Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Master (Planning)s of the Universe (-ity)

It is with heady anticipation that I opened my media kit from Point Park University to see what the architectural wizards over at WTW Architects came up with. Over all, it's not a bad plan for an "academic village" which includes the acquisition of the existing YMCA building, acquisition of several more properties along Forbes Avenue (across the street from the Piatt development), and a mess of public improvements to the streets, sidewalks, and trees.

Now, I've seen more than my fair share of institutional Master Plans, and frankly it is rare that any of them actually come completely to fruition. It is always more likely that bits and pieces of these plans are realized as the first shot is usually exceptionally pretty, but short on practicalities. Indeed, there are some hurdles to overcome in this one too.

The big question, of course, is what this all means to the future of Downtown. With the Government/Corporate corridor to the East and the Cultural District to the North, there is a real chance here to fill in that big, vacant hole in the middle of Downtown.

Setting the built environment aside, however, there is the proposition that Universities can be economic development engines. This seems more true, however, for schools like Pitt and CMU that can churn out spinoffs in Biotech and IT, rather than PPU which can churn out Liberal Arts majors.

Not that there's anything wrong with Liberal Arts majors -- some of my favorite baristas have degrees in Native American Literature or Political Philosophy -- but can a horde of conservatory and media studies students be a motor for economic development downtown? Well, surely for necessities, amenities and some residential, but can the University attract industrial clusters that build on regional assets and help to generate sustainable job growth? I honestly don't know the answer to that question.

Moving on: from the City's side, there's still no confirmation that there is any public support coming to this project. That may be a detail, however, as it might be simply a matter of undertaking public improvements in tandem with the University's plans. Or, it could be an upgrade that the University might want to contract with the City on.

The funny thing is, however, that PPU is, as all not-for-profits are around here, tax exempt. Physical improvements to properties will raise the value of the buildings, but will not raise additional tax revenue for the City. This becomes a more pressing issue for the properties around Fifth & Forbes, which seem to account for at least a couple parcels of the Master Plan, and for which the City and its affiliates paid a good chunk of change. The expectation, of course, is that these properties were eventually to be returned to productive (i.e. taxpaying) use. Should PPU be looking at snagging some of these sites, one has to question the rationale of picking up these properties in the first place.

Or maybe we're past that point already.

So mixed bag all around, I suppose... but at least they had the good sense to put the Student Union two doors down from the all night, XXX peep show place. THAT'S good planning right there.

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