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Pittsburgh's ex-mayor tells Utahns what communities need to thrive

Published June 1, 2014 7:07 pm

Urban planning • He shared with Utahns his experiences in helping revitalize the city.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy likes to recite the tale of Horatio Nelson Jackson in advising local government officials to be forward thinking if they want their communities to thrive.

An early advocate of automobiles when horse-and-buggy rigs still reigned supreme, Jackson and a partner won a bet in 1903 against skeptics by traveling across the country in a car (despite nonexistent roads in some places) faster than anyone expected.

In doing so, Jackson helped fuel America's love affair with the automobile. One undesirable consequence of that was urban sprawl as cars enabled people to live in the suburbs and commute to work.

But, as in Jackson's day, the times are changing again, said Murphy, now a senior fellow in urban development at the Urban Land Institute, which promotes sustainable land use and real-estate development. The institute's Utah chapter brought Murphy to Salt Lake City last week to share his experiences in helping revitalize Pittsburgh and suggest what other cities can do to make themselves more desirable.

"We're there now," he said. "We're sitting there with Horatio Nelson Jackson looking at the world changing before our eyes."

And just as Jackson took a challenge and helped lead the world into the automobile age, city officials must have a vision and display the leadership to bring it about if they want their communities to flourish in this fast-changing world, Murphy said.

"The role of the city," he added, "is to understand how you get things to happen."

Murphy had spent 14 years in Pennsylvania's Legislature before becoming Pittsburgh's mayor in 1994, eventually serving three terms.

The Steel City's economy had improved some since hitting rock bottom in 1993, when unemployment reached 22 percent and the city was losing 50,000 residents a year. But there was still a long way to go, he said.

One of the first keys was to build partnerships between governments and businesses to clean up the water, land and air pollution left behind by the dormant steel mills that once fueled the city's economy.

Then, Murphy said, closer ties were forged with the city's universities — primarily Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. They became the economic engines of recovery, producing graduates desirable to firms looking to move into Pittsburgh to be close to employee talent pools.

"The universities helped build an entrepreneurial culture we historically didn't have," Murphy said.

At the same time, Pittsburgh and surrounding cities created transit-oriented developments and tapped tax-increment financing — two tools used by Utah's economic-development community — to transform industrial-waste sites into mixed-use projects, with plenty of housing for those young graduates who want to live close to downtown and not in the suburbs.

"People are making different choices than they did, even 10 years ago, about where they want to live," he said, encouraging city officials to pay attention to "the young people who will drive your economy in the future."

To make Pittsburgh a more desirable place to live and work, Murphy said, the city helped build ballparks for the Steelers football team and the Pirates baseball team, developed a "green" convention center and recaptured its waterfront.

"We had less than one mile of waterfront access in 1991. Now we have 30 miles," he added, noting the riverfront trail system is heavily used.

To really make it work, though, cities have to avoid falling prey to "it'll do disease," Murphy said, his characterization of officials being so development-happy they'll accept anything, even if it's architecturally inconsistent with everything around it.

Sometimes, he added, cities must be tough and say no to developers who want to infringe on, for instance, a river corridor — even if projects promise to build a city's tax base.

"You should be driven by a vision and not an attraction," Murphy said. "Somebody needs to be the grown-up and take the big look at what's best for the community."

mikeg@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribmikeg —

Tom Murphy

Mayor of Pittsburgh, 1994-2005.

Member of Pennsylvania Legislature, 1979-93

Now a senior fellow in urban development at the Urban Land Institute

While mayor, Murphy helped secure more than $4.5 billion in economic development for Pittsburgh, including $1 billion for two sports stadiums. The city also turned 1,000 acres of blighted industrial properties into commercial, residential, retail and public spaces.