Friday, August 21, 2009

Cheapened by the nosebleed view?

If you want evidence that the economy of the Pittsburgh metro area has long been in the doldrums, you can use any variety of studies: year-to-year changes in GDP provided by the Bureau Economic of Analysis; job growth patterns there in relation to the rest of the US by the Bureau of Labor Statistics; the correlation of economic health to net population growth with figures provided by the US Census Bureau….or you can just use your eyes.

For those who don’t know the topography of Pittsburgh, it is fair to say it is one of the most dramatically hilly cities in the US outside of San Francisco. The original Fort Pitt stood at the terminus point of the Ohio River, where it diverges into the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, like a fork in the road. Today this location, known colloquially as the Golden Triangle, comprises downtown Pittsburgh. Though I never was there to witness the “before” scenario, it has apparently witnessed a remarkable transformation—a beautification by most metrics. Gone are the steel mills that dominated the tip of the Triangle after the collapse of the industry in the 1970s and 1980s; in replacement is the verdure of Point State Park. While the Golden Triangle is relatively flat, it is sandwiched between two majestic bluffs on the opposite sides of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, which at some points, are so steep that pedestrian access is essentially impossible. (Cars often have to wind their way up the hill through lateral arcs or bypass the bluffs altogether though tunnels.)

Atop the bluff south of downtown is a neighborhood overlooking the Monongahela River; both the bluff and its associated neighborhood are called Mount Washington. From the perspective of a person in the Golden Triangle, this is what it looks like:

To the right in the second photo (and central in the first photo) is a funicular railway just across the river, known broadly and locally as the Duquesne Incline, which allows pedestrian access to the top of Mount Washington, in which, clearly, a number of houses lean precariously on the edge, capitalizing on the august view. At their peak in the late 19th century, Pittsburgh had nearly two dozen inclines; now the city has two, and the Duquesne is popular among tourists. While riding the incline upwards, passengers understandably gain an increasingly panoramic perspective of the city center, so at the top they are treated with this lookout point:

A few more, to show the density of the Pittsburgh skyline as it fronts the Monongahela, with its numerous bridges:

Returning to the ground level photos, one can easily see from the housing on Mount Washington that at least two large condo buildings have taken advantage of the view, which is understandable.

While some people can very legitimately claim that such edifices are a blot to the landscape, just as many will see a development opportunity for residents seeking a view. However, these two multifamily buildings are an exception rather than the rule. Up there in the Mount Washington neighborhood, just a little down the road from the lookout point, are houses such as this, also benefiting from the view:

This house, too, is an outlier—most in the area don’t appear so downtrodden. But, judging from the graying color of the plywood, those boards on the windows in the lower level aren’t recent. The very fact that even a single house looks like this in what should be extremely desirable real estate by virtue of the view alone is an indicator of the profundity of Pittsburgh’s economic malaise. Walking around the Mount Washington neighborhood away from the overlook (and thus deprived of the view) is a generally well-kept but hardly affluent community.

Our impression of the neighborhood from views of front porches and patronizing a local deli was that it was dominated by elderly white people. Nothing wrong with that. But think of this view transposed to San Francisco or Seattle; it would have been dominated by ultrawealthy yuppies or baby boomers walking their dogs, maybe pushing children in strollers. These pictures were taken in 2006; perhaps the neighborhood has become a hot commodity in the ensuing years, in which case a Pittsburgher could easily refute my argument.

But that dilapidated house—with fenestration clearly intended to absorb the spectacle of the Pittsburgh skyline—burns in my memory. Even in 2006 that would not have happened in a city with a robust economy; it would have never happened, and Mount Washington wouldn’t remain sleepy, geriatric, and lower middle class.

One could easily accuse me of being unfair here—of failing to take into account the complex socioeconomic forces that have shaped Pittsburgh into the consummate Rust Belt city, with a subsequent recovery that, while undeniably aesthetically improved, has failed to stimulate any subsequent job growth. Perhaps I’m indirectly being a shill for gentrification. No, I am not offering a very sensitive urban analysis. But I am trying to think like a realtor. (And if that sounds like a dig toward realtors, I’m also trying to think like a homebuyer.) Realtors and buyers often have cosmetic priorities that scarcely penetrate the nuances of a neighborhood’s cultural history: I mean, who cares?! It offers a killer view! If the neighborhood really is filled with senior citizens, then it probably doesn’t have a high crime rate, and it looked clean, even if most of the homes could benefit from a renovation. For many with the disposable income to buy a home solely because of the view, these attributes may suffice. The multifamily buildings mentioned before seem relatively isolated and sequestered from the neighborhood around it: perhaps the demographics of these condo-dwellers are so radically different from the long-term residents of the simple homes that they have completely failed to generate any dialogue with one another. At any rate, Mount Washington isn’t saturated with such structures, so clearly few enterprising developers have jumped on board—these two buildings may very well have inordinately high vacancy levels.

This worm’s eye view, which evaluates prime real estate that has failed to ignite, undeniably paints the economic scenario with a broad brush. But such a view comes closer than any bird’s eye statistical analysis to capturing the palpable economic reality of this distinctive, often beautiful but ailing city. A city with the topography of Pittsburgh undoubtedly offers numerous opportunities for spectacular views. But so does San Francisco, and any home such as the one seen above would easily fetch $2 million, if Pittsburgh had San Francisco’s change in GDP, or its job growth, or internal in-migration, et cetera.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why does Oakland, CA have some of the nation's highest crime rates? According to a recent Rand McNally study, it has the finest weather in the country. In healthier, more progressive metro areas, like Seattle, Portland, or NYC, Oakland would be filled with yuppies and trustafarians looking to take advantage of the bay views and beautiful sunshine.

Paz said...

This is actually a fairly astute reaction. And I can see where you're coming from. But I'm not sure the scenic vista enough is able to carry the city. In many places, the scenic vistas have been luxurious locales for decades. In Pittsburgh, Mt. Washington was formerly known as Coal Hill, the spot were many of the German factory workers lived for well over a hundred years. Considering the blanket of smog that covered the area for so long, it was never a particularly attractive locale. Even today I would say that transportation options are not as available to Mt. Washington as they are to many other parts of the city, particularly the East End.Plus, for so

I don't necessarily see it as a bad thing for the city that one of the most beautiful neighborhoods is a regular middle class kind of place. I find it endearing to think that even with this fabulous view, it's got a sleepy, average vibe to it.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks Paz. It sounds like you know the history of the neighborhood far better than I do. My analysis was never meant to be a criticism of the neighborhood or Pittsburgh as a whole. My impression of the area is that it did feel strangely isolated, even as I could see a greater expanse of metro Pittsburgh than in many of the more "networked" neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill or Shadyside. Clearly scenic vistas aren't enough to elevate Mt. Washington or Pittsburgh. However, Cincinnati is another city with great views and an economic laggard (though not so severely as Pittsburgh), yet the lofty Mt. Adams neighborhood, however small it may be, remains a premier place to live, as well as a leisure destination for its restaurants and shops.

Paula said...

Great analysis! I lived in Mt. Washington from 1970-73, and it was then, also, white, sleepy, safe, and a bargain.

Even then, there was always presumed to be a yuppie-esque boom "about to happen" that never quite did. Hanging out with friends at the hot dog shop on a main shopping street, we saw obviously wealthy people looking speculatively at the funky old taverns and storefronts, but 30 years later, it's still not Soho of the Steel City, apparently.

You're one of the very, very few commentators who get that much of Pittsburgh's much-lauded "renaissance" is kind of hollow. It's my hometown and I love it, but I don't see the miraculous evolution others do. I see plenty of shrinkage and sadness, as you do.

Anonymous said...

The vacant house featured in your photographs has been replaced by a condo building this year.

Indy_to_Pittsburgh said...

I wouldn't use the somewhat underwhelming condition of Mt. Washington as a proxy for the region's economic health.

There have been many condo projects delayed and scuttled on Mt. Washington due to the histrionics of anti-development residents.

However, progress is coming... such as the aforementioned condo replacing your vacant house... which was sitting there for years because development was stalled by petty lawsuits by NIMBYs. A semi-upscale housing development is taking place on the "backside" of the neighborhood (no views!)... and a cliffside mixed-use tower (hotel, condos, retail) will begin construction near the Monongahela Incline soon. Even the small business district on Shiloh St. has upgraded since you left.

GeneW said...

Re-emphasizing what previous coments said, the local community is notorious for blocking projects. I don't know how many big hotel or condo proposals I've read about over the last twenty years that never got approval. For me, the fact that the neighborhood is still so homey is a feature, not a bug. I'd hate to see what unrestrained development would do to Grandview Ave.

It's worth mentioning too that Mt. Washington has a lot of undermining from dozens of old coal mining operations making large buildings tricky to engineer.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the updates. That picture is by now three years old, and, as I indicated in my post, I figured it was a matter of time before it either renovated or replaced by something more extravagant. Interesting to know that highly localized politics might have stymied some of the development. For the condo projects that are already there, does anyone know if they have high occupancy levels? Have there been any indications of tension between the long-term residences of the houses nearby and condo newcomers? I'm curious if anything else has provoked the NIMBY reaction beyond a desire to stop development perceived as elitist and soulless for monopolizing the view.

I am certainly not arguing that the entire bluff should morph into high-rise affluence, but I do have a concern that, given Pittsburgh's continued metro population decline, the largely elderly residents of the houses nearby will struggle to find sellers for their houses if the Mt. Washington neighborhood demonstrates a continued resistance to any outside influences. The fact that developments, particularly small ones, are now taking place on the "neighborhood" side of the hill seems promising. Any Pittsburghers with updates or new observations, please keep them coming.

JRoth said...

Local opposition is driven by various factors, but I'd say the most salient are fear of congestion - there's no good circulation routes through the neighborhood, so the tourists who already come up there bog things down; presumptively, another high-rise condo would only add to the effect* - and traditional NIMBYism.

As you note, the neighborhood itself is not at all posh - there's no reason that it should be, as its only real amenity is a view that exists along precisely one street. So you've got a neighborhood full of regular, working class people who see no benefit in the addition of new highrises, and who fear negative change. I'm not convinced that they should get the veto that they evidently have, but I don't see anything unusual about their position.

* Note that this is a fallacy - far more cars come for the view or the restaurants than will ever come and go from a 40 (or whatever) unit condo. But laymen don't understand this.

JRoth said...

Speaking of fallacies:

As has already been noted, views in Pittsburgh are cheap - quite literally. The traditional development pattern along all the rivers was: mills on the riverfronts; poorest worker housing and commercial districts in the floodplains; nicer housing as you go up the hills, away from flooding and smoke; then, in the highest hills, the worst housing, as it was farthest from employment and amenities. So you have a city with many view-rich hilltops and virtually no amenity- or housing-rich hilltops. It's no surprise at all that none of the hilltops have become wealthy enclaves.

There is some truth the statement that, in a really thriving city, one or more of these hilltops might have become gentrified. But the housing stock doesn't support the normal course of gentrification - I can't think of a single neighborhood with really good views and housing stock that would attract urban pioneers and investors.

A partial list of Pittsburgh neighborhoods with great views and cheap housing:

Mt. Washington
South Side Slopes
Hill District
Polish Hill
Troy Hill
Spring Hill
Greenfield

Tom Mc said...

People in Pittsburgh have long memories. People of Pittsburgh worked hard at their trade, but they could get a $18/hour job pushing a broom at the mill up until 1980. It was not until this time that anyone really needed an college education to make a decent living. This does not breed blind ambition.

As for real-esate, I have a co-worker that bought one of the new condos built above the Mexican war streets around Perry hilltop or Observatory hill. The complex had a landslide and they have been battling it out with the state, builder and insurance companies. Most insurance companies will not insure some for landslides or mine subsidence. The state of PA is or was looking into a fund to create full coverage landside insurance. This might help in some of these areas. GeneW and Jroth are correct for other reasons.

Another issue is the older folks. People do not like to move around here. Old folks don't sell their houses they die in them. Their kids from DC, NYC, SF, Chic ... come into clean out and sell the house thinking that they will get Big Metro prices. They put them on the market and they sit and rot more.

The growth in PIT has not changed. It starts with industry and blooms from there. Oakland with PITT, CMU, Carlow, etc along with the hospitals are the industry and people live and redevelop around the industry. South Side has Duquesne U student from the bluff, flat land and predominant main street to build from. The South Side Works is mixed use and blends fairly well with the old neighborhood.

The place I am still amazed has not comeback is the Northside. Manchester in particular. I lived there for 4 years when I moved here in 1998. The gangs and gun play are as bad as NJ or Philly, but enough to keep people out.

Anonymous said...

I was born in Pittsburgh and moved away in 1976. I like returning and not seeing more condos built on Mt Washington. It would look cluttered when looking across the river from the North Side. You have to be born in Pittsburgh to understand this. I do think they should fix up the houses that are not on the hillside. This is not CA where property is so expensive and we wouldn't want to wish that on Pittsburgh.