Pittsburgh is getting two new stadiums, a much larger convention center, a serious makeover along Forbes and Fifth avenues and new buildings for corporate Pittsburgh.
But is that enough to push the Pittsburgh region into this high-technology-driven New Economy?
Not according to Richard Florida, H. John Heinz III professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon Universitys Heinz School of Public Policy and Management. He says most business, civic and government leaders are neglecting what he considers the most critical neighborhood of the city: Oakland.
Florida, who may be considered among the most influential academics in the country when it comes to studying the new, knowledge-based economy, cut his teeth regionally when he and another CMU professor, with direction from then-CMU President Robert Mehrabian, authored the almost-legendary White Paper on the regions economy in the early 1990s. That document became the first of many in-depth studies that would drive the region toward a more high-tech-oriented, entrepreneurial economy.
But while most leaders continue to focus on downtown Pittsburgh, Florida, young and unabashedly opinionated, has emerged on the proverbial soapbox to become a virtual lone crusader in a quest to turn Oakland into the high-tech mecca he believes it should be. The regions future, he stresses, depends on it.
SBN magazine recently caught up with this crusading professor to find out why he feels so strongly about Oakland and its place in propelling the regions New Economy. Heres what he had to say:
SBN magazine: Why is Oakland such an important area on which to focus?
Richard Florida: Oakland is really the major employment center of the region, with downtown. Its the center for education, with several major universities. Its the center for technology in the sense that virtually all of the federal research and development dollars that go into the region go through Oakland.
Its the entrepreneurial engine, the center of innovation. Its the place where many of the people who are starting businesses come from. And its strategically placed, as one of the hubs of the knowledge or digital triangle, from downtown to the Strip District, up the Allegheny and down across the Mon. You can see an expansion of the Golden Triangle into a knowledge triangle in which Oakland plays a strategic role.
Then whats wrong with Oakland?
Ill sum it up in a word, and Ill quote the conversation I had with a waitress. This student was a young woman who had come back to Pittsburgh from the University of South Carolina in Charleston. She loved being at the University of Pittsburgh, she said, except for one thing: Oakland is a hole, quote, unquote. I have to step over bums on my way to class.
I think that was OK in an era where a university education was kind of a finishing school or capstone achievement on the way to working in a downtown corporate complex, or in a hospital or law firm in a downtown area. But the New Economy is all centered around university complexes or university districts, whether its Palo Alto, Calif., or Kendall Square at MIT or Harvard Square at Harvard.
So you dont find Oakland quaint?
It doesnt have the look and feel of a high-technology economy. We will know Pittsburgh has made it into the ranks of one of the nations premier high-technology districts when it has the look and feel when Oakland has the look and feel of a high-technology center. That means it has to have the same kind of energy and buzz and hipness and excitement that infuses these dynamic high-tech companies and which infuses the areas around these major universities that are generating new high-technology companies.
Give me an example of the look and feel that you describe.
We have a real advantage. In the past, high-tech wasnt quite suburban, but it was a more sanitized look and feel. Now the leading high-technology districts, the places where the innovative things are going on, are very industrial, very gritty, very funky. Theyre going to old warehouse neighborhoods, theyre renovating loft buildings. Its technology industrial chic.
Oakland has that in abundance. So Oakland doesnt have to try to be like downtown Palo Alto or even the quaintness of Harvard Square. What Oakland has is the look and feel of a major university district, with a little bit of technology and industrial funkiness and grittiness. If anything, its quite a bit too gritty.
But it has all of the elements: being in a major industrial city, having wonderful historic buildings, historic places. Things like the PAA and the University Club are enormously important potential additions. Can you imagine a PAA which was the recreational center or health club center for a thriving technology complex? Its just the kind of place technology people want to be. They no longer want to be in a generic place.
Given your description of Oakland, would you say its a far cry from where it needs to be, or that its being neglected?
If you think about Pittsburgh historically, we made a decision in the years following World War II to rebuild our downtown, not just because we wanted to rebuild downtown, but because we had a talent attraction problem. We couldnt get management and technical talent to work in the big companies because downtown was smoke-filled and flooding and filthy dirty and had bad transportation. It had all of these old industrial buildings.
So we cleared all of that out, implemented these pioneering flood-control measures and created the point, starting to build this wonderful downtown. Thats all important, but we havent moved beyond that.
The New Economy is an economy of neighborhoods. Its an economy which is no longer as centered around downtowns. The New Economy takes place in high-technology companies that might be in lofts in old industrial buildings that are certainly centered around universities. Pittsburgh has this enormous asset called Oakland. Oakland needs the attention that downtown has gotten in the past, but in a different way.
We need to get the small things right. We need what you might call an urban design strategy. We need to make sure Oakland is funky and hip and cool, that it has the kinds of restaurants and eating establishments and performance venues that people want to be at. We need to make sure its with the times not locked in the 70s. And it has a lot of that Atwood Street in particular has a lot of that already going on.
We have to make sure Oakland is safe as safe as or safer than any of the other neighborhoods. We have to make sure Oakland is connected to the rest of the city, that it isnt just this isolated university neighborhood which is a throughway or parking lot for cars. Oakland desperately needs to be connected.
It has to be part of a transportation strategy. I think some of the major thoroughfares have to be closed to traffic. Look at the area around Harvard. Look how horrible it was. The Charles River was a muddy, sludgy little puddle, and it was filthy. And there was this old bus and train place where they just dumped the old buses and subway cars. What Cambridge and Boston did was decide to make it nice.
Not only did they create parks all along the Charles River, not only did they create bike trails, not only did they support many places where you could put in your sailboat or kayak and row in the morning and run along side it and picnic, they closed down Memorial Drive on the weekends. Now, Memorial Drive is a much more important traffic artery in Cambridge than Forbes and Fifth are in Pittsburgh. It is like the main traffic artery there is no other one and they see fit to close it on the weekends.
We in the city pride ourselves in the public safety of our citizens. The other thing we have to understand is our kids are getting hit by cars, knocked off their bikes, crashing into elderly people as they commute because they have no place to ride. We have to begin to think about a pedestrian-friendly, cycling-friendly, recreationally-friendly environment. We need to link the two universities seamlessly in a campus.
Oakland has to become a New Economy campus. It has to all be part of one claw. It all has to have that look and feel. That means closing down not only side streets but potentially closing off major traffic arteries and rerouting that traffic around Oakland.
Theres no excuse anymore. In the New Economy, people want to live and work in the same area. The people we want to attract do not want to have to be dependent on a car. The traffic problem in Oakland is a nightmare and it just has to be fixed if we to be a technology center.
If all of this needs to be changed and Oakland is to become a major high-tech center, why do you think regional leaders continue to focus on redeveloping downtown rather than Oakland?
The city has, for years, focused on downtown as the economic center, and for years, it was. But its not anymore. Its one of our economic centers. And this thing in Oakland has evolved, and it has evolved hidden away, squirreled away.
But none of these problems is new. It was the same way in the 1980s, so what has changed?
Oakland wasnt a technology center then. You can ignore an educational center and you can say that kids can live in run-down housing and visit second-level restaurants and go to bars and get drunk. But times have changed in two ways. One, university areas have become centers for technology incubation. So Oakland has to be thought of not only as a university district, but as a technology incubator district.
And the other thing is, the students have changed. The people who participate in these technology-based industries are not as night-life-oriented as people in the past were. A 10-cent beer doesnt cut it anymore. What they want is an interesting array of entertainment and lifestyle options, which revolve around interesting things to do and lots of outdoor activities.
Relative to the Pittsburgh Regional Alliances Look Here campaign on the bar coasters, were they sending the wrong message to those high-tech students?
Yes. I can tell you only that the students who participate in those industries believe those are the wrong messages. They also sense that a border guard is not the appropriate incentive the fact that someone is stopping them when they want to leave. Pittsburgh has to realize that it has to attract. Oakland has to be attractive. Young people cant go here to school and say, It was a great place to go to school, but Oakland is really horrible.
They have to want to stay here, and in order to make them want to stay here, its no longer a job. A job just doesnt cut it. They have to say, Man, this is a fun place to be, and man, it was great living in Oakland. And I can live here for a few more years until I move to the South Side or North Side or Shadyside or Squirrel Hill.
But kids are running away. The universities have to realize that we can up the enrollment and the quality of our students if Oakland is a better, more interesting, more youth-friendly, more attractive, more outdoor-oriented place to live because more kids will come.