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Pittsburgh skyline from the Mount Washington overlook. (GeekWire photo via Elan Mizrahi)

PITTSBURGH — This is a city of steel bridges, mighty rivers, steep hills and classic architecture. It’s a place where unexpected pockets of beauty appear when you least expect it, even surprising REI-parka wearing West Coasters like us accustomed to sweeping mountain vistas.

Former Seattle P-I newspaper columnist Bill Virgin — who started his career in nearby Weirton, West Virginia — told me recently that coming through the Fort Pitt tunnel is “perhaps the most dramatic introduction to a city anywhere.” He’s right.

But there’s one image that I just can’t seem to shake since arriving in this proud, once-forgotten American city.

And it’s all about emptiness. Or, perhaps a better way to put it: capacity.

I stepped off the plane at Pittsburgh International Airport at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday night, excited to explore our adopted city.

The place was nearly vacant.

Shops were closed. Light music on the overhead speakers softly played. And security guards and custodial staff appeared to outnumber actual travelers, prompting GeekWire co-founder and California native Todd Bishop to observe that it felt like we’d landed in Sacramento, a decade ago.

The nearly empty Pittsburgh airport on a Saturday evening. (GeekWire photo John Cook)

This is not a knock against Pittsburgh’s airport, which last year was chosen by Air Transport Magazine as the Airport of the Year. And, like Pittsburgh itself, the airport is slowly rebounding, bringing in more passengers and direct flights than it did a few years ago (including an Alaska Airlines flight between Seattle and Pittsburgh, which got some Amazon HQ2 conspiracy theorists speculating). Even still, the 8.3 million passengers who landed in Pittsburgh in 2016 is nowhere near the 20 million who touched down here in the late 90s when it was a major hub for U.S. Airways.

Everywhere in Pittsburgh, you’re reminded of this capacity.

The airport. The highways. The downtown. The former J&L Steel Mill property. Even the new hipster enclave of Lawrenceville — with shades of Seattle’s old Ballard neighborhood and where GeekWire’s temporary HQ2 is located— has capacity. (Even though nearly every local we’ve told about our location on Butler Street likes to regale us with stories of row houses purchased for $40,000 ten years ago that are now selling for $350,000).

In nearly a week of being here, I’ve yet to feel crowded. Not event at a recent Penguins game — Go Pens!

It’s a beautiful city, without the people.

In the first half of the 1900s, Pittsburgh was the 10th largest city in the country, buoyed by a robust manufacturing industry. The population peaked at nearly 700,000 in the early 1950s, before the U.S. steel industry imploded, sending the population plummeting to its current totals of just over 300,000.

An old building in The Strip District is knocked down, with a new building in the background that houses companies including Bosch and artificial intelligence startup Petuum. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

That population boom and bust makes Pittsburgh unlike any of the other cities contending for Amazon’s prized second headquarters. It’s unique in its underutilization.

Though rickety in places, the bones of Pittsburgh are still intact. It could absorb 50,000 employees, in part because it has done it before.

“We have 17,000 vacant properties, blighted properties and open vacant lots,” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told GeekWire on Tuesday, before pausing to emphasize that mind-boggling number again. “Seventeen-thousand.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto shows a scale model of the city. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

There are “hollowed out” neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that have lost 70 percent of their population, he noted.

“Pittsburgh hasn’t been used to growing,” said Peduto, who keeps a scale model of Pittsburgh’s downtown core in the corner of his office. “And, for 50 years — I’m 53 — I’ve never seen the city grow.” 

Is underutilized Pittsburgh, which experienced one of the worst urban busts in American history, ready to grow again?

That’s the question is in front of Peduto and other Pittsburghers as one of the biggest economic development sweepstakes in history takes place.

This much we do know. The bones are very much in place in Steel City.

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