Step up, Buncher: The Strip deserves a far better plan
As three big urban redevelopment projects get under way in Pittsburgh, it's sad that the weakest plan is in the most prominent spot.
The three big plans — the recently announced Penguins' plan for the Lower Hill District, the Buncher Co.'s for the Strip District, and the Almono development in Hazelwood — are all moving ahead.
But where the Penguins and Almono have come up with sophisticated redevelopment ideas that seize the opportunities and satisfy the sensitivities of their sites, Buncher continues to plod along with an unimaginative plan that will bring a dull suburban-like office and apartment mix to a potentially dramatic riverfront site directly adjacent to Downtown.
The importance of the Buncher site, stretching for six blocks along the Allegheny River north of the Veterans Bridge, can't be overstressed. It's rare in any city for such a large parcel of centrally located riverfront land to be available.
The land was once all railroad yards (and mills before that) in those old industrial times when Pittsburgh was a dominant city. Most recently, it's been one huge parking lot.
In today's post-industrial times, Pittsburgh must compete with cities all over the world to create lively and attractive environments that will sustain the young, well-educated, technology-oriented — and entrepreneurial — population that most cities covet. In that sense, the weak Buncher plan represents a lost opportunity to contribute to Pittsburgh's uniqueness in a competitive world.
To understand this, now that all three plans are on the table, let's consider them in terms of urban “values” — things like walkability, views, parking and public spaces.
These are the things that can give people a reason to be in a place and enjoy it. They can help create a sense of community, and make the routine more than routine, enlivening what's daily with respite and fun.
Walkability: The Almono plan envisions a sort of urban boulevard above and parallel to the Monongahela River, with a generously wide, landscaped pedestrian walkway for strolling. The Buncher plan has no signature broad walkways or plaza above the river banks, even in front of areas contemplated for apartment living.
The main pedestrian feature of the Buncher plan is a walkway, set between two lanes of traffic, that would extend 17th Street to the river. It would culminate in a viewing platform projecting out to the river. But people don't use those kinds of viewing platforms more than once or twice. You walk out, you look, and you walk back. And maybe you might come again.
What people will do repeatedly — even day after day — is walk alongside a river, strolling alone or with others. Think of all the memorable urban situations where you have seen that — in Paris, London or New York. Why not in the Strip? It's a basic urban delight when done right and would make the apartments there that much more desirable.
Parking: The Buncher plan contemplates lots of parking in plain sight. If you think of suburban offices as big low-rise buildings surrounded by parking lots, that's some of what you'll experience in Buncher's Strip.
To grasp this, go to the Senator John Heinz History Center, note the new hotel across the street, then the “Seagate” building beyond (crowded close to the river), and then all the parking in between the two. This is a pattern Buncher will reuse at other points in its new plan. There are even two places where Buncher might put parking between buildings and the river.
Parking lots are inimical to a lively city. They make views and walking deadly dull. And parking doesn't belong anywhere on valuable scenic riverfront.
The Penguins' plan for the Lower Hill does just the opposite. It seeks to hide almost all parking. Surface parking will mostly be on the inside of blocks. Garages will be underground, or if above ground, will have to meet strict architectural standards to de-emphasize their presence.
Views: One of the great virtues of the Hill District plan is that street views have been carefully considered, with building heights adjusted to preserve views from Hill streets toward Downtown.
The Buncher plan ignores street views altogether. While the Strip doesn't offer views as dramatic as the Hill's, others have shown that aligning streets or walkways with views of the exceptionally graceful arches of the David McCullough Bridge (16th Street Bridge) would help create a unique sense of place within the Buncher development.
Architecture: Buncher has said its buildings will use predominantly red brick to harmonize with the existing warehouses and old industrial structures around it. While it's often critical that new buildings show respect for historic buildings near them, to overdo this red-brick sameness in such a large area would just be dull.
The Almono and Lower Hill plans contemplate a variety of buildings to be built over a period of years by different developers. Not in the same style, and not necessarily of the same materials or same colors, but in compatible scales. This is what works in cities.
Amenities and public spaces: Other than that 17th Street walkway and platform, there are no significant public spaces planned for the Strip. The Almono plan includes several parks and the Hill plan includes public plazas and a park bridging the Crosstown Expressway. Without amenities to enjoy within it, the Buncher development becomes like those in suburbia — you drive in, do what you came to do, and drive out.
Community and neighborhoods: The Almono and Lower Hill plans devote a lot of attention to creating residential neighborhoods where interaction would be possible. The Buncher plan — in the only version so far shown — astoundingly lines up about 40 townhouses in a single row, facing the main through-street in the development, with high-rise apartment buildings across the street. Can this possibly be a “neighborhood” in any good sense of the word?
In the long run, it will take years for all three developments to be fully realized. Apartment buildings, hotels and offices can only be built as demand for them occurs. In that time, lots of changes can occur.
For example, much attention has been given in recent months to the controversy over Buncher's original plan to tear down about a third of the historic Produce Terminal in the Strip. But that has been resolved, and Buncher will no longer be involved in the Terminal's redevelopment.
At the same time, much more needs to be done, and Buncher could still improve the rest of its plans significantly. The Almono and Lower Hill plans show the way.
Our city still deserves something better from Buncher.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.