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Businesses to make best of South Highland Avenue Bridge closure

| Monday, March 4, 2013, 12:06 a.m.
Jerome Fitzgerald of Lawrenceville enters the Steel City Improv Theater on Ellsworth Avenue near the South Highland Avenue Bridge, Friday. The section of road is slated to be closed for six months starting Monday while the bridge is replaced. The theater, which just moved from a desolate part of the North Side in January, is worried about losing patrons during the closure; checking with other area businesses. Photo taken March 1, 2013. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Patrons of the Steel City Improv Theater enter the main entrance on Ellsworth Avenue near the South Highland Avenue Bridge, Friday. The section of road is slated to be closed for six months starting Monday while the bridge is replaced. The theater, which just moved from a desolate part of the North Side in January, is worried about losing patrons during the closure; checking with other area businesses. Photo taken March 1, 2013. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

A bridge replacement project that's been on the books for years nonetheless managed to catch the crew at the Steel City Improv Theater by surprise. Their next improvisation might be how to stay open.

Less than a month after moving from Deutschtown to their new venue on the ground floor of the building right next to the South Highland Avenue Bridge, the owners found out the dilapidated bridge spanning the East Busway and Norfolk Southern Railroad was going to be closed starting Monday, and the street in front of their entrance will become a construction staging area.

“It really came as a huge shock,” said Kasey Daley, artistic director and co-owner of the theater. “Our landlord had warned us it was coming — next year.”

The Department of Public Works and PennDOT will close South Highland and Ellsworth Avenue beneath it for six months starting March 4 while the 87-year-old truss bridge and its wobbly wooden sidewalk are replaced at a cost of $3.5 million. The roads are expected to reopen in September; until then, traffic will be detoured via Alder Street, Shady Avenue and Centre Avenue/Penn Circle South.

Daley said she and co-owner Justin Zell were looking for other parking to replace the lot on the other side of the bridge and the street parking up on Highland that would no longer be accessible once the bridge and its stairs down to Ellsworth close.

Business owners on each side of the bridge spanning Ellsworth, the East Busway and Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks said Daley and her landlord could be forgiven for not realizing the imminence of the closure; officials have been planning it and warning that it could happen for decades.

“When I chose this location, the building's owner said, ‘I want you to realize they're going to close that bridge any day now,' ” said Dr. Leon Kohane, who's had a dental office one storefront south of the bridge since 1984.

On the East Liberty side of the bridge, BRGR and Spoon General Manager Heather Perkins worried the closure could cut into lunchtime crowds coming from Shadyside. Luckily, she said, there was still the new pedestrian bridge further west along Ellsworth Avenue connecting over the busway to the EastSide development.

“Hopefully, people will be aware of the pedestrian bridge over by Whole Foods, but it's hard enough to get Pittsburghers to cross a bridge as it is,” she said.

Most of the business owners in the block looked forward to the project's completion and the more aesthetic new bridge they'd been shown at community meetings. Instead of the rust-red and graffitied metal girders separating cars from pedestrians, the bridge will be more open with tall light poles and an artistic fence similar to the new pedestrian bridge.

Others pledged to make the best of the closure: Brian Brick, owner of the Time Bomb clothing shop, said having the street in front of Time Bomb become a dead-end for a few months might make it possible to hold block parties.

“You'll see us out here in the summer with a grill,” he said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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