Friday, September 23, 2005

Lazarus, Garfield and Managing Decline

'And the dead shall rise to eternal life,' so sayeth the faithful to the jeering sneers of athiests. Athiests have a point: no one has seen the dead rise, thus why should we expect something that is seemingly impossible to happen again?

Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood, set on the southern face of Mt. Garfield, is far from dead. Thanks in large part to Bloomfield Garfield Corp., Garfield thrives inspite of serious socio-economic undercurrents, blight and disinvestment. Coffee shops, bars and theatres serve a multi-cultural clientele on Penn Avenue, as new housing rises deep in the neighborhood. Resurgent Garfield, given up for dead in the 1980's, sends the city-planning athiest back to question his lack of faith. But Garfield's progress still stands in the shadow of Pittsburgh's bleak demographic trends: there are fewer Pittsburghers every year, and we're sprawling out over an increasingly large geographic area. Are we rebuilding our cities and bringing more people in, or are we just moving people around town?

Today, a 1960's senior highrise joined East Liberty's towers in the dustbin of planning history. The Housing Authority, apparently a bastion of the faithful, wants to resurrect this isolated site with 'mixed income for-sale and rental housing.' Bordered on 3 sides by Allegheny Cemetery, on the 4th by a wholly depopulated neighborhood, completely undermined and partially reclaimed by nature, such a housing development is the anthesis of strategic development. It will not aid housing values in Garfield, it needlessly competes with other urban housing without adding value, and will not spur further invesment in nearby neighborhoods. Worst yet, this "if we build it, they will come" attitude ignores demographic realities. A large stand-alone project like this will likely not even sustain itself. Building on top of isolated Mt. Garfield was a mistake in 1960, rectified with today's demolition. Why make the mistake again with even less people to fill it in 2005?

Mt. Garfield should be converted back to woodland, and investment should work to bring more people back into the older Garfield neighborhood on the slope. New housing on vacant lots in Garfield would encourage existing residents to reinvest in their properties and build a contextual, sustainable community close to shopping, bus lines and more people! Such a plan will increase density in Garfield, creating a more vibrant neighborhood. As for undermined, abandoned Mt. Garfield; lets make it into a park or arboretum. Buildings are not necessarily the best, highest use for land: close proximity to greenspace will increase land values and quality of life for Garfield's residents.

We need to start managing decline in a sane, market-driven manner: building housing that benefits our neighborhoods, not just itself. It might sound like blasphemy to the faithful, but some of the dead need to stay in their graves.

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