Father Pitt

Why should the beautiful die?

Former Lazarus Department Store

There is some sort of lesson in this building, and if it were possible to figure out what it is, we could all learn the lesson and never make a wrong decision again.

Briefly, the story is this: Lazarus bought Horne’s, one of the last independent department-store chains in America, and for a short time operated out of the old Horne’s building. But Mayor Murphy (a man whom Father Pitt considers the progenitor of most of the good things that have happened in Pittsburgh in the last two decades, but a man who also made a few mistakes) had a grand plan to rebuild Fifth Avenue completely into a new retail district that would draw suburbanites back downtown. Somehow Lazarus was persuaded to build an entirely new store here, which opened to much fanfare in 1998.

Mayor Murphy’s plan was ultimately scuttled by various forces, including preservationists; but the long uncertainty emptied all the tenants out of what had been one of the country’s busiest retail streets. (The uncertainty was not alone to blame, of course: Mayor Murphy’s drastic plan was in response to an already pronounced drop in downtown retail business.) Five and a half years after it opened, the new Lazarus closed, and Fifth Avenue below Kaufmann’s (now Macy’s) was practically deserted.

What lesson do we learn here? Certain conservative think tanks preached the lesson that government involvement in redevelopment never works. Plainly that is false; Pittsburgh can point to dozens of examples where similar public-private partnerships have flourished. Whether it is a good idea for the government to do those things is a completely different question, and one we can happily debate forever; but the failure of Lazarus does not disprove government.

So what is the lesson?

Perhaps the lesson, in this as in so many other things, is that timing is everything. The new Lazarus was going up just as Pittsburgh’s department-store-based retail district was floundering—and it was floundering because department stores themselves were floundering. There is not a big city in the United States that did not lose department stores in the years around the turn of the twenty-first century; yet somehow the retail planners convinced themselves that downtown Pittsburgh could happily support four huge department stores. If Lazarus had held out in the old building another ten years, though, what might have happened? By 2008 the downtown revival was definitely on the way; now downtown is crowded with suburbanites on weekends, and the crowds tend to collect around the Diamond and the Cultural District—both very near the old Horne’s.

Well, we’ll never know. But this particular building, though it failed as a department store, is a very attractive addition to the urban landscape; so it is cheering to report that it is now home to restaurants, offices, shops, and some apartments in the upper floors. Fifth Avenue is coming back.

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