Pittsburgh must keep the drama of its entrances

John Conti
| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Early last year, when the architect, sculptor and environmentalist Maya Linn was speaking here, she challenged an overflow audience at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland to think about good things in the Pittsburgh environment that have been lost in our lifetimes.

She wanted the audience to meditate on loss, and what we might need to overcome it.

My first thought was easy. I thought of the drive we used to have from the airport into town. Virtually the entire Parkway West was once lined with hills and trees. There was the Bayer headquarters there already, but it had a great landscaped lawn in front of it. And farther down on the other side, you saw a cemetery and a church on a hill in the distance. And just a few other buildings as you got closer to the city.

But otherwise — and you have to realize that virtually nobody under the age of 50 will remember this — the entire trip from airport to Downtown was just about entirely hills and trees.

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of the New Yorker magazine and before that of The New York Times, took note of this once. He told of driving through what he called “country” and emerging from the Fort Pitt tunnel into the sudden view of the entire Downtown. His description of this familiar-to-us experience led him to proclaim Pittsburgh as “the only city in the country with an entrance.”

We've lost most of that pleasant green “country” over the years, of course, to the crass miles-long jumble of commercialism that we now ironically call the “Parkway” West.

But we still have two other main highway entrances to our city — the Parkway North and the Parkway East — and both are in far better shape visually and both have a considerable drama of their own, even without the Fort Pitt tunnel.

And we need to keep them that way.

Why is this important? Well, all three entrances do make us different from other cities. Most other places don't have any sense of “entrance,” where over a hill on the Parkway North and around a curve on the Parkway East, the city's Downtown suddenly emerges.

And as we move ahead in the 21st century, where quality of life becomes one of the major things cities will compete on for economic growth, the beauty of the city and surrounding areas can become conclusive. In an economy that will be as much or more knowledge-based as manufacturing based, Pittsburgh's dramatic setting and our beautiful green hills can give us a distinct comparative advantage. We almost alone can be (or, at least, seem like it to a visitor) “a city in a forest.” That's not such a stretch because all our hills and riversides were originally forest anyway.

This is particularly true on the Parkway North (I-279) where you make a fairly rapid descent of some 500 feet in elevation from I-79 into the city. At first, you see only trees and rugged hillsides. There is some commercial development, but nothing like on the Parkway West. Eventually, you get a brief, teasing glimpse of the tops of two skyscrapers as you come over the hill at Venture Street, then the city disappears until you reach East Street, where practically the whole of Downtown opens up unexpectedly before you.

With that first hint of a city emerging and then disappearing, a traveler experiences spatial drama of the very best sort. Architects and landscape architects design for that kind of effect, first hinting at something before revealing it fully. And you can have that experience here on the scale of an interstate highway! We jaded daily commuters with a hundred other things on our minds are not the best witnesses to this, but the experience is real.

Similarly, when you drive the Parkway East from the Turnpike into town, you have a clear sense of a processional descent. It seems like an almost continuous downhill run until, shortly after the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, you see the houses of the South Side Slopes on your left. Then, as you round a curve, the Downtown skyscrapers are suddenly sitting there before you.

The Parkway East is no longer forested, but it has, nevertheless, escaped the grating commercial landscapes that mar the Parkway West, and driving it is not visually unpleasant. But vigilance is required. Every once in a while, a controversy breaks out over billboards along the Parkway East, and a limited amount of commercial development has occurred along the Parkway North in the 24 years since it opened, even though the terrain there is relatively inhospitable to development.

One reason to be vigilant is that we Pittsburghers can be quite inventive when it comes to leveling our hills. On the Parkway North at the Camp Horne Road interchange, a hilltop site was leveled eight years ago for a new mall. A huge Sam's Club, a Target and a number of lesser stores were built there — an amazing 200 feet above the roadway. You have to wind around a long entrance road just to get there. That's got to be one of those “only-in-Pittsburgh” things — a Sam's Club set 200 feet above the roads it serves!

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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