Tom Murphy is the second-longest serving mayor of Pittsburgh (after David Lawrence).
He is noted for overseeing the difficult, but transformative transition of the city from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s during turbulent Downtown development cycles, an initially unpopular funding bid for two new waterfront stadiums, a new convention center (then the largest ‘green’ building in the U.S.) and investment in and development of 1,500 acres of land from abandoned steel mill sites to vacant houses. He built many miles of river trails and ran on them religiously.
“Public space can be the most democratic space in the city”
Mayor Murphy’s administration took a market-driven approach and downsized governmental departments. With the savings from downsizing, Tom created the visionary Pittsburgh Development Fund, a $60 million fund which he employed to leverage private real estate projects and investment all over the city. Public/private partnerships were key to this strategy. He was looking towards a future that not many others saw.
Struggling with outdated taxing structure regulated by the state, as well as state resistance to city growth through annexation, Mayor Murphy made hard decisions such as declaring a budget crisis and pushing through alternative funding sources such as a parking tax for commuters.
By the end of his tenure he had shepherded the city, kicking and screaming, onto a new track which led to it being held up as the model for urban transformation – a former industrial city reinvented as a biotech, medical, university and robotics hub. In 2008, the G-20 was staged in Pittsburgh, highlighting its transformation.
Mayor Murphy, who studied urban studies in college, also previously served as a state representative for the North Side, as a neighborhood organizer there, and between college and graduate school, in the Peace Corps.
Insights and Inspirations
- Tom focused on five things as mayor. Finding money for projects that would change the city. Taking control of vacant land. Building a really great team. Creating a vision. And building excellent public/private partnerships.
- Since ending his tenure as mayor, Tom has come to believe that public spaces matter more than anything else in building better cities.
- He believes that the interface between buildings and community is critical to the making of a place.
Information and Links
- Mayor Murphy Gets Key to City (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 3, 2020)
- Reaching for the Future: Creative Finance for Smaller Communities (A 2016 report for the Urban Land Institute)
- Adapting Cities for the Future (A 2011 article for the Urban Land Institute)
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:14] Hi there. Thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing.
[00:00:23] My guest today is Tom Murphy, Pittsburgh’s turnaround mayor. He oversaw the difficult, but transformative transition of the city from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s. Those were turbulent times and included many highlights and many struggles. During his tenure, he declared a budget crisis, built two stadiums, created a $60 million development fund and built many miles of river trails. Tom Murphy is an authentic city expert.
Eve: [00:01:03] Be sure to go to EvePicker.com to find out more about Tom on the show notes page for this episode, and be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, Small Change.
Eve: [00:01:38] Hello, Tom, I’m so delighted that you found time to join me today.
Tom Murphy: [00:01:42] I’m always honored to be with you. You were one of the pioneers in many developments in Pittsburgh when very few people saw the opportunity.
Eve: [00:01:50] You were the second longest serving mayor in the history of Pittsburgh. And in 1994, when Pittsburgh wasn’t sure what it was going to become, was really on the verge of collapse. And you shepherded the city through a very turbulent transition from a place that had emptied out with the closing of steel mills and suburban flight, to a city transformed almost every respect. And I was in Pittsburgh for every moment of it. So, you reshaped Pittsburgh, kicking and screaming all the way.
Tom: [00:02:22] Underlining kicking and screaming, Eve. As you remember, every time we tried to do something, there were, there was controversy. I mean, it just, it was amazing to me.
Eve: [00:02:34] Well, this is slightly conservative city, so maybe that was part of it, but people couldn’t imagine what you imagined. When you begin with a city that has lost its industry and half its people?
Tom: [00:02:47] Well, I’m a product of that, I mean, my father worked for 51 years at Jones & Laughlin Steel steel mill on the South Side. So, my whole life was defined by the shifts he worked there, I mean … you know, he was, he worked in the mill. I mean, he wasn’t a boss or anything, he just worked in the mill and our lives were shaped by that and … and sort of everybody I knew pretty much, their lives were tied to the mill. And so I grew up with that. And to watch that disappear in the, really the 70s and the 80s, I was a state legislator on the North Side, and I don’t think people appreciate how incredibly destructive it is for families. You know, where you had very traditional families where the husband went to work in the mill, you can make a good living, buy a house, buy a car, take a vacation and now all of a sudden that disappeared. You know, the wives went to work, kids who had thought about going to college deferred that, you know, we lost a whole generation from Western Pennsylvania – 500,000 people left and they were overwhelmingly are our kids, young people who were leaving, because they didn’t see a future in Pittsburgh. And so having come through that, having lived it, you know, on the North Side, where we’ve lived for almost 50 years now, and how destructive it was, never thinking I would be mayor. When I became mayor, I mean, my focus was how do we stabilize this situation? And to do that, we needed to re-imagine Pittsburgh in lots of different ways. In how we educate kids, because you didn’t need a high school education, let alone a college education to work in a steel mill. And you know, what we did with all this land, all of these industrial, thousands of acres of industrial property. And the culture of Pittsburgh, which, you know, was almost opposed in the technology industry because they were seen as non-union.
Tom: [00:04:40] And so we went through huge controversies in talking about re-imagining Pittsburgh. And now we’ve come out the other side and, you know, it looks very different.
Eve: [00:04:51] It does. Did you have a strategy from day one?
Tom: [00:04:57] Well, I laugh at that. I mean, hindsight always gives you the strategy. But we did in the sense that we felt we needed five things, right? We needed money. We were a flat broke city and … you know, essentially, as you said, I mean, close to bankruptcy. And we needed to figure out how we will get money so we could invest in Pittsburgh and entice developers. Two, we wanted land control. A lot of this land was tied up in bankruptcies and it was, you know, uncertain titles. And so, a developer who has a choice of buying a 100-acre greenfield site or 100-acre steel mill site, they’re going to buy the greenfield site. It’s safer. And the third was that we needed a really good team of people who were going to be public entrepreneurs, in effect, that were willing to take risk. And the fourth thing we needed, we needed a vision. We needed to be, to sort of know where we wanted to go. And the fifth thing is we needed good public-private partnerships. We needed people who believed that Pittsburgh could be a different place. And you remember back then, Eve, you were one of the few people that …
Eve: [00:06:08] Yeh.
Tom: [00:06:08] … were willing to invest in places like East Liberty. It was very hard to get local developers to re-imagine Pittsburgh. They had their little niche. They were comfortable in it. They’ve been through 30 years of decline. And so all those ingredients, you know, we talked about them when I ran for mayor. And people obviously voted for me. But when we started to do this stuff, they said we didn’t know you meant that. So where do we get money? And the first month or so I was Mayor we reduced the city’s workforce, reduced the number of police officers we had, then shifted six million dollars of that money annually to finance a $60 million bond issue, which we called the Pittsburgh Development Fund, which gave us money to invest in the future. In every city, I mean, I talk, I meet with cities a lot and talk to them and that’s one of the challenges they face is, your demands for the day-to-day. Just ‘today’ is huge in a city. I mean, everybody wants more police. Nobody’s streets are getting salted enough, and potholes, and if you just spend the stuff on all your resources on today, nothing changes. I mean, you’re Pittsburgh and in Pittsburgh we were still declining, so the challenge was how do we get some of those resources and use it to invest in the future, which entails risk.
Tom: [00:07:27] The second thing we did, Eve, we went out and bought, as you know, Mulugetta Birru was head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and we had him go out and buy almost 1500 acres of land. You know, we bought what was then the South Side works of Jones & Laughlin. We bought the slag dump in Squirrel Hill. We bought the old Sears site in East Liberty. And then, you know, we looked at each other and said, what do we do with this stuff? And that’s when we began to form great partnerships with developers. Somebody like you who was willing to invest in that old building in East Liberty and, you know, and others. And the $60 million gave us the ability to create really creative and effective public-private partnerships that share the risk with developers who believe that Pittsburgh could be a different place. That’s what we did.
Eve: [00:08:17] I was going to ask the question that, do you believe developers played an important role in the transformation of the city? Obviously you do.
Tom: [00:08:24] I do. I think place is everything. I think it has huge impact on how people live, I think, like crime rates, a whole host of other things. How they, what they think about themselves. I mean, if I live in a neighborhood that has, half the buildings are vacant and there’s a lot of litter and everything, you know, I come out my door every morning, I probably have a different reaction than if I live in a neighborhood that has lots of gardens and clean. And so I think that, it has huge impact. And so developers, from our point of view, as you know, were really important partners. And this is, I tell this story all the time, is when we started to see things happen, developers would come and say, Mayor, I have a great idea for you. And we’d say, with all due respect, tell us why it’s a great idea for you. And we’ll decide whether it’s a great idea for us, and if our self interests come together, we’ll figure out how to be a good partner and share the risk with you. But that assumed we knew what we wanted and so that was one of the really big challenges. As you remember early in my administration, I had a really great planning director, Eloise Hirsh, who really helped shape that vision, as well as Tom Cox and Mulu and Steve Leaper, really helped shape that whole vision of what Pittsburgh could be. It was really reimagining, you know, old steel mills in the South Side and a slag dump in Squirrel Hill. And so we were looking at, not to ignore other things, but we were looking for things that could be catalytic, that could change people’s image of Pittsburgh. And the ballparks obviously help with that, too. I mean that when I was running for mayor, I wasn’t planning to be, have anything to do with sports stadiums. And that sort of was one of the challenges of running the city, as you know, I didn’t think about it. And then all of a sudden, it’s the number-one topic.
Eve: [00:10:17] Well, it’s always the number one topic in Pittsburgh. Sports, so.
[00:10:20] Well, unfortunately, I mean, I don’t know if you know the story, Eve. As I, when I ran for mayor, I was elected mayor in November. In early December, the then-owners of the Pirates gave me a letter that said they intended to sell the team. I don’t even know this, that Dick Caligiuri many years ago had signed an agreement with the team that if ever they were going to sell it, that the city would in affect own the team for nine months in which they would be required to find a buyer. And if we couldn’t in nine months find a buyer, then the team could be sold to another city. And so there I was, having run on crimes, jobs and taxes, now owning a baseball team. It really, literally when I was running in November, I had no idea that the first year of my time as mayor, two years, would be dominated by trying to figure out how to build a baseball park and a football stadium and a convention center. So, that’s life, right? So, we had to figure it out, right?
Eve: [00:11:20] When the sun goes down, with Downtown as a backdrop, it’s a very special place.
Tom: [00:11:27] Well, it’s a, my favorite seat in PNC Park, regardless of what the team is doing, is that, at the very highest point in the left field stands, and because the view of the city at dusk like that is incredible.
Eve: [00:11:41] Was the Pittsburgh Development Fund the most important thing that you implemented? Were there the other programs or policies with very big impact?
Tom: [00:11:49] Well, what’s the Development Fund gave us is, it gave us the ability to be, to be flexible. When I go to lots of cities, they would say, we’d love to do this, but we don’t have any money. The money, for better, for worse, becomes a really important part of being able to pursue your dreams. And so the Development Fund was our money in the sense that we didn’t have to look to the state or the federal government, you know, to wait for months or a year before you figure out whether you’re going to get the money or not. We also, as you know, in the URA, people at the URA led by Mulu and Steve, were very entrepreneurial in understanding how they used tax increment financing and other federal and state sources, so it … it was fairly typical, it might be true in your deal, your deals that you were doing, is that you were getting sources of money from 10 or 12 different sources. And what I have found is that’s unusual in a lot of cities, that cities are not entrepreneurial like that, of understanding how you mix and match money to make a deal work. So, what I say, Eve, is it’s really, it’s really a market driven approach, is that basically you as a developer come and say, you know, I want to do this building, but this is what the bank is going to lend me, and there’s this gap in financing, and if it’s something we want to see happen, we being the city in this case, then we become your partner and figure out how to help finance it, whether it’s our Development Fund or other sources.
Eve: [00:13:30] My experience with the Liberty Bank Building was very typical. I think I had 12 sources of financing.
Tom: [00:13:36] Yeh.
Eve: [00:13:36] Most of the URA money, which I’m really glad gets to be recycled. But Mulu was extremely entrepreneurial. He, first of all, he didn’t quite trust me when we started …
Tom: [00:13:36] Well, but you were a small developer at the time, right? With not a long track record. But with great ideas.
Eve: [00:14:05] There were really interesting meetings. I really became very fond of Mulu. So, but he, you know, his approach was, look, we have this amount of money. 300,000 dollars out of this pot of money, or whatever it was. And you need two million. Go away and think about how it might work. And so I would come back and I’d say, look, I could make it work if you took little interest payments for two years or, you know, whatever, whatever it was that made it to some sort of stabilized scenario. I learned a lot. And then, you know, things shifted very much, and I think the URA lost a lot of its funding in the mid-2000s and the banks got more skittish and it all changed, right?
Tom: [00:14:49] Well, it did and it didn’t. I mean, I think the philosophy in the city changed and maybe … so I was saying this about being market driven. Mulu met with you and you convinced him that the market was what it was, that without flexible public money that could defer interest or payments even for a few years, that that this deal was not going to happen, and we wanted it to happen, and so we would make the loan. The market has become much better in Pittsburgh, though. You were, you know, in my view, the early bird gets the worm in this case, in the case of your building, you were, you were the early bird. Is that you got better financing then maybe after the market’s healthy. So, we tried to be market sensitive in that sense. And at the same time, recognize that we wanted these deals to happen, so we were willing to put, risk public money. I think the key to it, what I learned about myself in this, Eve, as I was, I am not a good day-to-day manager, but I understood how to hire good people and just give them room. And if a deal blew up, you know, that’s what’s going to get reported on the news. But I need to be willing to support the people if they did the deal for the right reasons and it just didn’t work. And we had some of those done, you know, Fifth and Forbes Downtown was one of those examples. But we were willing to take those risks, whether it was with you or other developers, that we didn’t know with the market, we didn’t know if people would move and live on a slag dump in Squirrel Hill or, you know, live in apartments in South Side. We didn’t know what the market was. We were way out there and that was the risk involved in this, and using public money.
Eve: [00:16:33] I moved to Pittsburgh accidentally and was kind of involved in all of this on the periphery, and it really shaped my life. The way I think about cities is very different now. So, thank you for that. The plan that did not work out was the redevelopment plan to reshape Downtown which…
Tom: [00:16:49] Actually it worked though didn’t it? I mean, four of the five blocks that we were going to acquire have been redeveloped.
Eve: [00:16:57] Yes, it did work. But my question was, yeah, it just took time, didn’t it? Took time for people to get used to the idea.
Tom: [00:17:04] Well, it looks differently than what we would have, I mean, we were more focused on a retail strategy and it might or might not have worked. I don’t know.
Eve: [00:17:12] Well, today with Amazon, it might have backfired again.
Tom: [00:17:15] And that’s where you don’t, I don’t know with today’s retailing whether it would have worked or not. If we would have been able to put together sort of what we were thinking. But, in any case, all five blocks have now been redeveloped, that we focused on. And it’s a much more vibrant place. We could see the decline there. I mean, we could look at the sales numbers of businesses that were there and just see the decline of what was going on, and I think felt the need to try to intervene, you know, and maybe did it really in a clumsy kind of way. And but, you know, at the end of the day, it was a necessary intervention that ended up working. PNC played a big part, was a big partner in that with their new building
Eve: [00:17:59] Yes. It was really difficult, I remember. What would you do differently today? A different city.
Tom: [00:18:06] When I’ve come to really love is the public spaces. So, in East Liberty, I think we would have had, we had the opportunity, which we didn’t do, to create a sort of a central plaza somewhere there. That we could have really recreated a much more, you know, in a public space, it can be the most democratic place in the city. And so, I mean and so with Home Depot, we were looking to make a democratic place where people, wealthy people and poor people would all shop. If I had done East Liberty thoughtfully more, maybe we would have created a public space like that, too. And Market Square, in many ways, plays that role Downtown now. There’s a public space where people of, with all incomes and all backgrounds show up. And so even in smaller neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and other places, because there were such, you know, abandonment of property, we had opportunities to really create better public spaces, little town squares. Because one of the strengths of Pittsburgh is with its 90 neighborhoods is, is that we have this real sense of communities and I’ve come to appreciate that much more. And we really would have focused more on creating places where that community can play out in neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and other places. I go to China a fair amount. Not recently. thank goodness. And when I, I get up early in the morning to go for a run and one of the things I see there, and China has done a very bad job of creating public spaces, but where there is public spaces like at six, seven o’clock in the morning, there are hundreds of people there in the plaza doing tai chi or dancing to a boombox. It’s this great sense of community. There’s lots of older people or people running. And you can see feel this community, I mean, people talking and laughing. Every morning they’re there. And we don’t have that tradition in America. But it would be wonderful. We did, but but we ought to create places where that happens. You know, the Blue Slide Playground is a place like that in Squirrel Hill. I mean, famous now because of Mac Miller.
Eve: [00:20:24] I visited Beijing three years ago, and the photo I loved the most from there is a small urban park which had exercise equipment in it. And in fact, I saw this several times …
Tom: [00:20:34] Right.
Eve: [00:20:35] … exercise equipment, really basic. And you could see people all congregating, and doing their little exercises in the park, open to everyone, It was fabulous.
Tom: [00:20:46] Right. We did a half step under Eloise’s leadership in public works. We made a decision to rebuild all of our 100 and some neighborhood parks, like the Blue Slide Playground or the Schenley Park, and also many of the smaller ones. And we would have community meetings and we would hire landscape architects who would meet with the community and, you know, with the playbooks. And then they would work to design the kind of playground they wanted. They would given a budget, 100, 150 thousand dollars, and they could pick from the play equipment books, the playground they wanted. But the instinct we had was right, but we should have expanded it. And in many neighborhoods where, like Homewood. I mean, you have an opportunity in Homewood, still today, I think, to create a really great plaza that would become the center of Homewood, and how you would do that. And East Liberty represented that opportunity. I mean, there were, as you remember, lots of vacant land there that was tax, you know, essentially abandoned. So that’s probably one of my bigger regrets, was not creating places where that sense of community can play out.
Eve: [00:21:58] What do you love most about Pittsburgh? I know you still live here.
Tom: [00:22:01] Our strength and our weakness is our parochialism and that’s what I love most … is that we’re an unusually friendly city. I’m in Washington four days a week, right? And my habit in Pittsburgh is pretty much everybody you see, even before I was mayor, but when I’m mayor I don’t know whether I know them or not, or they know me. So you say hello to people, right? You get on an elevator, you say good morning, right? People, you do that in Washington, D.C. people look at you like you’re … going to rob them. You know, it’s a weird feeling for me. I see that in lots of cities. I would just did Orlando for a couple of days that I felt it there. Same thing, is that, sort of people don’t make eye contact, don’t acknowledge. I mean, if there was just two of you in a place, that you don’t, they don’t acknowledge you.
Eve: [00:22:50] You know, that’s interesting. There are other cities like, I think Atlanta and Detroit are very friendly. I always notice it when I go there.
Tom: [00:22:56] Yeah. So it’s, and I hear that. It’s funny, I mean, when I speak, and I was in 50 cities last year, so I end up engaging with thousands of people. One, is the numbers of people that have lived in Pittsburgh. You know, I mean, that’s sort of the legacy. I always say you’re our failures. We couldn’t give you a reason to stay, you know, there’s so many people that left in the 70s and the 80s. And the other is inevitably people who are not from Pittsburgh. I just was talking to a guy in Orlando yesterday who, his daughter and he, and they’ve never had any connection with Pittsburgh, but she loves the Pittsburgh Penguins. And they go to Pittsburgh every year to see a couple of Penguins game, and he was telling me he’s going in March and, you know, he said, I’ve never been to a friendlier place in my life. Everybody talks to you and it’s just, it’s a great place, right? We don’t even think of that. And that’s partly what I like. And I think that’s the strength of Pittsburgh. When I say parochial is that we are really, those of us who are from Pittsburgh or who moved there, you become really rooted in your neighborhood, and in the city. I think in places like Orlando, that is, you know, a lot of Florida cities in California and even Texas cities. You know, there’s lots of new residents. And so they don’t have that kind of history. And so I, that’s part of the challenge of Pittsburgh. How to keep that, and at the same time not have it be a deterrent to making Pittsburgh a competitive city.
Eve: [00:24:28] But you know, I think what’s most interestingly Pittsburgh, about Pittsburgh to me, is again, I’ve always thought it’s topography saved it from becoming what Detroit has become.
Tom: [00:24:40] Oh, I think definitely, I mean, the hills and valleys and how Pittsburgh is defined, I think is a large part because of its topography. You know, I learned that running for office when I was in the legislature, when I first ran for the legislature. If you confuse people from Spring Garden with people from Spring Hill, they will never vote for you. I mean, they’re very rooted in their neighborhoods, right? And so there’s that whole hierarchy like that around Pittsburgh. When I meet somebody, when they say they’re from Pittsburgh, I typically say, where did you go to school? And that tells me a lot about them.
Eve: [00:25:19] Interesting. Yeah, I think the topography also, it kind of contains each neighborhood. So, I think that that sense of being in a neighborhood is going to stay. I can’t, I can’t see it disappearing in the city.
Tom: [00:25:33] No, and that’s what, when I was talking about the public space, I mean that’s, that’s what I have a big regret it was around that idea of how do you build even a stronger sense community using public space, whether it’s playgrounds or a park, a community. How do you in a very thoughtful way connect people in that neighborhood so they feel a sense of place? And there’s a purpose for that, because I think if people feel rooted in their neighborhood, I think they’re willing to put up with a lot of problems if they see themselves and others committed to wanting to making it better. I mean, if I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, I’m willing to stay on the journey, right? A lot of people are not willing if they don’t see any end to it. And I think of a neighborhood like Allentown that’s been through a lot of problems. And yet, there’s a strong core of people in Allentown who have really stayed with that neighborhood. And, you know, it has gone up and done and now I think it’s back, going back up again. I know we used say, Eve, you know, that houses in the North Side up in Fineview at the time, I mean, you could buy for 30 or 40 thousand dollars. And we said if Pittsburgh’s population were like any other city and it was growing, those houses would be worth a million dollars with the views. And that was part of the problem, is that we weren’t growing as a city. And it’s still part of the challenge of Pittsburgh, is that we’re doing much better, but we’re still not growing compared to, certainly the region is not, compared to a lot of other cities and communities.
Eve: [00:27:19] Today you work, you’re a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, which some of my listeners may not know about. What do you do in your role there?
Tom: [00:27:32] So the Urban Land Institute is an organization founded about 75 years ago by a group of developers concerned about the quality of development beginning to happen in America. And fast forward, the Urban Land Institute now has about 50,000 members worldwide. And it really, it’s focus is how do you create thriving communities? And ULI had participated in several programs in Pittsburgh when I was mayor, and then I got recruited to speak at different ULI events. And when I was leaving as mayor, it was right after Katrina in New Orleans and along the Mississippi coast. And they asked me whether I would go down and work with the mayor of New Orleans and with other public officials across the Mississippi coast. And so I did that for about a year and a half after leaving as mayor. And it was fascinating. I mean, it was really a fascinating experience. And, you know, in New Orleans, their mayor ended up going to jail for 15 years. And the political structure was really fairly inept back then. It’s gotten better. And so I watched, really, New Orleans return in large part because of grassroots decisions and leadership, through churches and nonprofit groups and neighborhood groups, and a lot of outside help. Foundations and movie stars like Brad Pitt. But people, but ultimately, the up-swelling was really, really bottom up. It wasn’t top down. And so it was a fascinating experience to work in, there. And I still am, I was on the board for many years of a community development corporation there. So it’s been an experience. Since then I got to about 50 cities a year and speak at ULI events or other events, and then often end up working with cities for a while. And I’ve written several papers – working on one now for ULI.
Tom: [00:29:40] It’s been a good, a good experience, really a great experience after being a mayor. And part of what I get asked to do all over the world is, in part I get asked to talk about Pittsburgh. How we went from this failing industrial city to what we’re becoming. And the reason I get asked by, about that is, wheat I’ve come to realize, Eve, is virtually every city in the world, whether it’s Hong Kong or London or Dublin, or are all struggling with some of the same issues that we went through in Pittsburgh, of sort of what what is our place in the world? We were forced to have that conversation because of the collapse of the steel industry. Other cities have not had that kind of dramatic change, but they are seeing the world change and they are trying to figure out how to stay current and get in front of those changes and manage them.
Eve: [00:30:34] Are there any current trends in real estate development that interest you the most?
[00:30:39] Well,every city, every place I’ve been, and this is, I mean, last month I was in Dublin and London, right. And I was supposed to go, I go to China about four times a year. I was supposed to be going in March. My plane trips are now all being canceled, but I was going to cancel anyhow. But so whether it’s cities in China or European cities, affordability is a huge issue. Of how do people, where do people live? And how do they afford to live? And so how cities develop affordable housing is a big, big issue. Where am I going to work? Because of the impact of technology and we see it in Pittsburgh up close every day as we see a whole litany of driverless cars on the streets of Pittsburgh or autonomous vehicles with attendants in them. But, you know, pretty soon the attendance won’t be there. As I mentioned, I was in Orlando yesterday, just east of Downtown Orlando but still in Orlando is a place called Lake Nona. And they now have, I don’t know, a half a dozen driverless autonomous buses that drive people around this very large development. Nobody driving. Nobody in, no driver. And no attendant. It is just on its own already on a sort of a, sort of private street where bikes and others places can go, but not cars. So we’re seeing this happen and what does that mean? I mean, if you think of 50 percent of the land use of a typical city is for cars, between roads and parking and everything like that, what does that do to how we think about cities. And not it’s not even that kind of technology. It’s why do young people want to come places? Part of what I say is what does General Electric and McDonald’s and Marriott and Fifth Third Bank and Heinz Kraft Foods and what they have in common is over the last five years they’ve all moved their headquarters from suburban office parks into cities. And why are they doing that? They’re doing it because … they’re having a hard time recruiting talent, young people, to move to the suburban office park. Where you need a car to get to. You know, if you do a survey of the Google employees in East Liberty, I’m betting that 25, 30 percent of them either walk or ride a bike to work. So that has huge implications on cities. You know, do you spend your money building more highways or do you build a transit system. That’s part of Orlando’s challenge. They don’t have a good transit system and now they’re strangling, you know, because of the congestion.
Eve: [00:33:33] Yeah. It’s changing.
[00:33:34] So it’s those debates that I’m watching all over. Mobility is a huge conversation. The equity conversation, I mean, one of the things I see really fascinating, The New York Times did this, I thought, very cruelly. A few months ago they did an article about cities and they talked about winners and losers.
Eve: [00:33:56] Yes.
Tom: [00:33:56] And they talked, and they compared Nashville and Birmingham. And they said Nashville is a winner, they both start at the same place 25 years ago. Nashville is now a hot city, booming, and Birmingham is not. And they talk about, why, how that happens is really a lot to do with leadership. And then within, so we’re seeing cities sort of separate themselves, if you understand, those that are, where Amazon is going to consider locating, and those that are not. And what are the ingredients that make that cut? And then the other, within cities we are watching a huge divide with lower income people and the people that are sort of part of the new economy. And so, I think that equity issue is a huge challenge for cities also.
Eve: [00:34:43] Yes. You know, I have always thought that one of the things that’s most overlooked in discussions about cities and how to grow them is their connection to other cities. And, you know, I think that’s probably Pittsburgh’s growth problem. It takes a really long time go by train.
Tom: [00:35:00] Well, we lost a whole generation of people that would normally be having babies.
Eve: [00:35:07] If you want to get to New York by train, it’s a day. There’s no easy, fast way to get to work hubs. We’re sort of a little bit stranded. And I was always puzzled by the fact that we, you know, people would talk about better transit in the city, but I wanted better transit to other places, nearby, to open up opportunities. If I wanted to do a development project in a city, I wanted to be able to get there in a day in and back. Right?
Tom: [00:35:37] Right.
Eve: [00:35:37] So I, you know, I wonder if you plot out those connections, you know, where the, you know, the cities done well, will land.
[00:35:49] I think it’s a mix. I think mobility is one piece of the conversation of how easy it is to move around a city. Our son, for example, is now 29 years old, does not even have a driver’s license. He lives in Pittsburgh. On the North Side right now with us, he’s moving, though. You know, he is, has been able to manage fine living in Pittsburgh, using Uber and using public transit and, you know, walking a host of other things and abusing his friends every once while they’re able to, you know, he’s able to sort of manage living in a city pretty well. But I think mobility is part of the conversation. And that’s what, when I was becoming mayor, Eve, our focus was we need to figure out how to create a diversity of jobs. And we needed to make Pittsburgh a place where people wanted to live. You know, we’re never going to be, maybe we will someday, we’re never going to be a warm city. Like I was just in Orlando yesterday. It was 90 degrees. We’re not going to be near the ocean, but we had other assets. And so, as you might remember, I was very focused on building riverfront trails for that reason is that was an underutilized asset. You know, we watched, you know, a great music and bar scene sort of, and that happened organically. It’s funny, I watch the, I read the media in Pittsburgh now about the Strip District and we made a very intentional decision not to do anything in the Strip District. We, you know, people would come and why don’t we do this and why don’t we do that in the Strip District.tAnd we really said The place is working really well. Why do we want to get involved in it? Let it, it’s just happening on its own. So. You know, that it’s interesting that that’s the big, big debate right now in Pittsburgh, I guess about, are we killing the Strip District. So I think that you make decisions, you know, some of them are going to be right. Some of them were wrong. Hindsight will tell you whether it works or not.
Eve: [00:37:56] You know, this show is about real estate impact investing. And I want to know what you think a key factor is that makes a real estate development project impactful.
Tom: [00:38:06] You know, I think it’s the public space. Is the building itself attractive, but it’s the space around it, how it engages people that work in that building, and even people walking by, how they might use it. I think that, how it all connects. And you can get senses of it, right? When it works well? I think, you know, there are places in Pittsburgh that I think of that are just great places to be. People like to be there, right? I look at Mellon Park, you know, going back many, many years, long before I was mayor. Still a very iconic place on a nice summer day. It’s packed with people, having lunch. And I think how that happens, and that’s where the public private interface is so importantA and where the public needs to have, to be put money in the game, to say to a developer, you know, we want to get this quality in, and a developer might say, but I can’t afford to do that. And if you look at the books and the market is going to be make it hard for the developer to do that, then there’s a public role for that. I think another good example is that is Schenley Plaza, which for for 40 years or 50 years was a parking lot. I mean, think about that. I mean, I, you know, on one side is Schenley Park, on the other side are the museums, on the other side is the Pitt law school. And then on the other side, the Cathedral of Learning. And what is the highest and best use of that land for 50 years? It was surface parking. And Mark, this chancellor at Pitt and I got together and said we should be, we should do better than that. And so we work with the Parks Conservancy and came up with an idea to put a park there, to take the parking. And I got all this hate mail, but I’m never going to vote for you again. You’re taking away my parking place. And I said, you know, you’ll get over it. There’ll be other places to park it. But this is, this, we can do better than that is the interest of a great university. To a great park. To a great museum. We can do better than that. And you look at that on a nice summer day, it’s filled with people. So creating those kinds of places, I think is is that there’s a responsibility of both the developer and the community. You know, you did something quirky Downtown with those statues. And I bet lots of people walk over, who maybe have never been in Pittsburgh, walk over just to look at them.
Eve: [00:40:58] Yes. In fact, I think the taxi drivers use it for directions when someone says, I want to go Downtown.
Tom: [00:41:05] Yeah. So that’s what I mean. And look at Randyland on the North side.
Eve: [00:41:10] It’s fabulous. Yeah.
Tom: [00:41:12] You know, I mean, it’s just things like that make a cityS so the other word that we use a lot in ULI is authenticity, right? Pittsburgh has a great history. It has a great story. And we could still do better at telling that story. The South Side Works, when we started to develop that we put, had a competition for, and we brought artists and old steel workers who worked there together for like a morning of talking. And then we had a competition for artists. And there’s, at the end of Hot Metal Bridge is a little monument that we established for the steelworkers. But Pittsburgh is an incredible story.
Eve: [00:41:56] So I’m going to ask one last question, because I’ve taken up a lot of your time.
Tom: [00:42:00] It’s fine, I’ve enjoyed it. It’s fun to talk to somebody who actually knows Pittsburgh, Eve.
Eve: [00:42:05] So is there something that you think could really change real estate development in the U.S., for the better?
Tom: [00:42:14] I think it is, is the idea, the partnership idea. I’m amazed that the cities I go to, many developers attitude is I want a minimize my involvement with the city. Maybe there’s a reason for it. I want to get in and get out. I want to get the entitlements, whatever I may need and do what I want to do. So the challenge is the developer has a piece of property. The developer needs to figure out how to make money from that property. I accept that. I want the developer to make money from the property. On the other hand, the city, the city has the responsibility to build a great city. That it will never be a great city if these developers see their development as sort of an island disconnected from what’s next to it. And so the city’s responsibility is to figure out how that all fits together. Give you two examples that drive me nuts. I can drive on pretty much any suburban shopping street. I can go into a gas station. Maybe I want to go to the store next door. And I have to drive back out onto the highway. Or maybe I want to go to a store across the street, I have to go out on the highway. Maybe I have to drive a half a mile to get over there to the other side. So I can’t, there’s no sense of connection between any of that. And the other is, I watch in suburban areas like Cranberry Township subdivisions being developed of 100 acres or so. What would it take for those subdivisions that, maybe there’s five different developers doing one hundred acres each, if they would, then the city’s role would be to say we want to connect all this with a bike trail at the edge of your property so that every, so now instead of having a couple little playgrounds, you might have a five or ten mile bike ride, safe, off road. You don’t have to worry about traffic with your little children. And there is examples of where the public fails. Both the public and private developers fail. Because you create great, great amenities if you begin to think in a bigger way rather than individual pieces of property. That’s what’s destroying development, and quality in America today.
Eve: [00:44:33] Yeah, I agree, I think we both believe that real estate development, just as a financial tool, as a way to make money, isn’t making our cities better.
Tom: [00:44:43] Well, I think you make more money if you build quality. In the long run I think your development is more valuable. I mean, we didn’t get into all the other sustainability and all that which a lot of cities are facing.
Eve: [00:44:54] Thank you very much.
Tom: [00:44:55] Look forward to see you sometime. Bye bye.
Eve: [00:45:04] That was Tom Murphy, past mayor of Pittsburgh. Tom thinks place is everything, so place is what he invested in during his long term as mayor. He did that by reducing operational costs and creating the Pittsburgh Development Fund, a $60 million fund focused on helping developers who were willing to work in places and on projects that made the city better and better. It was a very bold, and unpopular move, but paid off in ways that no one imagined, as did many other moves that Mayor Murphy made.
You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access the show notes for today’s episode at my website, EvePicker.com. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities. Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, Tom, for sharing your thoughts. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Tom Murphy