Downtown’s Problems Demonstrate the Need for Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh

If the Golden Triangle wants to thrive again, it needs to add neighbors, not office spaces.
Dave Cole 3 Resized


Last week, Mayor Ed Gainey announced plans to dramatically increase police presence Downtown.

In response to recent, high-profile acts of violence, the Mayor proposed a threefold increase in the number of officers within the Golden Triangle. While it remains to be seen when such a change would take effect — and how, considering an ongoing staffing issue within the police bureau — a short-term solution such as this may indeed be warranted, if deployed carefully.

Gainey also announced very welcome community-focused efforts, such as safety training sessions and increased trash pickup. These are good steps — the sort of endeavors that, bit by bit, increase the sense of security in an urban neighborhood.

At best, though, all these initiatives treat symptoms. The cause is more complex.

As has been extensively covered, Downtown has changed considerably since the pandemic began; while cultural institutions and civic events have persisted, foot traffic is yet to return to pre-2020 levels and many restaurants and businesses have shuttered or changed hands. The effects are varied and layered; in short, though, the Golden Triangle doesn’t operate how it used to. Patterns of activity are different; hours are different; habits are different.

Most important: There’s a lot of space that isn’t being used. And one particular type of space is of particular concern.

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership keeps an eye on how well the neighborhood is recovering since the depths of the pandemic closures. Three years in, visitor activity — those coming Downtown for a meal or a show — is beginning to approach pre-COVID numbers. Visitors to Market Square in December 2022 were at 72% of December 2019 levels; guests at Cultural District venues reached 84% of December 2019 numbers. There’s still ground to make up, but the recovery has continued at a good clip in these areas.

Residents, too, are coming back. Occupancy rates of Golden Triangle apartments are within a few percentage points of what they were pre-pandemic, reversing a significant exodus in 2020. (Counting “Greater Downtown,” a designation that includes areas such as the North Shore and the Strip District, the recovery is almost total.)

Residents have returned; visitors have returned. So who hasn’t?

In December 2019, about 70,000 employees came Downtown on a daily basis to go to work. Three years later, that number had dropped to less than 34,000 — more than half of Downtown’s workforce still isn’t back. The result is that only 20% of Downtown office buildings are regularly occupied by employees — for every five office spaces in the Golden Triangle, four aren’t being used much, if at all.

Both sets of numbers — total employees coming Downtown and the percentage of offices being used — continue to climb, slowly. There’s reason to believe that the recovery is not yet complete; two or three years from now, there will likely be more people coming Downtown to work.

At this point, though, we can dispense with the notion that we’re ever returning to pre-pandemic levels.

The pandemic proved that, in the 2020s, a great number of jobs can be done from home with no meaningful impact on productivity — and, according to some measures, an increase in employee happiness and well-being. Among office jobs that can never be fully remote, the antiquated notion that workers must be physically present for 40 hours of each week has been shattered; that was never a good way to structure a work environment, and now we have the experience to prove it.

Expecting a full return to work in the Golden Triangle is not only unrealistic, it’s unnecessary; that’s simply not how we do business anymore. Some fraction of that 80% of Downtown offices that currently sit empty will never see workers again. And studies have repeatedly shown that crime and violence increase in urban areas where more properties are vacant — a fact that does not just reference residential vacancy, but business vacancy as well.

If Downtown is to address concerns over violence, the neighborhood should evolve, and that will inevitably involve finding better uses for all those empty buildings.

So: What do we do with them?

Well, I just searched for Downtown apartments, and I didn’t see anything with an actual bedroom under about $1,500. I also saw patently absurd listings such as “$2,750, 1 Bedroom” and “$3,100, 930 square feet.”

If many of those vacant office buildings want a future that doesn’t involve a wrecking ball, a lot of them are going to be converted to housing. And if Downtown actually wants a thriving, vibrant neighborhood, that housing should be affordable. Obviously, Downtown rents are always going to be a bit higher — although I’d caution developers that, eventually, someone is gonna ask why — and I know that the days of scoring a sturdy old house in Pittsburgh for about $800 a month have been inflated away.

That doesn’t mean that working Pittsburghers should be priced out of living Downtown — particularly when Downtown desperately needs more people around.

It’d take a concerted effort between owners, developers and city government, but we can have a Golden Triangle where people actually want to live — and can afford to make it a reality. There’s no reason it can’t happen; there’s every reason to make it happen.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly