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Arts & Entertainment

Schenley Plaza gets final touches

John Conti
| Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011

The last major element in the five-year-long transformation of Schenley Plaza in Oakland -- an elegant new year-round restaurant called The Porch -- is now in place and ready to open Monday to the public.

This 140-seat eating and gathering place will have a huge wall of windows overlooking the plaza's vast Emerald Lawn and a heated 40-space terrace on the lawn side, as well. And, if it is as successful in attracting people as the plaza itself has been over recent years, this stylish stone, glass and cedar-walled eatery will become very popular, indeed.

The plaza this summer clocked its 1 millionth visitor, and it's not unusual in warmer months for it to attract well over a thousand visitors a day to its lawn, food kiosks and children's carousel. It is bounded on three sides by the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, Pitt's Hillman Library and two major classroom buildings, and then on the fourth side by the main Carnegie Library.

As a result, the plaza is always guaranteed to attract lots of students. As one observer remarked the other day from the middle of the huge lawn, "for the summer students at Pitt, this is their beach."

With all that said, though, it's hard to write about the reconstruction and even the lively success of Schenley Plaza without letting out at least a little bit of a regretful sigh. Planning public spaces is a huge challenge, and if Schenley Plaza proves anything, it is that meaning well, working hard and using some of the best design talent available sometimes just isn't enough.

Given its location, Schenley Plaza is one of the most important public spaces in the region. Two of the city's signature buildings -- the Cathedral of Learning and the Carnegie Library with all its Beaux Arts beauty -- are on its boundaries, and this space cries out for something that would help give the city identity the way those two buildings do. It could do it either by providing a special setting for the two buildings, or by being memorable in itself.

Unfortunately, it does neither.

Praised as a sunny oasis in crowded Oakland -- and much-appreciated for the fact that it replaced what had been nothing more than a parking lot for years -- it simply doesn't have the strong visual and actual connections to its surroundings that it needs. It still leaves a lot of people wondering "what were they trying to do?"

Without trying to second-guess the design decisions and the rationale behind them, let's just say that the great grass lawn -- intended to be available for large crowds to hear concerts or plays on a portable stage -- is so large that it just overwhelms the whole plaza, creating a big flat space without any particular definition or shape that's apparent from the ground. There's nothing wrong with the giant white tent-like structure (it's kind of a truncated off-center cone) that provides an oval, cafe-like sitting area and respite from the sun. But when you put the lawn and the "tent" together, the plaza can look more like a temporary encampment than a grand public space.

The transformation of the plaza has been a major undertaking for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which, by itself, has got to be one of the best things that's happened to Pittsburgh in the last 15 years. The conservancy has worked in a private-public partnership with the cash-strapped city to raise funds (something on the order of $50 million) to invest in restoring and bringing back to life neglected features in the city's great 19th-century parks -- Highland, Frick and Schenley in particular. And, so, it feels almost churlish to criticize the work done here because it falls short of what it might have been.

And, besides, the new restaurant seems likely to improve things, too. It brings a badly needed year-round feature to the plaza, which normally becomes just a crossing space in the coldest months of the year. And now that the restaurant is done, by next spring, the last of the intrusive construction fences and sidewalk barriers will be removed when an adjacent garden is completed. For the first time in five years, we'll all be able to experience the finished park whole.

The restaurant is well-sited within the plaza. Its location along the plaza's main promenade between what were previously two separated groups of food kiosks will create a strong village-like feeling for the promenade.

The promenade is already distinguished by the original plan to use flexible seating -- unattached cafe tables and chairs -- a bold move in a public park that has paid off well. And if they were to line it with a few more of the gorgeous London Plane trees that have defined this part of Oakland for almost 90 years, the promenade would quickly become a romantic walkway that no student couple could possibly resist.

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Schenley Park

Schenley Park

The last major element in the plaza's five-year transformation — an elegant new year-round restaurant called The Porch — is ready to open.

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