioned that you thought planners were abble to generate charm at South Side works. Well, go to the website. It's wwwsouthsideworks.com

Let me know what you see there that's "charming." The only things that are local ar ethe Hot Metal Grill and the ice cream place.

Seriously. THink about this. Let's say you have some visitors from out of town. They are in for the weekend. They say, "Sean, we don't get here much. Please, oh please, take us to someplace that just SCREAMS Pittsburgh. A local joint with CHARM."

Is South Side Works on that agenda?

That doesn't mean South Side Works is a failure. People like it a lot. It provides lots of things. Charm just ain't one of them.

So if the guy from the Task Force had said, "You know, what we need downtown is some big, corporate retailers that people like. Some convenience. Some safety. Soething with name recognition."

To that, I would say, "Well, doesn't sound like my kind of place. But go one with your bad self. Use Columbus Ohio and Hartford Connecticut and South Side Works and The Waterfront as models. Your plan makes sense, as far as it goes, and seems achievable."

But when he says, "Let's plan some charm," well, I say "no can do."

I might also add that you seem to have moved the goal-post to "high end." In my mind, "high-end" is different than charm. For instance, Pittsburgh's Saks Fifth Avenue is certainly high-end. But is it necessarily charming? I don't think so.

Now, high-end CAN be charming. When it's local and unique. But corporate high-end is neither of those things. That doesn't mean it's bad. It just isn't charming.

sean mcdaniel

SSW is what it is. (sorry popeye). somewhere along the way, i mentioned that class should replace charm. And SSW does have a certain amount of class. still, just a few blocks away, you can find plenty of authentic pittsburgh, in fact too much to name here. so there you go again with that one extreme or the other example again.

wait, i just re-read your reply (which some might consider "snarky"), so I'll point out that instead of SSW you (and I do mean you) could take that out of towner to the Pretzel Shop across from the business times (you do know where it is, right?) or travel a few blocks north for a primanti's sandwich at 19th (i think) about halfway between 18th and 17th, you could enjoy a slice of pizza or order some pierogis (they still count as pittsburgh, right?) and of course, why not stop at the carson street deli for a corned sandwich and an iron? (i mean if you can bear to raise a bottle of our local brew to your lips). let keep going, dee's cafe is so pittsburgh that your guests will reek of the city for weeks after...okay, i'm getting tired from all this tour guide stuff. but have you seen enough?

maybe downtown doesn't have a ton of pittsburgh authenticity, but you only have to travel 11 blocks from heinz hall to find it in the strip.

i'll say it here (as i did at barnestormin...you and j. barnes and sam think that downtown will turn into beverly hills east (or is it midwest?) if piatt and other big bad developers take charge. honestly, i don't think so.

but the way, are you the same jonathan potts who writes about "indulgences" for the tribune review's fanfare magazine? that seems to be just the type of publication that caters to that moneyed coney island class j. barnes rails against in his latest post.

Jonathan Potts

I am the very same person.

Jonathan Potts

By the way, Sam is the one who wrote the post about authenticity, though I agree with many of his sentiments. And let me once again say I don't agree how many neighborhoods in this city go upscale. It's not wealth I have anything against, believe me.

Sam M


I don't doubt that you can find all the charm you want withing walking distance of SSW. Just like you can find charm within walking distance of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Little Italy comes to mind.

But go back to the article with the quote from the guy from the Pittsburgh Task Force. He did not say, "We plan to bring in some places that will be within walking distance of charm."

Or even, "Pittsburgh's charm stands on its own. We are going to draw people in to enjoy the stuff we build for its convenience, its cleanliness and its newness. And hopefully those people will hit the streets and walk a few blocks to experience some of Ye Olde Burgh so our new neighborhoods can co-exist with our old ones."

No. He wants the new stuff to have it all. He wants to build warmth and charm. All I am saying is, good luck with that. Because I don't think they can do it. Just like SSW didn't do it. Just like the Inner Harbor didn't do it. Unless of course you consider locating a new facility within walking distance of real charm to be "building" charm. (In which case the new Allegheny County Jail is quite charming.)

Like I said over and over, I don't have any real beef with SSW and The Waterfront. I go there. For certain things. In fact, when my mom comes down we make sure to go. We're from a small town and she very rarely has a chance to go to places like Target and Loews. So off we go to Target and Loews.

Does it detract from The Waterfront that we don't go there for, say, Mongolian barbecue? Does it detract from The Waterfront that we don't go there for skeet shooting? Does it detract from The Waterfront that we don't go there for lessons on how to build a 15th century French trebuchet?

No. Of course not. Because The Waterfront was not designed as a Mongolian restaurant, a skeet range or a medieval armory. And if it was designed as those things we would have to call it a failure. Because it doesn't deliver those things. Just like it doesn't deliver charm.

It was designed as a reasonably upscale shopping and residential district. Which it is.

I am fine with it being that. And I will have to be fine with downtown being whatever it becomes. But when it does come I will be shocked if my first (or even 20th) impression of the place is, "Damn. look at all this character and charm they managed to build."

Honestly. Do you really expect to say that? And keep in mind I am not asking if you will like it or accept it or recommend it to your friends or support public money to build it. What I am asking is: Do you really think that what they build will have charm?

I would be really shocked if you do.

sean mcdaniel

so, let's all do something constructive instead of beating up each other. let's tell bobby o and danny o and whoever else makes decisions that we want class and style and diversity in downtown. Sam, i responded to j. barnes recent post that you can find of stuff downtown that isn't processed. I also offered to take him on a tour so he could see all that first hand...so, if you want to sign on for the ride, let me know. jp, the invite's open to you too. a lot of charm is already there. if you venture into downtown and know where to look.

for some clarification...

there's a sentence in my previous post that should read:

Sam, i responded to j. barnes recent post that you can find lots of stuff downtown that isn't processed charm.

Jack Urbani

I think the charm comes from an intangible mix and compromise between old and new. The Baltimore situation has me baffled. It is a fine city and we could learn a lot, not just from it's success tho. I haven't been there in years so it may have changed, but what I remember is, the harbor emptied the store fronts of the rest of the surrounding area.
As for kitch, it brings me to San Francisco. There seems to be a restriction that forces all new buildings to utilize the facades of the older existing buildings downtown. What I saw was a strange conglomeration of gleaming towers sprouting from behind the old ornate facades. It was a clever compromise but it doesn't seem to be having the affect intended. It turned those old buildings' facades to plastic. This is what I expect from the development along Fifth. These buildings should have never been bought by the city, but there we are. Fifth Avenue could have had the charm of an older district but that was ended when the city destroyed some of the best to accommodate Lazarus.
I think we will have to take some of the good with the bad and maybe that IS what constitutes charm. Perhaps we will need to spread some manure to generate some "organic" growth

last chaos gold

that was ended when the city destroyed some of the best to accommodate Lazarus.
I think we will have to take some of the good with the bad and maybe

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