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RUST BELT MAYORS AIM FOR CITY CENTERS THAT NEVER SLEEP

New York has long been known as the city that never sleeps, but a handful of Rust Belt cities are intent on sharing at least a bit of the title.

Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Indianapolis are all embarking on efforts to create "24-hour downtowns," center cities where residents work, shop, dine out and live. Even little Columbus, Ohio's capital, is getting in on the act, though Mayor Gregory Lashutka said he will happily settle for an 18-hour downtown.

The rationale: "If you don't have a healthy downtown, ultimately your city will decay. That is the only place to put facilities that are enjoyed by the entire region," he said.

Perhaps the most ambitious plan is being hatched in Pittsburgh, where many shops and restaurants now close after business hours because so few people stay in town.

The redevelopment plan involves gutting most of the city's seven-block retail core and replacing it with new, upscale stores and entertainment establishments.

Companies reportedly interested in the project include Victoria's Secret, Tiffany's, Eddie Bauer and AMC Theaters. There have also been talks with Seattle-based Nordstrom department stores.

"We're really trying to recapture the strengths of the central business district, when it was still a place where families wanted to go," said Thomas Cox, Pittsburgh's executive secretary and top development official.

A first step was convincing Lazarus, part of Federated Department Stores of Cincinnati, to build a new downtown store, which opened last November. According to Cox, the new store was only the second free-standing department store built in a U.S. central business district in the last 50 years.

Nearby, Lord & Taylor is now turning a former bank building into a store, and the city is negotiating with Chicago-based Urban Retail Properties to bring in some 40 other retailers.

Cox said if a deal is reached, Urban Retail Properties and the retailers will invest about $300 million, and $50 million to $100 million in public funds will be used preparing the site.

New apartments have also sprung up in renovated buildings to attract people to downtown living. Most Pittsburgh residents live in the suburbs, although there are a few older apartment buildings in the city that are nearly full.

The downtown plan has drawn criticism from existing merchants who will have to relocate to other parts of the city. But Cox said it is critical to the city's vitality and economy. Without it, business people will continue to leave the city after hours and shoppers will stick to suburban malls.

"We don't think downtown can survive as just an office park. There are too many places that office parks can be placed other than downtown," he said.

In Cincinnati, a plan was devised to build the downtown region's population and amenities in the early 1990s, Mayor Roxanne Qualls said. So far, she said, more than 1,000 new housing units have been built or started.

City investment has been the key. For example, when the city built an apartment building near City Hall, public funds paid for an underground parking garage that serves as the building's foundation.

Qualls said she wanted to tear out Fort Washington Way, a stretch of highway that divides the business district from the Ohio River, and expand downtown to the riverfront. If that is done, she said, downtown will abut two new sports stadiums now under construction. Including the stadiums, the area could see $2 billion in investment from both public and private sources.

"We are basically really at the beginning of a wave," Qualls said. "A wave of people moving back to the city."

In Indianapolis, downtown housing occupancy rates are near 100 percent, said Tamara Zahn, president of Indianapolis Downtown Inc., which helps promote the business district.

"We've done a great job in the last few years of creating reasons to come downtown," she said. "Now people want to live downtown."

Then there is Columbus, which has tried to concentrate development of cultural and sports facilities in and around its downtown but does not really aspire to be another New York, Lashutka says.

"We're pushing residential living because we want to be an 18-hour city," he said. "Our Midwestern values do include a little civility . . . those who want a hoot can stay up until two in the morning. I've got to go to bed earlier."

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