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U.S. Steel’s reality is small, like planned HQ

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James Knox | Trib Total Media
525 William Penn Place, the original home of US Steel rises between buildings downtown Tuesday, April 14, 2015.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
525 William Penn Place (center), the original home of US Steel rises between buildings downtown Tuesday, April 14, 2015 including the current home, the US Steel Tower (left).
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
The current home of US Steel, the US Steel Tower (center) downtown Tuesday, April 14, 2015.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
525 William Penn Place, the original home of US Steel rises between buildings downtown Tuesday, April 14, 2015.
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Artist rendering of U.S. Steel’s proposed headquarters on the former Civic Arena site.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
The US Steel Tower rises over downtown Tuesday, April 14, 2015.

All the fuss over the design of U.S. Steel’s planned new headquarters building — the very first building to be put up in the redevelopment of the old Civic Arena space in the Lower Hill District — was pointless.

We ought to be grateful that U.S. Steel is staying in the city, and, as city authorities have finally decided, we should just get on with it.

That company is all but a shadow of what it once was. For any of us to be expecting it to put up something that would be more of a monument to its role in Pittsburgh history (as the mayor suggested) or less like a routine office building in a suburb somewhere (as the head of the city Planning Commission observed) strikes me as way off the mark.

The company’s whole point in moving out of the 64-story U.S. Steel Tower into a much more modest five-story building is to save money. This is something it is trying to do everywhere.

I think much of the criticism of U.S. Steel comes from attitudes that have just not caught up with the realities of the 21st century. Take a quick test for yourself. What are ArcelorMittal, Nippon, Hebei, Baosteel and Wuhan?

They are, in order, the five largest steel companies in the world. And you’d have to go through seven other names you likely wouldn’t recognize before you’d get to today’s U.S. Steel, at No. 13.

U.S. Steel is not today what it was in the 1950s — when it was indisputably the largest steel producer in the world and the third largest company of any sort in the United States. Only General Motors and Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon) exceeded it.

Even in 1971, when the company moved into the U.S. Steel Tower, it was still No. 12 on the Fortune 500 list. This past year, it ranked 166. When the U.S. Steel Tower was built, management apparently thought it might hold 7,500 U.S. Steel employees. Today, they’re looking at a headquarters building that will house 800.

I always hate it when someone throws out this expression in an argument, but I’ll use it here: “Get real!”

There’s no question that the design of the new headquarters building, which has drawn so much comment from so many in the last three or four months, is uninspiring. Back in a column in December, when the renderings were first revealed, I called those building plans “blandly routine.” If you parse that, it suggests that the plans didn’t seem to be obtrusive or ugly, but they weren’t original, imaginative or outstanding, either.

Now that the facade has been somewhat retouched at the city’s request to give it a less anonymous entrance, the building is still going to be blandly routine.

But U.S. Steel wants and needs a “fast package” — an efficient office space designed and built without complications and in a comparatively short time. That’s what they’re getting. Chicago-based developer Clayco and the architects — Forum Studio — are actually the same company and work together all the time.

Is that good enough for Pittsburgh right now? In this case, yes.

Pittsburgh’s future is not industry of the sort we’ve known in the past. If you’ve known and cared about Pittsburgh for a while, a look at some of those Fortune 500 lists from the ’70s is sobering. About half of the 20 or so Pittsburgh companies that used to be on those lists no longer exist.

Gulf Oil, Westinghouse, Rockwell International, J&L Steel, National Steel and many smaller corporations once headquartered here are gone. Not moved to other cities. Just plain splintered, divided up into pieces and no longer corporate entities.

One valuable remnant of Westinghouse remains — the nuclear division in Cranberry, now owned by Toshiba. But that alone is far from the diversified company that used to build huge electric generators and electric-distribution equipment, not to mention those once familiar elevators, escalators, lightbulbs and home appliances.

What we can excel at in Pittsburgh right now is taking advantage of our unusual environment. We are a modern city in the midst of forested hills, rivers and valleys. Everything we can do to preserve that, improve it and promote it is what will turn us into a city suited for the 21st century. Technology-based companies and their employees will, in the future, look for attractive working environments, and we can gain a comparative advantage in future economic development by exploiting that.

The work we’ve done on riversides and parks, the beauty we’ve brought to Downtown Pittsburgh in recent years with its dozen mini-parks and fountains, our several pioneering environmentally sustainable buildings, our system of trails, and, yes, even those bike lanes — these are things we need.

In the larger scale of things, the county needs to get a grip on ugly commercial development along our highways. And the city needs to come down harder on riverside developments that don’t take advantage of the rivers.

There are bigger things we need to do than pick on one small building for, alas, one diminished company.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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