Greenfield Bridge, symbol of infrastructure decay, to be built anew
The orange sign is posted before the last curve in the road, solitary and garish against the autumn leaves painting Schenley Park. It shows a column-supported arch bridge denoting the 466-foot span ahead — and states a looming deadline.
The Greenfield Bridge will close at 10 p.m. Friday. After that, the 93-year-old structure will be dismantled, imploded and built anew so it can stand for 100 years.
In the interim, drivers will have 18 months without a crucial link in Pittsburgh's road network.
“People don't realize how connective that bridge is,” said Mary Jo Guercio, 61, of Lincoln Place.
Guercio grew up in Greenfield and spent teenage afternoons hanging out on the bridge's Greenfield side, frequenting ice cream and pizza shops along Beechwood Boulevard. The span is the key connector for this hilltop neighborhood of about 8,000 people to Schenley Park and all points west.
The closure, she fears, will “paralyze the community.”
The $17.5 million reconstruction project will commence after Saturday's Bridgefest, a community party held on the bridge the day after it closes. Crews will prep the bridge for its December demolition, a five-day event requiring a shutdown of the Parkway East, Pittsburgh's primary artery east. Target completion for the structure, this one with a gleaming green steel arch instead of crumble-prone concrete, is May 2017.
“It's long overdue, and we're excited to finally get it done,” said Guy Costa, the city's chief operations officer.
The bridge has become a national symbol of infrastructure failure, featured on “60 Minutes” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” Thick black netting has enfolded the arch stays since the 1990s — to catch the crumbling concrete. Beneath that, engineers built the notorious “bridge-under-a-bridge” in 2003 to catch any other falling debris before it could crash through the windshields of drivers on the busy Parkway East highway below.
The last major upgrade was a $2.3 million rehab in the early 1980s. The disrepair is obvious above as well. The ornate concrete pilasters at its entry points are covered in graffiti. Potholes break around drainage grates.
The city's Department of Public Works has spent 16 years on plans to replace the bridge.
But for longer than it has been an eyesore, the Greenfield Bridge has been a community fixture.
Guercio remembers the 1960s when she and her friends would walk across the bridge to the horse barn that used to be in Schenley Park. She remembers young residents bringing beers to the hillside underneath and practicing what she calls “the Tarzan swing.”
“That whole area was a hangout,” Guercio said. “It was a hub for people.”
Urban legends swirl about teenagers running up and down the arch as an initiation rite, or the homeless who have turned the bridge into temporary shelter.
The span was built in 1922 for $234,035.15, according to city records, or about $3.3 million in today's currency. Todd Wilson, an engineer and author of a book about Pittsburgh's bridges, said it was one of seven concrete arch bridges constructed in the city during the era, replacing a wooden structure built in 1909. It spanned a valley that would become the bed for Parkway East, build in the post-World War II highway boom.
Few call the bridge by its real name, the one that is carved onto it: The Beechwood Boulevard Bridge.
That sign will be repurposed on the structure, said city engineer Pat Hassett. So will the decorative urns, five of which remain from the original 18 or so, and the sole remaining globe from the original light posts, preserved through the years in the shelter of trees.
The bridge will have graffiti-proof concrete, a larger 10-foot sidewalk and a protected bike lane. It will keep three traffic lanes: two headed toward Greenfield and one toward Schenley Park.
Hassett, who has lived in Greenfield since 1990 and works with the Greenfield Community Association, said the configuration responds to the latest transportation trends for the city, and community input. Residents voted to make the steel arch green, he said.
“It's the passing of an architectural icon, but also the passing of a community icon,” said Hassett, a key organizer behind Bridgefest, a quirky celebration with music, wood carvers and giveaways that will commemorate the bridge and raise awareness for Greenfield's businesses likely to be hurt by the closure.
Bruce Famili has owned Rialto Pizza for the past 22 years, down the street from the Greenfield side of the bridge. His clientele is full of students from Oakland who pass through one intersection and the bridge to get to the shop.
Business, Famili said, likely will be affected by the closure, though he doesn't know how badly.
“This is the first time the bridge is going to be down,” Famili said. “I never had this problem before.”
During construction, motorists will have to find other routes, potentially clogging areas in Squirrel Hill, Regent Square or the Parkway East. Traffic planners expect confusion in the first several weeks but hope congestion will sort itself out when residents find steady routes.
“I think everyone has a secret plan,” said Geoff Campbell, a Greenfield resident of 11 years and board member of its community association. “I know I have a secret plan, but I'm not going to tell anyone what it is.”
Hassett said the city will consider closing the Parkway East ramp off Beechwood Boulevard to prevent commuters from using the neighborhood as a shortcut.
In December, the spectacle will reach its peak. The implosion is scheduled to occur in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, since PennDOT informed the city that week has the least volume of cars on the parkway. The highway will be shut down, and thousands of drivers will be shuttled onto other roads as the bridge is taken down and its debris removed.
Costa said weather could be problematic.
“We only have a five-day window to drop this bridge,” Costa said. “There's some projects where they had implosions, and the building didn't come down. We can't afford to have that happen.”
Prepping for the project has kept Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O'Connor and his staff busy. Safety of the neighborhood, its residents and businesses amid the deluge of cars looking for routes is a prime concern, he said.
“This is going to hurt somebody's everyday life for the next 18 months,” he said.
O'Connor is promoting a raffle to push the plunger on demolition day. Proceeds from ticket sales will go into a fund that will be used to help Greenfield businesses advertise during the closure.
O'Connor said residents have “rolled up their sleeves” to begin preparing for what's to come. Despite the complications, he sees the reconstruction and community response as a symbol of the city's resiliency and rebirth.
“When we're on ‘60 Minutes' and people are talking about crumbling infrastructure, look at us taking the lead and investing $17 million into revamping our infrastructure,” O'Connor said. “Being able to get through this process is going to be pretty amazing. It actually shows how our city is moving forward.”
Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.