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.



  1. While there are a lot of things in this article that I agree with, I don’t believe the author gave the whole picture of planning and development in Pittsburgh. Three Rivers Park, being developed by Riverlife Pittsburgh http://www.riverlifepgh.org/ is ultimately working to create 13 miles of connected parks and trails spanning all 3 rivers. The Allegheny Riverfront MasterPlan http://www.pittsburghpa.gov/alleghenyriverfront/ is another example of smart planning. Not to mention existing locations such as the North Shore home to 2 stadiums, apartments, shops, restaurants, offices and a lovely park and trail. The SouthSide Works Development, Pittsburgh Technology Corridor, the new Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, East Liberty Development, etc. Cities becoming more livable are both the product of good planning, AND organic growth. Pittsburgh has its problems, lack of growth, lack of international community, chronically underfunded transit system, etc., but it has come a long, long way. Please provide the entire story. Thanks!

    1. Andrew, I appreciate the feedback.

      I didn’t set out to imply that there was NO solid planning in Pittsburgh. This is also a multi-part series, and I’ll be talking a lot about various aspects Pittsburgh and other cities I cover…so this is not a one-and-done post for me. I also have some positive things to say about Pittsburgh. I’ll ask you to “stay tuned” and let me know if I’m still missing aspects after you see the next several posts.

      Re: some of the more recent work – I also made the point in my post that I was really addressing a lot of the earlier decisions made…we’re living with the legacy of decisions made 30-50 years ago. There are wiser decisions being made today. I know the Pittsburgh 2030 group is also working on downtown planning, as well as the groups you mentioned.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. A couple notes:

    (1) Although the location of the new(er) county jail is a favorite local punching bag (e.g., they mock it on the duckboat tours), it is not really a prime location due to the fact it is surrounded by highway ramps and an unattractive bridge. And because the county courts are Downtown, it does make sense to have the jail nearby;

    (2) Thanks to some wrangling during the zoning process, Buncher’s revised development plan can only limit non-resident car (not bike or pedestrian) access between the planned residential buildings, and as suggested above, there was always going to be a public riverfront park–the only issue was what sort of public access would occur at a few cross streets (which currently do not exist at all).

    None of this is to suggest that proper utilization of the riverfronts is not an ongoing issue in Pittsburgh, but I think some of these examples are not really illustrative of the big contemporary issues (although in a sense the county jail example does raise a real issue, which is the negative impact highway infrastructure is having on land values).

    1. Thanks for your comments, Brian.

      I understand that the highway ramps/bridge may not have made it ideal space, but it still seems like a bizarre use of space. The area near the West End Bridge seems like a better utilitarian space for a jail/prison.

      Appreciate the clarification on the Strip plan. The plan as I’ve seen online is very unclear. I understood riverfront access to be mostly restricted. It seems like Buncher wants to develop a long stretch along the Allegheny eventually – encompassing Lawrenceville, etc. – and while planning in that space is important, I’d be disappointed if a majority of that becomes private property without public access. I think Pittsburgh would benefit from more public spaces.

      And you make a great point about highway infrastructure. Milwaukee has seen some very positive changes when it removed overpasses/underpasses and opened some spaces in the city back to an open boulevard. I think that’s something Pittsburgh should look at in planning, to be sure.

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