A Pittsburgh past perpetually prologue

A Pittsburgh past perpetually prologue

One of the pieces of headline news in Pittsburgh as of late has been that government officials now have a grand plan to help convert supposedly long-in-the tooth “old” office space in the Golden Triangle into living space.

What appears to be the possibly permanent fallout from the coronavirus pandemic – fewer workers doing their jobs in these spaces and, instead, doing them remotely – represents a golden opportunity to re-purpose things.

Or so we are told.

Of course, if it’s such the grand plan, why is government proposing that taxpayer dollars – the current sum being tossed around is $9 million — be used, in part, to “juice” such conversions?

Rest assured, proponents will rationalize that this bolus of money comes from federal coffers. As if those aren’t still taxpayer dollars.

You’ll recall that more than a decade or so back, Pittsburgh “leaders” finally declared the Era of Revitalizing the Golden Triangle with Big Box Anchor Retailers to be over (although everybody else knew it to be over years ago).

But that came with the same bad-news caveat: Pittsburgh officials still suffered from the fatal conceit that government can command the marketplace to serve its vision du jour.

The 12-year tenure of former Mayor Tom Murphy was a textbook example of Command Economics Failure 101. Think Lord & Taylor. Think Lazarus. Think stadiums.

Think of almost bulldozing a large swath of the triangle. Think of all of us “naysayers” who had the temerity to call out such publicly financed highwaymannery.

He was followed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who offered that city government’s role was to create an “urban village” atmosphere, offering amenities and an ambiance not to be found in the suburbs.

That might be all well and good — in theory. But it remained a government central plan, one that by the very nature of government central planning is doomed to failure — and, again, usually on the backs of taxpayers and to the perversion of the marketplace.

Having the 21st-century iteration of the 18th-century butcher, baker and candlestick maker certainly is attractive — if it develops naturally and, dare the word be used, organically.

Think of the Strip District and the South Side (sans the Southside Works) or even Bloomfield and Brookline, for that matter.

And while the Ravenstahl plan fizzled pretty much before it got started, we were still left with big-ticket taxpayer-funded facilities – among them, those sports venues and big bank skyscrapers – that did nothing to bring any kind of new “renaissance.”

Just look at Pittsburgh’s stagnant population and jobs numbers since then.

But, hey, after the tenure of Mayor Bill Peduto, we do have bike lanes that make motor vehicle travel more difficult.

And after a series of school superintendents, with this five-year plan and that five-year plan, we have ever-failing (and most recently, even more declining) public schools. The cost per pupil? Ridiculously high.

And after decades of dysfunction piled on top of dysfunction, we have a mass-transit system that is so overly expensive that its leadership seeks to hide the lie that the system is not sustainable by doubling down and proposing expanding it.

And with inequities growing and growing, and Band-Aids no longer sticking to the open and oozing wound, a badly broken property assessment system has become nearly impossible to navigate.

And now, on top of surely unconstitutional attempts to command “affordable” housing – which will lead to less of it at a higher cost – now comes government, again, with its high-rise conversion intervention.

We can only hazard to guess what new mess awaits us.

And we’ve barely scratched the surface.

But all such interventionism does is embolden successor “know betterers” to ply their perverted trade in what appears to be a never-ending attempt to deliver a Potemkin Pittsburgh – rickety foundations on which façade after façade are shoddily constructed.

Indeed, government can – and must – facilitate growth, not by attempting to command the marketplace but by getting out of the way. It’s a lesson pol after pol would have been wise to heed.

But, conceited as they are that they “know better” and can command and control the marketplace – a hubris fueled with your money — they have not. And they likely never will.

It’s a point whose past appears to be perpetually prologue.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).