Pittsburgh region full of standout streets

| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

Great streets are everywhere. But some streets are definitely greater than others! What's a “great street?” We asked local urban planners, architects and landscape architects to tell us about their favorite streets here, and why some streets stand out.

Maybe it's because of our terrain, but there are enough exceptionally interesting streets in our city and region to give Pittsburgh genuine singularity among big cities.

The sampling of streets they cited ranged from residential boulevards, like Beechwood Boulevard, to lively (and sometimes over-lively) streets like East Carson on the South Side. Small, quiet residential streets were cited, and newly reborn commercial centers in our suburbs, such as Potomac Avenue in Dormont, were praised.

Here's what the experts have to say.

Grant Street, Downtown. Many Pittsburghers were pleased last month when the American Planning Association selected Grant Street as one of America's “10 Best Streets” for 2012. Rebuilt by the city some 20 years ago, it features a tree-lined median, brick paving and granite curbs and what has been called “an architectural promenade” of some of the city's best and most important buildings. Trafford landscape architect Richard Rauso, a past president of the Pennsylvania/Delaware Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, describes the street as “a perfect marriage of the textures of classic street materials and outstanding architecture.”

Beechwood Boulevard, Squirrel Hill. Landscape architect Susan Rademacher of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy points to this long, meandering boulevard as a favorite. Its sinuous curves, rising and falling with the terrain, mark the eastern edge of the gridiron streets that make up Squirrel Hill and Shadyside and insure that this seemingly unending street is never boring. It's a pleasant street to drive, distinguished by many substantial homes and lush landscaping.

Potomac Avenue, Dormont. David Csont, architectural illustrator for Pittsburgh's Urban Design Associates says, “When you turn off West Liberty Avenue on to Potomac, suddenly everything is OK.” He describes the first several blocks of Potomac as “just right for pedestrians — not too wide and a good balance with cars.” Potomac has large curbside trees that help pedestrians feel separated from the traffic and provide a canopy in summer. “It is,” he says, “a great little space to wander in.” Potomac boasts a mix of popular restaurants, a top-quality coffee shop, a fascinating used bookstore, and a movie theater that the community is keeping alive.

East Carson Street, South Side. Csont's colleague at Urban Design Associates, partner Paul Ostergaard, recently moved to the South Side from the suburbs and thoroughly enjoys living near Carson Street. He has good reason to know what he likes: he's designed streets around the world and headed a design team that recently won awards for its plans for revitalizing Moscow, Russia. “I love it for its activity,” he says of Carson Street, noting that it is surrounded by densely populated residential streets, yet has an unusually long stretch of commercial shops for residents, plus restaurants and nightspots that bring crowds throughout the day. It's a “dramatically transformed” street, he notes, with good architectural restorations of 19th-century buildings.

Roslyn Place, Shadyside. One of the shortest “great streets” anywhere is an approximately 250-foot-long cul-de-sac called Roslyn Place, off of Ellsworth Avenue. Most Pittsbughers aren't aware of Roslyn, but it's known to urban planning students everywhere, as it was highlighted in an influential book called “Great Streets” by University of California-Berkeley professor Allan Jacobs, who once lived there. This is a quiet residential street where “the space created can be likened to an outdoor room,” Jacobs wrote. “The walls are the brick houses … the ceiling is made from the branches of the large sycamores.” There are only 18 residences on Roslyn, most of them in nearly identical red-brick townhouses. An intimately scaled enclosure that creates a very special sense of place, Roslyn has one other defining feature: the street is paved with wooden blocks, used as if they were brick.

Clarendon Place, Friendship. Kevin Kunak, an architect with the Rothschild Doyno Collaborative cites this short block as another intimate residential place that's almost poetic in feel. These also are single-family row houses, but “a grand public-realm gesture” is created, he says, through broad front steps that run the full front width of each unit. This creates “a ‘stage set' that frames ‘the ballet of the sidewalk,' ” he adds. Clarendon runs between Roup and South Fairmont near Penn.

Penn Avenue, through Bloomfield, Friendship and Garfield. Rebecca Mizikar, a landscape architect with Origin4Design, believes the area of Penn roughly from Children's Hospital to Negley Avenue is on the verge of becoming a great street — not so much because of the street's architecture or design, but rather because of the large number of new art galleries, studios, restaurants and design firms that are moving into older buildings there. “It's going to be a whole new street in 10 years,” she says.

Strawberry Way, Downtown. Even alleys can become great streets. Architect Michelle Nermon of Rothschild/Doyno points out that Strawberry Way could become a “vibrant pedestrian space.” Pedestrians use it to go from the U.S. Steel Building to Smithfield or Wood, and along the way it is bordered by both modern and historic buildings. A large circular parking-garage ramp that's alongside is a sort of mini-Guggenheim — “one of the coolest structures in Pittsburgh,” she notes. The paving “shifts from brick and stone to asphalt in an aesthetically pleasing way, and there are a few spots just begging to be activated” — like a surprising loggia at the rear of the Verizon Building, with an arched and tiled ceiling.

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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