Parklet boom: Banks' green spaces add beauty to Downtown

John Conti
| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

It seems rare these days to want to say thanks to banks. But among the half dozen enjoyable new parks and parklets built Downtown over the past 20 years or so, three are due to the efforts of PNC and BNYMellon.

• PNC, six years ago, created a handsome public place it calls Firstside Park, a place of intricate, varied spaces and amusing sculptures between First and Second avenues and Grant and Ross streets. It is opposite PNC's operations center.

• BNYMellon maintains a greenspace it calls Mellon Green. With a prominent, imaginatively designed central fountain, it faces BNYMellon's own operations center on Ross and the Grant Street entrance to the William Penn Hotel. It is adjacent to the 54-story BNYMellon Center.

• Finally, in 2009, PNC built what has proved to be a superbly successful modern-style parklet on a small triangle of land at the busy intersection of Liberty and Fifth Avenues, in front of Three PNC Plaza. This space is called Triangle Park, naturally enough, and it's an encouragingly egalitarian sort of park. It provides both the foreground for the Fairmont Hotel, one of the toniest overnight stays in town, along with the most elaborately designed — and restful — bus stop in the city. It was designed by LaQuatra Bonci, South Side landscape architects.

Interestingly, neither bank took the easy approach to design. They could have created spaces that were mostly lawn, with a few trees and a few flowerbeds — a traditional sort of open urban park that you can take in at one glance. But the designs of Mellon Green and Firstside take an opposite approach — providing lots of varied plantings of shrubs and trees that screen you somewhat, though never totally, from the streets around you.

PNC's Firstside, even though the lot was originally level, has earthen berms around the edges and little hillocks throughout, and numerous small changes in level. Curving gravel paths run among a variety of spaces, and only one nearly direct diagonal walk — from the Boulevard of the Allies over to the corner of First and Ross — crosses it. Inside are whimsical sculptures of monkeys and frogs, among other things, and a big Corten steel sculpture that many Downtown workers may remember was originally installed near PNC's headquarters on Fifth Avenue.

There are plenty of places to sit and even read. And though you can never be out of sight in this park, it gives you what the designers intended: a wonderful feeling of temporary isolation from the sights and sounds of the city.

Firstside park was built on a block opposite PNC's operations center. This block had formerly housed the city's Public Safety Building. It was designed by Astorino, the Downtown firm that designed the center. Drivers of the Parkway East are familiar with this building, whose long, curving facade borders the Parkway East near Grant Street.

The park is heavily used by PNC workers but also nearly day and night by students from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, as the diagonal walkway is an indispensible part of the shortest route from the Institute's classrooms to its dormitory.

Mellon Green is somewhat famous for having been the unwilling host for nearly five months in 2011-12 to the “Occupy Pittsburgh” demonstration against the “1 percent” — something that banks are thought to be the most visible reminders of. But the greenspace has been restored and is today a remarkably pleasant place to stop regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum.

It, too, helps you feel a little isolated from the city thanks to perimeter plantings and the intentionally loud, but pleasant, sound of the fountain, sculpted with huge granite monoliths at its center, and intended to block out the sounds of the city. The greenspace slopes from Ross toward Grant, and has an X-shape for its walkways. A smaller green space, across Ross and next to BNY Mellon's operations center, adds a second component to the park-like environment.

Marshall, Tyler, Raush designed the fountain, and Moore Design Associates the overall park. Both are local firms.

Firstside and Mellon Green could, ultimately, be used for future development. But nothing of that sort is on the horizon, both banks say. And, in any case, parks are far better than parking lots as a way to hold Downtown land for development.

So, if you need a pleasant respite on a busy day, try one of these parks. It might well help take your mind off the state of your checking account!

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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