Point Park University's Student-Run Newspaper

Point Park Globe

Point Park University's Student-Run Newspaper

Point Park Globe

Point Park University's Student-Run Newspaper

Point Park Globe

Is Pittsburgh a “Donut City” and is this problematic?

If your first thought when reading the title of this piece was something like, “more donut shops in the city? Who wouldn’t want that? I’m already against your cause, opinions editor,” then you would be forgiven. The first time I had heard this phrase was when I was reading a KDKA article about vandalism in the South Side, where a resident named Claire Pro said, “if we keep doing things that push families out of this, we are going to become a donut city.”

Curious, I decided to investigate what this meant, as I had never heard of it.

The term “donut city” or “donut effect” was coined by Arjun Ramani and Nicholas Broom in a Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) paper published in January 2021, titled “The donut effect: How COVID-19 shapes real estate.” The main theory is that during the pandemic, downtowns of major cities such as Chicago, NYC and Washington D.C. hollowed out because of the surge in people working from home and a massive decrease in the need for office space.

On the other hand, the demand and pricing for housing in areas just outside of these cities rose upwards of seven percent in 2020. With less people going to downtowns to work, less people utilizing public transit to get to these areas and less foot traffic to support businesses in major downtowns, they hollow out. While this happens, suburban areas surge in population and thus, create a “donut” – the center hole being downtown, and the surrounding suburbs being the actual edible part. Are you hungry yet?

Bad jokes aside, the paper also covers how the trend even compares with cities perceived to be cheaper to live in, comparing NYC to Austin. One would think that this would not apply to Austin, and both Ramani and Broom thought the same. However, they instead found that they “observed a relatively flat trend,” meaning that Austin suffered the “donut effect” as well.

How well does Pittsburgh fit into this theory? Things may have changed since 2021, but the effects of a donut city are still being felt. For example, comparing housing prices in a popular city neighborhood such as Highland Park, houses that contain 1500 to 2500 square feet of space currently sell for around $300k to $400k. Looking at a suburb like the Baldwin-Whitehall borough, houses that barely break the 1000 square feet mark sell for close to the same price, with houses similar in size to ones in Highland Park selling for close to $450k. Also notable is how much houses sold for in previous years, with $500-$600k being the average in Highland Park before 2020. With Baldwin-Whitehall however, many of the houses sold and currently lived in after 2020 ranged anywhere from $100k all the way to $600k. Keep in mind, many of the houses sold in Highland Park were sold in the 2000s to early 2010s, showing a complete change in demand.

This extends beyond residential housing as well, as occupancy rates in downtowns are a huge telling factor in the donut theory. The paper that created this theory cites a “15-40 percent” commercial occupancy rate throughout ten major U.S cities, however, Pittsburgh sits at a shockingly high 78.7 percent occupancy rate, according to a TRIB article from March 2023. Whether the space is used at pre-pandemic levels remains to be seen, considering there is no daily metric for how often commercial spaces here are visited. Also a problem with “donut cities’ ‘ are the losses of public transit ridership and profits once there is less demand for people to go to respective downtowns – we’ve already seen a side effect of this here in Pittsburgh with major route changes to account for less people commuting to our downtown. This is not exactly a new thing in the making either, as fare increases also had to occur during the pandemic to also account for the ridership loss. Bus ridership still has not recovered from pre-pandemic levels either, as the weekday average for 2023 sits at around 130,346 for October. In 2019, that average was 205,083.

You may now be thinking, “Wow, that was a whole lot of words and numbers I don’t feel like reading. Are we a donut city or not?” For one, ouch. But to answer your question, not yet. People are leaving Allegheny County in record numbers, with an estimated population loss of 12,192 people from July 2021 to July 2022, according to the U.S Census Bureau. However, these numbers mostly reflect the greater Pittsburgh region, and not the city itself. People are leaving for the suburbs still, but that has slowed in 2023. To keep our Downtown strong, focus needs to be kept on making sure people have a reason to commute here outside of work. Our entertainment institutions are still here, there are sit-down and to-go restaurants aplenty, and there have been many projects revitalizing previously empty spaces – whether they were office spaces or storefronts.

If it stays this way and more businesses put faith in the golden triangle, then Pittsburgh will have successfully become a “donut hole city,” not a “donut city.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Point Park Globe Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *