Stamatakis: Infuse steeltown developments with personality

By Nick Stamatakis

I can’t imagine many land developers enjoy the prospect of an assignment in… I can’t imagine many land developers enjoy the prospect of an assignment in Pittsburgh.

After all, when you travel to any shopping development in the area, you will hardly find anything inspiring. Even with a relatively strong retail market — according to Cushman & Wakefield Real Estate — few new developments exhibit any unique characteristics. Not many developers have seemed to want to move beyond the cookie cutter, formulaic shopping districts that populate much of the country.

Consider even some of the more trendy areas you might have come across as a Pitt student. The Waterfront — built on the remnants of an old steel mill — has no unique features besides a row of old smokestacks and a few other relics from the Steel Age. It’s difficult to distinguish the location from any other in the country. Two newer developments — Settlers Ridge in Robinson and Pittsburgh Mills in Tarentum — share a similar blandness, amounting to nothing more than lifestyle centers atop newly flattened hills.

It isn’t that these centers aren’t pleasant places or that they don’t serve their functions. Residents and students alike still flock to these areas. Furthermore, examples like Bakery Square in East Liberty and Station Square on the South Side serve as exceptions, with both plans featuring unique usage of old buildings. The problem is that most of the time when developers in the region set out to create a new plan from scratch, most fail to utilize all the unique features of the area and thus do a disservice to themselves and to future generations.

An example analogous to the Waterfront where developers were more creative is the Inner Harbor, a massive entertainment complex in downtown Baltimore that turned dilapidated warehouses into upscale retail and residential space. Some old buildings were reused, maintaining a sense of history for the space. And developers fully embraced the bay, making it a true focal point that provides space for regattas, panoramic views of the city and a refreshing atmosphere.

Contrast the Inner Harbor with the cookie-cutter Waterfront — an admittedly smaller project — and the differences are stunning.

Providing yet another instance in which a city embraced a landscape rather than built around it is Hong Kong. The city has a mountainous cityscape — like Pittsburgh’s — and redeveloped a large, formerly derelict area on the side of a large hill into a trendy entertainment district through a network of escalators. While the project was overbudget, ridership today exceeds expectations, and now the Central-Mid-levels escalators serve as a destination in their own right, according to BBC News.

This stands in stark contrast to another Pittsburgh development that instead tried to ignore the hills — the proposed Walmart in Kilbuck Township, several miles downstream from Downtown Pittsburgh. Rather than embracing a more landscape-conscious design, contractors in 2006 attempted to build a standard shopping center atop a blasted hill near the Ohio River, resulting in landslides that covered Route 65 for several months. The Walmart was never completed.

The projects in Hong Kong and Baltimore were risky by some standards. Escalators hadn’t been used for transit before, and few other cities had rebuilt a decaying urban core. Yet in retrospect, theses solutions were optimal for the situation — more conventional projects simply didn’t offer the potential benefits. For Pittsburgh and any city to move forward, officials need to understand that this is often the case, and a single formula doesn’t exist for successful development.

One idea that has been floating around the Internet for a few years is for an urban gondola in Pittsburgh to connect East End neighborhoods and the South Side. By traditional standards, it is not a good idea. No other U.S. city maintains such a system, so there are no benchmarks for how much such a project would cost or how many commuters it would take off the roads.

Yet for Pittsburgh, an urban gondala project might be perfect. After all, the terrain and density of the area make additional light rail prohibitively expensive and slow, so a “conservative” transit solution like extending the T to new areas doesn’t make much sense. Plus, while other cities often try to connect their airports to the rail system, Pittsburgh’s airport is not only less trafficked but farther away than most other cities’, prioritizing projects elsewhere.

Regardless of the final practicality of such a plan, it cannot be dismissed at the start. The “it worked there, it will work here” mentality led to a landslide in Kilbuck and a less-than-optimal shopping center in Homestead. Like any other future project, developers must look at a city’s specific traits and develop the most sensible projects from there.

Pitt students traveling to the suburbs or other regions of the city should be able to find places to shop and dine that have personality. The current strategy of plopping generic developments around the region does not do justice to the quality of the area.

Write Nick at [email protected]