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Strip District Produce Terminal deserves a better scheme

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Saturday, May 3, 2014, 8:06 p.m.
 

They said it couldn't be done.

But, of course, it could. Three responsible developers have submitted to the city plans for redeveloping the historic Produce Terminal in the Strip District.

All three plans would preserve the amazing 1,500 foot length of the terminal, incorporating everything from residences to restaurants, shops and a produce market.

In a highly contested original plan, the Buncher Co. — which has an option to buy the Terminal from the Urban Redevelopment Authority — maintained it was necessary to demolish about a third of it, something that provoked heated opposition from historic preservationists and outspoken leaders in the local architectural community.

As a result, when the Peduto administration took office, it asked Buncher to give it time to solicit other ideas for development. The URA is now beginning to evaluate these new proposals.

Buncher originally said it needed the demolition so it could extend 17th Street to provide a main entrance to a proposed $450 million residential and office development to be called Riverfront Landing. That development will be built on more than 40 acres between the terminal and the Allegheny River, where all those endless parking lots are now.

All three new proposals, however, suggest opening up a portal beneath the Terminal's roof to allow access to the planned Buncher development.

It's important to understand just what's at stake here. The terminal building is an unusual one because of its length. Built in the 1920s, it's not especially old nor does it have a great deal of architectural distinction in the usual sense. For example, there are no intricate decorations on the building and no particularly distinctive spaces inside, such as you might find with many landmark structures.

But that doesn't mean it isn't important. First, there is its history. As the city's gateway for produce, it is one of the reasons the Strip District developed as it did in the first place. With today's concentration of food markets and specialty shops, the Strip is always lively and has become a magnet for residents from throughout the region.

But the terminal is mostly important because, with its strikingly unusual length, it helps define a potential public space unlike any other you can find anywhere in the region, or even in most other cities.

This space is best appreciated from the lower part of Smallman Street at about 16th Street. It's enclosed by the terminal on the left and a string of warehouse buildings (with some now housing trendy restaurants) on the right. Ending this space at 21st Street is the imposing presence of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church.

To paraphrase with only slight exaggeration what an admiring writer once said of Pittsburgh as a whole, if this kind of public space were in Europe, travelers would go hundreds of miles out of their way to see it! Never mind that what we have now is a freight terminal on one side and a group of warehouse buildings on the other. There are plenty of examples — in Pittsburgh and other cities — of renovated old warehouses becoming upscale residences, restaurants or shops. This space could someday be awe-inspiring and beautiful.

By creating portals through the terminal and keeping the 1,500-foot roof line intact (something suggested by architects such as Pfaffmann + Associates and the Rothschild-Doyno Collaborative in the past), the visual “enclosure” of the entire space would remain intact. Buncher has long argued for demolition, dismissing cut-throughs as impractical.

The Buncher Co. is a responsible developer, and developing those parking lots along the Allegheny is clearly a laudable civic effort. But in the case of the Produce Terminal and, in fact, with the entire Riverfront Landing project, Buncher has been suffering from a serious lack of corporate imagination.

Buncher has yet to show publicly any revisions to its initial plans for the overall project released two years ago. Those plans, though previously approved by the city, are best described as weak — especially where parking and walking are considered. They contemplate far more surface parking than is normally acceptable in a city, they propose parking between apartment buildings and the river in some cases, and envision some residential buildings set atop parking garage podiums — all of which would be unattractive and a deterrent to walking.

This is a case of bringing bad suburban planning into a city environment. “Southpointe in the City” has a certain alliterative attractiveness to it, but, like Washington County's huge Southpointe development (where nobody can walk anywhere — you can only drive in and drive out), the contemplated Buncher environment would not be attractive or even very livable.

The one walking feature in the original Buncher plan — along an extension of 17th Street — would be alongside traffic and would lead to a river overlook. Unfortunately, those kind of river overlooks almost never work. Once you make the effort to get there, you don't usually bother coming back. And all the traffic would hardly be pleasant. It would be far better to create a walkable esplanade alongside the river and away from traffic, which strollers could enjoy over and over again. Views of the graceful arches of the 16th Street Bridge would be a bonus.

But Buncher has not provided sufficient setbacks from the river to support such an esplanade or such views.

It's not practical, they say.

Buncher really needs to sit down with some good urban planners and say, “Let's start over, guys!”

It's not too late. And it would be highly practical.

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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