Buncher's plan will only weaken the Strip

| Saturday, July 21, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

Let's not.

That's a useful two-word assessment of the Buncher Co.'s plan for a riverside development adjacent to the Strip District.

Let's not make $50 million in public financing assistance available for a huge private project that pays scant attention to a city-sponsored master-planning process for that area.

Let's not allow this $400 million project to go forward with public support when it makes almost no provisions for any transportation other than automobiles.

And above all, let's not grant public financial support, or make changes in the city's zoning laws based on an urban planning proposal as vague, as uninspired, as 1960s-ish (think East Liberty), and just plain lacking in quality as that presented to the city by the Buncher Co.

To date, much of the public debate about the Strip District plan — which Buncher calls Riverfront Landing — has centered around Buncher's intention to demolish more than a third of the historic Produce Terminal in the Strip and turn the rest into trendy retail.

But the neglected element in all the public dialogue so far is that the plans presented by Buncher are almost unbelievably unimaginative and are just plain weak.

There's a dearth of usable public amenities in the plans, and nothing that would create a memorable experience of the riverfront. They plan, inexplicably, to leave large amounts of land as surface parking, and do not seem to be designing for any sense of neighborhood or community. In fact, they seem to be thinking of this as a suburban type of development where you would drive in, go to your residence block or big office block, and then drive out. For the most part, pedestrians are granted one thing: irrelevance! This is bad enough in the suburbs. In the city, it's absolutely appalling.

This plan has the support of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, the City Planning Commission and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. But, the fact is, the mayor and his agencies, despite their obvious zeal for almost any developer's investment in the city, deserve better plans than these. And so do the rest of us.

Buncher did not respond to a request to talk about its plans. The plans are before City Council and cannot move forward until council signs off on $50 million in tax increment financing and creates a special zoning district for the project.

The land in question is 38 acres of (mostly) parking lots along the Allegheny River north of the convention center. It starts near the Veterans Bridge and extends beneath the 16th Street bridge up to 21st Street. You can take it in standing at the corner at the Senator John Heinz History Center. In the 19th century, this land was steel mills, and through much of the 20th century, rail yards.

It stretches a half mile along the Allegheny riverfront and offers a magnificent development opportunity.

But, what Buncher seems to have done with its land is simply divide the 38 acres into 10 large blocks, preliminarily designating five blocks for large apartment buildings, four for office buildings and one for the remaining part of the Produce Terminal, reincarnated as retail.

Their plans are “conceptual” at this point and could take 10 to 15 or more years to bring about. And they reserve the right to change some things at will. That is, blocks currently designated as residential could become commercial, or vice versa, according to the proposal they want the city to approve.

Maybe that's good, because some of their concepts seem strange. They provide for about 50 townhouses, but propose to arrange them in a single three-block-long row facing, of all things, the busiest street in the development. The view across that street would be the backs of apartment buildings that could be anywhere from four to 15 stories high.

The big apartment buildings themselves would be set on podiums that would contain ground-level parking garages. Each podium could fill an entire block, and there appear to be no other parking structures contemplated in the development. But this means barren streets. Walking along these garages — however the parking is screened — would be a horrendously dull experience.

Their plan seems to rule out vibrant street life. Remember that it was the isolation of pedestrians that did a lot of the irreversible damage in East Liberty in the 1960s.

The company makes a big deal out of one feature in the plan that they call the “Piazza.” This is a long, open space from Smallman Street through the development all the way to the river. This is the pedestrian feature that would connect the Strip District to the river and require demolition of parts of the Produce Terminal.

But their idea of a “Piazza” includes the streets — leading from 17th Street — that would bring much of the auto and truck traffic into the new development. Most of the “Piazza” comprises the sidewalks along these streets and a median between them. At the river, the plan contemplates an elevated platform looking out over it.

A simple prediction: This “Piazza” will not be well used. There's no guarantee that residents will find the “Piazza” the best way to get to the Strip, and Strip District shoppers who once take an extra 20 or 30 minutes to stroll to the river and back likely won't come back again.

Aside from the vehicular traffic, once you see the river, about all you can do is turn around and leave. They make vague mention in their plans of possible retail or restaurant development here, and maybe a “water feature.” But those aren't guaranteed and can be transitory, in any case. There is no provision for an esplanade or a pleasant “pedestrian boulevard” experience alongside the river, the sort of thing that could keep you there for a while and become a permanent park-like destination worth returning to.

Buncher plans to retain the riverfront trail and bike path that run along the river — and which it helped develop during the Masloff administration. But that's a trail, not a destination, and building setbacks from the river, as currently planned, are way too narrow to support anything more. Planned setbacks of 50 to 70 feet here contrast with setbacks along the popular new North Shore developments that average 175 feet and range up to 350 feet.

Finally, a city-sponsored master planning process for all of the Allegheny riverfront, up through Lawrenceville to the city limits is under way.

The first stage of this planning evaluated transportation and ecological needs and commercial, cultural and recreational opportunities for the entire corridor. Completed last year, this was a “visioning” process to produce ideas. Subsequently, a design consultant was hired with $1.5 million of mostly federal money to further develop those ideas for parts of this area — including some that would involve Buncher's land. Public meetings to gather input are already being held.

Let's not let Buncher short-circuit that process just because they have a fistful of dollars. If they want public-financing assistance — and they obviously claim to need it — let's have them pause and participate fully in this planning process.

Then — to summon the most appropriate cliché in the book — let's do send them back to the drawing boards.

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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