Month: January 2013

Chicago: Reimagining what remains (part two)

In yesterday’s post I talked about the Uptown Theater project in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and how that stood as a symbol of the neighborhood’s illustrious past and current challenges (as well as future potential).

It’s amazing to me that such a grand building would sit empty – or that it was ever a candidate for demolition.

I feel the same about a building I’ve just discovered in the last few months. I’m finishing my coursework at my new college in the western suburbs, and I take the Metra West Line train every day to get to campus.

And as I’d come back into the city, I was mesmerized by a building I’d see from the train. It was clearly a building no longer in use, covered in graffiti and with most of its windows gone. But the shell of the building looked magnificent.

I was convinced it had been an old high school, until one day I saw the lettering near the top of the building: Brach’s. The building was, until a decade or so ago, the North American factory for Brach’s candy. (more…)

Chicago: Reimagining what remains (part one)

Chicago’s Loop, and Lake Shore Drive, have an array of dazzling architecture, and as Chicago residents we can take a great deal of pride in those accomplishments.

From the urban dweller’s view, there’s a lot to like about Chicago: consistent (if imperfect) mass transit, walkability , and an ever growing network of safe space for bicyclists.

It’s a testament to having planning in place, and diligently following those plans.

Daniel Burnham’s plans for Chicago have now been in the rearview mirror for more than a hundred years, but those plans have served the city magnificently. Our miles of open lakefront space – part of the plan – is, in my eyes, the jewel of the city.

But Chicago is not just the Loop, and some of the challenges that face Chicago are as wide and as deep as any facing Detroit, Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities.

The issues of segregation, racial and ethnic divides and centuries of political corruption in Chicago run deep.

For me, there are two buildings I’ve learned about that tell the story of their Chicago neighborhoods. They are symbols of the challenges those neighborhoods face now.

One is the Uptown Theater in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and the other is the building that housed the now-defunct Brach Candy factory on Chicago’s West Side.

I’ve learned about both of these buildings because my personal story intersected with the story of these neighborhoods.

Take me to the river: new developments in Pittsburgh

Just a few weeks ago, I was talking about how frustrating it was that Pittsburgh wasn’t capitalizing on its riverfront spaces to the fullest extent.

This week, some positive news about Pittsburgh’s riverfront space was announced – and even managed to garner a mention in the New York Times.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s story about the project is here.  The project has been named Almono (after the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers).

The site was originally slated for an expressway that would go to rural Fayette County, but that’s been scrapped. According to the NYT article, a rail line will remain. Could this corridor be a possible site for a commuter train/trolley down the line? Pittsburgh has several train lines (a corridor along Route 28 is another) that are already in place – will multiple uses of these lines ever become a reality?

The site is slightly “up river” and east of the city, just east of the South Side neighborhood.

I’m very encouraged by this news and I hope that the developers get the involvement of the community around them in these early planning stages. The current plans call for mixed use properties, which is a great use of the space.

The report card for development in this area so far has been mixed. The South Side Flats (closer to the city) has capitalized on the busy elements of the South Side and expanded the footprint of that area.

But just a few miles farther up the river, the “fake town” mall on the site of the former Homestead steel works hasn’t done much for the area around it. Instead of bolstering Homestead, it’s drained all the remaining life from its streets. On a recent visit I drove down 8th Street and was astonished at how decayed and empty it looked. Another cluster of retail (devoid of any local businesses) is not the answer, so mixed use sounds promising.

Braddock is another nearby neighbor on the river, and its struggles have been well documented

So I hope that this project finds a new purpose for this existing space. I’ll be keeping an eye on the progress.

Striking a balance: authenticity and imagination

As a child of the Rust Belt – and one that came of age as the wheels of industry were collapsing and rusting all around me – I’ve heard many ideas over the years that were guaranteed to reinvigorate and revitalize these cities and regions.

But for years, many of the ideas put forth to strengthen the core of cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo was….to simply replicate the kind of businesses that were generating money and turning economic wheels in the suburbs.

What rust looks like in the 21st century...

What rust looks like in the 21st century…

That’s a sharp contrast to today, where many of the areas that are seeing renewal and revitalization are areas that are a part of the city’s history, or that capitalize on an existing part of the cityscape.

The Urbanophile (Aaron Renn) wrote about the value of authenticity in a recent post. The concept of authenticity was also the focus of several essays in the recent Cleveland-centric Rust Belt Chic anthology.

None of these cities need to be the “new” [fill in the blank with any city’s name]. The contemporary approach is to make it the best city it can be using its existing identity.

As many of America’s rust belt cities continue to evolve in the 21st century, government officials, planners and developers have to strike a delicate balance between reclaiming and protecting that authenticity and envisioning new uses, new places and new spaces.

The Rust Belt Chic advocacy group, and other Cleveland constituencies, seem to really understand this. The rejuvenation of the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh is a great example, too – using mostly existing spaces and scale to create a new place. There’s a newness and a revitalization to these spaces that respects its history and doesn’t reshape the space into a bland McMall space.

However, authenticity also means honoring the specifics of a particular city. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. That reality frustrates many developers and potential investors in our new corporate, economies-of-scale business landscape – which would prefer easily interchangeable solutions and fixes.

Detroit is, clearly, a city unto itself. I am encouraged by many of the positive things happening in Detroit. But while Detroit shares some of its ills and ailments with other Rust Belt cities, the scope of their challenges is unparalleled. And while reuse of a space makes sense for many other cities, Detroit has made a bold decision to go on a diet and shrink its developed space.

Buffalo is another question mark. There’s been a recognition in the last several years that Buffalo has some magnificent buildings and homes, and there’s certainly still life in the old city. But the questions remain – what economic engine can drive Buffalo 2.0?  Who can live in and maintain architecturally unique and important spaces in Buffalo?

Jobs are, for most cities like Buffalo and Detroit, the remaining missing piece of the puzzle. People are recognizing the livability of many of these spaces, and the potential these cities have. It will take time for any investment in new industries and in local businesses to really pay dividends. Pittsburgh’s partial resurgence is the result of groundwork that was mapped out thirty years ago.

Certainly, there are similarities in the Rust Belt experience. But as Aaron Renn said,  the turnaround for a Rust Belt region will not come from “chasing the same dreams as everybody else. It will be charting a unique path rooted in local history, culture, and geography, repositioned for the 21st century.”



Pittsburgh: Progress and Potholes

NOTE: While the city of Pittsburgh will be a frequent topic for this blog, this is the final post in this initial four-part series on Pittsburgh.

My initial posts about Pittsburgh may strike a casual reader as needlessly critical. (In my defense, it’s kind of the old, traditional Pittsburgh way to offer unsolicited advice, to friend or stranger, about their problems and potential solutions!)

So let me be clear: I love Pittsburgh. And I don’t want it to be the “new” anywhere.

For most of the time I lived in the proper “city” as an adult, I lived in Lawrenceville. In the early 2000s, Lawrenceville was on the precipice of something. Many of us could see it and feel it.

At the time, I was paying $300 rent in a building that likely wouldn’t pass fire code today, and our sidewalk was filled with broken glass and prostitutes, sometimes simultaneously. The same streets today are filled with vibrant shops, nice living spaces and a lot of people.

The transformation of Lawrenceville astonishes me, and makes me so happy. And more importantly, I don’t think L’ville lost any of its essential Pittsburgh qualities in its transformation. Hell, it launched Sharon Needles and a spooky, Terminal Stare-style drag queen is about as Pittsburgh as you can get!

On my recent visit home I saw a lot of encouraging signs, and I’ve read a lot of great stories about the continued evolution. Years ago, when I worked in retail downtown, I remember sections of streets near Forbes and Wood being so desolate during the day that it was not unusual (well, odd but not uncommon) to see a homeless person defecating on the street.

But there’s a definite renaissance happening with many buildings and spaces downtown, and it’s not just the tall skyscrapers owned by PNC. It’s smaller spaces, like the ones outlined in this article. (The comment section in that article? Interesting discussion.)

Another Post-Gazette article profiled an interesting mixture of “old” and “new” Pittsburgh – food carts and pierogies! (Again, interesting comment section.)

The things that are working, the positive parts of Pittsburgh’s evolution, are led by people who understand that the city doesn’t need a “reinvention” as much as it needs ideas for repurposing, or re-using, the resources it already has in its wheelhouse.

I know Pittsburgh is a collection of neighborhoods, but for a suburban boy like me, downtown Pittsburgh is the crown jewel, and I worry about its future and the plans for its use.

Mistakes have been made, and not all of them have been as far back in the rearview mirror as, say, the Penn Circle urban renewal debacle or the plans for the (now demolished) Civic Arena that tore apart the Hill District

The space developed in downtown Pittsburgh is greater than what a smaller, more streamlined 21st century ‘Burgh needs.

Yet there’s still suggestions that we need to fill the empty space with more office space, or more retail, despite the high profile failures of the downtown Lazarus project  (subsidized, in part, by the city of Pittsburgh) and the Lord & Taylor debacle – where a historical building was torn asunder for a department store that (a) was a carbon copy of the store next door and (b) closed soon after it opened its doors.

I’m hoping that more progress is made in re-imagining what can be for the city, but it will take a continued commitment to new ideas and new sized solutions. Pittsburgh can’t continue to party like it’s 1949. We need more progressive ideas, and less cheap fixes that just turn into potholes. There are enough of those in Pittsburgh.

END NOTE: Full disclosure – I’ve mentioned PNC in this blog a few times. I worked for them for several years. I have nothing but positive things to say about them as an employer and a company.

However, it concerns me a little that so much of in the city is being built on their shoulders. Depending on one company, or one industry, to turn the wheels in the city is a mistake Pittsburgh made in the past – and one it should avoid in the future.

Pittsburgh: Wheels in Motion – Bikes, Cars and People

NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts about Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is an amazingly unique city. But as I mentioned in my first post, I also think that it is an interesting mean when we look at various issues in planning, city life, and transit.

And one issue that Pittsburgh’s been grappling with in a big way is the expansion of bicyclists and pedestrians in the city.

pittsburgh copyWith the long-standing pedestrian/bicyclist populations in the near North Side (now the “North Shore”) and South Side now joined by bikers across the city – especially in easily accessible areas in the near East End like Lawrenceville – there are more bikes on the road, and more people walking to work.

Younger people who are staying in the city – as well as new transplants – are partly attracted by Pittsburgh’s low cost of living. And with mass transit teetering on a crumbling fiscal cliff, many folks are investigating bikes and walking as alternatives.

But this expansion of alternative transit modes has resulted in conflict in a city and a region that has been primarily car-driven for decades. And that conflict has already played out in big and small ways across the city – ending, in some cases, in tragedy.

  • In 2010, a mother jogging with her two young children, ages 3 and 1, was killed at a busy intersection in Pittsburgh’s Mt. Lebanon neighborhood. While there were other contributing factors in the crash (the driver was under the influence), the sidewalks in the community, which were previously known for ease of accessibility and safety, have seen conflict with an ever-increasing number of drivers.
  • Several bicyclists were severely injured or killed in the last year when they were struck by automobiles, and many of those accidents were hit-and-run. One such accident that claimed the life of a 46-year-old Homewood bicyclist happened in July 2012, only weeks after another hit-and-run nearly killed a 23-year old Larimer bicyclist. A few weeks later, a retired University of Pittsburgh professor was also struck while on his bike in a hit-and-run (that driver was found and is facing charges for leaving the scene).
  • And in perhaps the most vivid sign of conflict, a bicyclist was stabbed by a driver in September in what appears to be an incident of road rage.

While cars are still a dominant mode of transportation, almost every city has had this debate about adding bicyclists and pedestrians into the vehicular mix. The topic gets a passionate response and a healthy case of finger pointing at “the other guy” – depending, of course, on your preferred mode of transportation.

I’m not interested in trying to tell you who’s to blame for these specific events. Accidents are accidents. Pittsburgh has some very challenging geography that makes all modes of travel more challenging.

There definitely needs to be a greater awareness that all driving in and around the city isn’t the same as highway driving. The fact that several major highways and parkways terminate in the Golden Triangle creates a situation where cars that had just been going 70 MPH are suddenly transitioned to slower city driving.

I worked in the Golden Triangle for years and this was always a huge issue: cars were barreling through the downtown corridor as if they were still on “highway” driving mode. That made it dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Roads are, with the efforts of the city and groups like BikePGH, becoming more bike-friendly.

But when you dig a little deeper, there are telling signs in the comment thread in the article about Colin Albright, the bicyclist that was stabbed, and in other articles. (An article about bike safety after two Pittsburgh bicyclists died has a discussion thread where the first comment is, “Get a car.”)

Granted, online discussion threads aren’t known for their eloquence and civility. People say some pretty insane things online. But I think the tone of these discussions is pretty telling.

These debates are a pretty vivid illustration of some of the conflicts happening around…well, around bikes and cars and transit. And around change, a process Pittsburgh is usually reluctant to embrace.

There’s the continuing conflicyt between Old Traditional Pittsburgh and 21st Century Pittsburgh. (“Why would you want to ride a bike? A car works just fine! We all drive cars! Any normal person would have a car! We’ve all had cars since your Pap bought his first LaSalle!”)

This is also to a large degree a “city vs. suburb” conflict (in the places it’s happening), since those constituencies see road use from a different perspective.

These events may have been specific to Pittsburgh, but it also speaks to the larger evolution of how we use city and regional roads.

In Chicago, my current hometown, there’s more significant support for bicyclists. There is significant designated space on Chicago’s streets for bikes. The major conflict here is pedestrians vs. cabbies (but that’s a whole other blog post).

There’s still some negative reactions from drivers to bicyclists and bikes in Chicago, but the sheer number of bicyclists here is a sizable – and vocal – constituency. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel has supported the expansion of bike-friendly lanes, significantly expanding the number of city streets with lanes or street markings for bicyclists.

There’s a significant coordination with CTA and Metra for bicyclists. I know people who use CTA or Metra trains and their bikes to commute from Wisconsin and Indiana.

And though the sheer number of cars and bikes in some areas of Chicago can still make bike safety a tricky balance, I’m glad that bike visibility and awareness has continued to trend up in Chicago. My partner bikes to work every day – even on the coldest winter day – and I’m always thinking about his safety during his commute.

As for Pittsburgh, it continues to evolve from its 20th century model, and just as the region is rethinking land use and river use, the ‘Burgh will also have to rethink the ways it uses its roads and city streets to best serve its citizens.

POSTSCRIPT: The roads may be a challenge for Pittsburgh bicyclists, but ironically, the region has an impressive network of regional bike paths, including a long-distance path that runs from the city all the way to Washington, D.C.

And there are several bike paths and walking paths near the city itself that groups, including Riverlife Pittsburgh, are working to implement.

ALSO: I wanted to look at this from a high-level perspective and think about how we look at sharing the roads in different cities; anyone who wants more information about how advocates in Pittsburgh are working to raise awareness about bike transit should check out BikePGH.

Pittsburgh: Confluence and Conflict

No, really - they built it right by the river!

No, really – they built it right by the river!

NOTE: This is the second in a series of posts about Pittsburgh. 

One of the most magnificent places to be in Pittsburgh is where two rivers (Allegheny and Monongahela) meet at a confluence (some might say ‘converge’) to form the Ohio River. It’s all about nature’s great planning skills, and how it all flows together so naturally.

Flow, and a sense of coalescence, is hard to come by in Pittsburgh. And that’s partly a result of the terrain of the area.

Pittsburgh has always been a collection of neighborhoods, with hills, valleys and geographic twists and turns serving as borders. Anyone looking for a north/south, east/west, numbered grid system in Pittsburgh will be sorely disappointed (and also very lost).

But some of what we see in present-day Pittsburgh is a legacy of a lack of planning, or a lack of smart planning.

There’s no better sign of this, in my eyes, than the shiny new building that scored prime real estate along the Mon. The new building is in one of the most visible areas in the city, bordered by one of the biggest LEED certified buildings in town,* and looking over to the expanding South Side Flats area.

Is it a hotel? A new office building? Erm, no. It’s the county JAIL.

And there’s not only one, but TWO large jail buildings on prime real estate. (The Golden Triangle, the small core of Downtown, is only a few blocks wide and few streets long.)

The other building, an old and imposing behemoth taking up a whole city block, is the former county jail, built in the late 1800s. (Remember the dingy, windowless scenes in the dungeon-like jail in The Silence Of The Lambs? The old county jail is where those scenes were filmed.)

Using that space as the footprint for a jail boggles my mind. But for all the beauty of its rivers, Pittsburgh seems to have little sense on what to do with the space along the river banks.

Chicago, my current town, has made a calling card out of miles of open lakeshore access. Many of us suffer through cold winters and corrupt governors because we get beautiful lakeside access for the rest of the year. Pittsburgh could have the same sort of success with its riverside space, but hasn’t capitalized on that idea.

And that’s at the heart of the biggest planning controversy to hit Pittsburgh in years. A local developer, Buncher, wants to redevelop the iconic Strip District neighborhood.

I completely understand why – it’s a wonderful, quirky neighborhood that sits between downtown Pittsburgh and Lawrenceville, my former stomping grounds and the biggest neighborhood success story in recent Pittsburgh memory. (Editor’s note: Look for an upcoming post on L’ville,)

And certainly, the Strip could use a bit of rethinking. It still has the marks of its earlier life as an industrial space. The buildings looks like they could, to borrow the Pittsburghese parlance, “use a good warshing.”

The Strip could also use a smart, inexpensive plan for a dense, inexpensive parking structure, rather than the rows upon rows of surface parking that gobbles up much of the land nearest town in the Strip. And the old wholesale produce terminal – a central part of Buncher’s plans – could use an upgrade, or a retrofitting, to take it to the 21st century.

But Buncher’s current plans call for the space nearest the river to be private land, developed solely for the access of the proposed condo owners using that space. And so again, Pittsburgh fumbles the ball on the opportunity to open up an avenue of public space.

The city itself has had a rough road in terms of growing new business, especially new retail, in the downtown core. Part of the problem is the lack of real public space. Market Square has been revitalized in the last several years, with the new public square more accessible to people day and night.

It’s that kind of space, and the inviting storefront level activity along the square, that have re-energized that space. The new PNC office building and Fairmont Hotel a block away also helped. (For more on the planning effort re: Market Square, click here.)

Contrast that with Station Square, which is Pittsburgh’s one clear space for open riverside views. It’s still a great old space by the river (Station Square was an old train station) and it’s served by the one transit car line in Pittsburgh.

This photo shows the limits of the footprint of The Golden Triangle.

This photo shows the limits of the footprint of The Golden Triangle.

But the space has been overrun in recent years by big chain restaurants that have gobbled up the exterior space around the old station itself.

The inside of Station Square is like every other dying mall in the region, perhaps filled to 60 or 70 percent of capacity, and the restaurants are no more compelling than Applebee’s. Despite a unique, one of a kind space, few people flock to Station Square (unless it’s for the still-fantastic Gateway Clipper Fleet rides).

I think present-day Pittsburgh is suffering from a lack of cohesive planning. I’m not sure who made those mistakes, or when they happened, but I see it in neighborhood after neighborhood. Pittsburgh would definitely benefit from regional or metropolitan planning on a wider scale.

Pittsburgh has so many magnificent resources, and I know that there are many groups working to help plan the city’s next steps.

As with many other cities, private groups and advocates are fighting with entrenched politicians and chasing development money. It’s a private developer that’s driving the current Strip District project. And neighborhood groups are fighting back.

But the Golden Triangle itself is still a neighborhood in transition. I think everyone across the city – and those of us who love it – need to be advocates and defenders of its future, one where the beauty of Pittsburgh and all its rich resources are open to all her citizens.


The mysteries of Pittsburgh

I’ll be discussing several so-called “Rust Belt” cities here in the next few weeks.

PittsburghBut I’m launching a series of posts today on one particular city: Pittsburgh.

The choice of Pittsburgh is, in part, because of my own experiences: I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. As an adult, I lived in city neighborhoods for over a decade. I still call it “home.”

But personal connections aside, I think Pittsburgh is a really compelling city to examine in this blog. Pittsburgh has been hailed as a success story (and rightfully so) of a city that lost its primary industry and managed to reinvent itself.

Pittsburgh is thinking about – or running right into – many of the issues of urban use, reuse, planning and development that are being discussed across the country.

And there are shifts in Pittsburgh’s suburbs, and the regions surrounding Pittsburgh, that fall into national trends (leapfrog suburbs, decay of first-ring suburbs).

Pittsburgh’s transit options (or lack thereof) are also very representative of the challenges many cities are dealing with, and I’ll be examining Pittsburgh’s transit issues, too.

There are some unique aspects of Pittsburgh – the geography, the resources and of course, the Pittsburgh accent – and I’ll be writing about those, too.


Cities vs. Suburbs

I don’t hate the suburbs.

No…really, I don’t.

SurreyFarmI know that’s a common perception about those of us who are “city folk,” or anyone who’s interested in urban studies, urban planning and sustainability.

If you believe the stereotypes, we’re all city folks who hate green grass. And cars. (And HAPPINESS itself!)

But I have an appreciation for suburban living. I spent eighteen years in the suburbs. My suburban housing plan was about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. It was called Surrey Farm, but unlike its idyllic sounding name, it was built on reclaimed mining land. It had green grass, tennis courts, a baseball field and a small playground.

It had its good points (it was a beautiful, serene atmosphere) and its bad points (small town life, and the microscope one lives under in a small community, is not for everyone). But I have a lot of love for the community where I grew up.

The divide between “urban” and “suburban” in our country can be as pronounced as the one between liberals and conservatives, partly because each geographic group is seen as a political symbol.

The last election talked a great deal about the urban vote for Democrats and the suburban vote for Republicans and Romney.

I’m not “anti-suburbs”. But as a country, we need to think very deeply about further suburban expansion. And we need to be wise and prudent about managing the suburbs we have already built.

At the top of the list is a need for awareness about the real cost of suburban expansion – not only to us as individuals but to our communities and governments. howpeopleliveinthesuburbs16

At first, a move to the suburbs seems like a cheaper choice – for companies and for families. But at some point, gas prices, energy costs and the costs of infrastructure expansion and repair will make that upfront savings disappear.

We’ve marketed the suburbs as a paradise for years, and it may well be the right choice for some people.

But all of us need to be far more clearheaded about the true costs and true benefits of life in the suburbs. And we need to be VERY realistic about what the suburbs have cost us already – and what the cost to our way of life will be if they continue to expand.

Intro: The Metro Stories

Welcome to The Metro Stories!

As we start 2013, I’m launching a new blog to write about the future of the cities and suburbs where we live and work. I want to examine the ways we build communities and connections, and rethink how we’ve traditionally grown and expanded our use of the land around us.

I also have a special interest in how we can reuse and find new purposes for space we’ve already developed. Many of these areas are considered “the rust belt,” and had been written off at the end of the twentieth century. But interesting things are happening in these communities, and I’m hoping to bring those things to light.


I’m a writer and journalist. Although I’ve technically always been a writer, my freelance career started about seven years ago. I wrote freelance pieces for newspapers and magazines, and also served a stint as a staff writer for an Internet job site.

My career and my life has followed an unconventional (and divergent) path, and in 2011, I decided to return to college. I’d hit the pause button on my prior stint in college, promising to return after a “short break.” That short break gave way to well over a decade of climbing the ladder and eventually carving out a pathway in the corporate world. I worked for banks (one) and insurance companies (two).

I’ve developed an interest in urban studies and planning because (a) it covers so much of what I was already writing about thematically, and (b) it encompasses SO MUCH of what we need to think about and plan for our futures: education, energy resources, infrastructure, transportation, housing, food sources and our economies, for starters.


So here’s the thing: I’m still learning about the issues and the history of urban studies and urban planning. There are many talented people who write about urban planning issues, and can amass and interpret amazing amounts of data and statistics. I’m not quite there yet.

What I CAN offer is my skills as a writer and a storyteller, and my own experiences. My family hails from one of the rustiest Rust Belt cities around (Johnstown, Pennsylvania) and I spent my childhood in a suburb of Pittsburgh. I’ve lived in many places in the Rust Belt and elsewhere, and I bring that perspective to this blog.

This is my writing and my work, but I also hope that some of these posts will become a conversation, and I welcome comments, questions and debates.