PG NewsPG delivery
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Home Page
PG News: Nation and World, Region and State, Neighborhoods, Business, Sports, Health and Science, Magazine, Forum
Sports: Headlines, Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Collegiate, Scholastic
Lifestyle: Columnists, Food, Homes, Restaurants, Gardening, Travel, SEEN, Consumer, Pets
Arts and Entertainment: Movies, TV, Music, Books, Crossword, Lottery
Photo Journal: Post-Gazette photos
AP Wire: News and sports from the Associated Press
Business: Business: Business and Technology News, Personal Business, Consumer, Interact, Stock Quotes, PG Benchmarks, PG on Wheels
Classifieds: Jobs, Real Estate, Automotive, Celebrations and other Post-Gazette Classifieds
Web Extras: Marketplace, Bridal, Headlines by Email, Postcards
Weather: AccuWeather Forecast, Conditions, National Weather, Almanac
Health & Science: Health, Science and Environment
Search: Search by keyword or date
PG Store: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette merchandise
PG Delivery: Home Delivery, Back Copies, Mail Subscriptions

Headlines by E-mail

Headlines Region & State Neighborhoods Business
Sports Health & Science Magazine Forum

The story of urban renewal

In East Liberty and elsewhere, Pittsburgh's dominant public policy tool didn't work out as planned

Sunday, May 21, 2000

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

First of a five-part series
In Tuesday's Business Section: Doing it differently in East Liberty.

Four decades after promising to give East Liberty "one of the finest residential and shopping complexes in the United States," Bob Pease is back in the neighborhood he tried to save from ruin, talking about how some of his plans went awry.

The old Wabash Terminal being demolished for a Gateway Center office building. A flatiron train station built in 1904, the Wabash was part of New Yorker Jay Gould's attempt to build a transcontinental railroad empire. On the night of March 22, 1946, the terminal and its maze of sheds and overpasses burned in a fire near The Point. David Lawrence, the new mayor, watched happily from the roof of the nearby Pittsburgh Press building. The fire made it easier for the city to acquire the building and the land from the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railroad. The Wabash building and the nearby Wabash Bridge came down in the early 1950s. The Press building, seen in the background, is now the Post-Gazette building. 

He points to an abandoned gas station marred by graffiti and trash. "You can see what happened to that," said Pease, 75, who was director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority in the late 1950s and 1960s. "It ought to be torn down."

Circling the business district on a one-way loop, Pease pulls his car into parking lot after parking lot, pointing to the places where store owners promised to build back-door entrances but never did. He drives down Negley Run Boulevard, a road he widened, and points to deserted grass patches that failed to lure wealthy shoppers from Point Breeze and Fox Chapel. Pease passes trash-choked Broad Street, where the vacant Bell-Stern Furniture store, a bar and a fitness center sit amid litter. On Penn Avenue, he passes the East Mall Apartments, a 17-story, low-income housing complex that is a host to drug dealers, crime and vandalism.

"Right or wrong?" said Pease, looking at the high-rise. "I don't know."

After the URA demolished 1,200 homes, reduced the size of the shopping district by 1 million square feet and closed the middle of East Liberty to automobiles, the neighborhood lost hundreds of small businesses, according to one report. In the four decades that followed, it lost more than 4,500 people.

Pease's URA got most of the blame. "They ruined East Liberty," said Floyd Coles, 75, who has lived in the neighborhood most of his life.

It may be easy to lay blame for what happened. But Pease's story -- and that of urban renewal -- defies easy explanation. To pin East Liberty's demise on one person or one agency is to ignore the influence of the federal government, the growth of suburbs and a post-war faith in institutions and planning.

What East Liberty illustrates is how sprawling urban renewal projects rarely live up to their promises and how delicate the line is that separates good intentions from unintended consequences.

"It seemed like a perfect plan," said Dave Craig, 75, who was city solicitor in the 1960s. "It just didn't work the way we planned. I feel, in a measure, guilty."

Urban redevelopment, the city's dominant public policy tool of the last 50 years, rescued Pittsburgh from the maw of pollution, floods and decay. In doing so, it swallowed more than 1,000 acres of land, razed more than 3,700 buildings, relocated more than 1,500 businesses and uprooted more than 5,000 families. The city deflected challenges from angry property owners, demolished old buildings that no longer served their original uses and landed the story of Pittsburgh's transformation in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, Life and Time magazine.

Slowly, though, public opinion began to turn.

When the city ignored advice not to demolish homes and businesses in the Lower Hill District, it raised new questions about the government's power to alter a neighborhood's social, racial and economic fabric. When it replaced old buildings with utilitarian-style shopping complexes and office towers, it raised new questions about the relationship between architecture and people. When it ignored warnings that a pedestrian mall would doom the retail trade in East Liberty, it raised questions about the weakness of conventional wisdom.

But Pease, one of the few living people who participated in Pittsburgh's mid-century transformation, stands by his work. Critics, he said, "weren't there."

Demolishing buildings and relocating people "are hard things to do. These are things that when you do them, really serious and good people question you. You have doubts, but you do the best you can to achieve the results you want to achieve. Things are never perfect."

Many historians and preservationists are not as kind. "As fond as I am of Pease and the others," said University of Pittsburgh professor Jim DeAngelis, "they still have to justify what they did, at least in their own minds."

Yet, "That's the thing about urban renewal," DeAngelis added. "We never know what would have happened if we didn't do it."

The ball swings

It began with a parade.

With thousands watching, two college bands marched Downtown in the early afternoon of May 18, 1950, tooting their horns and tapping their boots.

The men in the crowd wore fedoras and white shirts, and the women sported long dresses and dark shoes. Once the music stopped, the crowd gathered around a 103-year-old brick warehouse on Penn Avenue. To get a better view, some people stood on railroad tracks. Some leaned against parked cars, staring into a warm and cloudy sky.

Empty buildings, unused railroad yards and saloons surrounded the Penn Avenue warehouse. Within view were the old home of 19th-century iron entrepreneur John Shoenberger, the old Mayfair Hotel, the Pittsburgh Club and the abandoned flatiron Wabash Terminal building, built in 1904 by New York railroad baron Jay Gould. Rising in the distance was Exposition Hall, a building of arches and spires once known as the city's convention center.

Few people in the crowd knew these surroundings better than Mayor David L. Lawrence.

This day had special meaning for Lawrence, an Irishman who spent his boyhood only blocks away, at Penn and Greentree Alley. The neighborhood of his youth was a refuge for the city's working-class Irish -- a loud, dirty, vibrant place tangled with iron factories, machine shops, railroad yards, gambling houses and brothels.

The Point was where Lawrence learned to box, play sandlot baseball and swim out to passing boats with his friends, all of them coasting the wake back to shore.

In 1950, he returned to tear it all down.

After speaking to the crowd, Lawrence watched as a one-ton wrecking ball slammed into the 103-year-old warehouse. Within hours, it was a pile of bricks.

"This is a great day for Pittsburgh," he said.

The Penn Avenue warehouse was the first of 133 buildings to crumble near The Point, leaving 59 acres flat and empty. It took two decades to fill the space with stainless-steel office towers, a hotel, an underground garage and a luxury apartment building. At The Point's edge, two bridges were removed, making way for a new state park and a fountain.

The project was the first of its kind in the country.

It was successful, too. Of the $118 million in costs, only $600,000 came from public coffers. By 1967, 22,000 people worked in the area, compared with 4,000 before 1950. The project, which spurred a mid-century transformation known as the "Renaissance," elevated Lawrence from a political boss into a big-city mayor and governor, landed multimillionaire banker Richard King Mellon on the cover of Time and thrust Pittsburgh into the national spotlight for the first time since the age of Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse and Henry Clay Frick.

Wrote The Saturday Evening Post: "There is good reason to believe that Pittsburgh is in the beginning of one of the most dramatic periods of municipal renaissance that any great American city is likely to undergo in the next decade." Wrote Fortune magazine: "Pittsburgh is the test of industrialism everywhere to renew itself, to rebuild upon the gritty ruins of the past a society more equitable, more spacious, more in human scale."

Before the light

Democrat David Lawrence, here wielding a sledge hammer at a demolition of the old City Hall at Smithfield Street and Oliver Avenue, won his first mayoral election in 1945 by 14,000 votes. To the surprise of Republicans, Lawrence endorsed a plan to redevelop The Point into a state park. Lawrence's subsequent partnership with the conservative Allegheny Conference on Community Development irked both Democrats and Republicans. But, it allowed Pittsburgh to renew itself after World War II. 

Only a few years earlier, writers were penning Pittsburgh's obituary.

In 1943, The Chicago Tribune dismissed Pittsburgh, saying it wasn't a major city. In 1944, The Wall Street Journal rated Pittsburgh as a "class D" city, with little hope for recovery.

Smoke clogged the air, sewage roiled the waters and rats combed the fringes of Downtown. Homes were crowded, poorly built and ill-maintained. In the Golden Triangle, where floods were a constant hazard, property values were dropping by $10 million a year, and 40 percent of the office space was empty. Several of the largest corporations -- Alcoa, Westinghouse and U.S. Steel -- had purchased real estate in New York with intentions of moving east.

Between World War I and World War II, Pittsburgh was a favorite target of muckraking journalists. H.L. Mencken wrote of "unbroken and agonizing ugliness" and the "sheer revolting monstrousness of every house in sight." Harper's Magazine ran a story in 1930 headlined "Is Pittsburgh Civilized?" Another magazine, Forum, published a story in 1938 titled "Pittsburgh: What a City Shouldn't Be."

Business leaders, who had a difficult time attracting employees to the city, tried to tackle Pittsburgh's problems. Organization after organization formed, each with its own group of important CEOs.

All were failures.

One group brought famed New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to Pittsburgh in 1939, asking him to study the city. Moses suggested the city build a new park at The Point, build several new highways and clear the Lower Hill District, a neighborhood of blacks and immigrants plagued by overcrowding, faulty sanitation and absentee landlords.

But Pittsburgh was unable to act on Moses' recommendations, or any others. A succession of Republican governors in Harrisburg denied the city's Democratic mayors any funds.

Hoping to reverse Pittsburgh's run of bad luck, a silver-haired, chain-smoking New Dealer named Wallace Richards began whispering in the ear of R.K. Mellon, a publicity-shy executive who controlled a vast banking empire and held together one of the world's richest families.

Richards, who in the early 1930s helped the federal government restore land ravaged by flooding, was a big believer in the power of "applied civics."

Mellon, to the surprise of his fellow Republicans, listened to Richards. They became close friends.

Midway through World War II, Mellon and Richards sat down to discuss the future of Pittsburgh over breakfast in Washington, D.C., where Mellon was stationed. Mellon said, "We've either got to do something about that place or give it back to the Indians."

The king and his lair

After the war ended, Mellon returned to Pittsburgh.

On their first night back, he and his wife took a room at the top of the William Penn Hotel. Connie Mellon looked out the window, gazing below at the soot and the smog.

"Dick, I just cannot ever come back and live in Pittsburgh again," she said.

Years later, Connie Mellon told an author, "He always said afterward that I was the one that started him thinking."

There are several theories about why Mellon, an aloof, private man, became interested in saving Pittsburgh. Maybe it was his wife. Maybe it was family history. Maybe it was business.

"Let's say selfish interests are involved," he once said. "We have a lot of property here. We can't very well move out the banks."

Mellon, though, was a reluctant leader. Always shy, he spent his childhood in a mansion of 65 rooms and 11 baths that towered above the formal gardens of what is now Mellon Park. He loved riding horses and hunting at his father's 18,000-acre estate in Ligonier. He did not like school. He left Princeton University his sophomore year and took a few courses at Carnegie Tech before joining the family business as a messenger.

As a young man, he disliked finance, too. When his father, R.B. Mellon, gave him $50,000 as a teen-age investment account, Mellon refused to use it. "There was never a touch of rebellion in R.K., never a hint of the intellectual," wrote author David Koskoff, in an unauthorized biography of the Mellon family. "R.K. was conventional man, luxury model."

But his father's death, in 1933, apparently changed him.

At the funeral, Mellon told a reporter: "Father revered Pittsburgh." He reminisced about past trips to New York, where his father would drive him past the Fifth Avenue mansions and say: "Nearly all of these fine homes are owned by former Pittsburghers. And there isn't a one of them, who, if he could, would not gladly sell and return to Pittsburgh."

After his father's death, Mellon assumed control of the family's banking empire. With $3 billion in assets, Mellon had connections to nearly every large company in Western Pennsylvania, including Gulf Oil, Koppers, Alcoa, Pittsburgh Consolidated Coal, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse Air Brake and Pittsburgh Plate Glass.

Once he had control of the family business, Mellon also lent his quiet support to a fledgling organization called the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Formed in 1943, the conference looked at first like yet another civic booster group with a long, dry name. Its original title, after all, was the Citizens Sponsoring Committee on Post-War Planning for the Metropolitan Area of Allegheny County. The conference's big priorities of smoke and flood control and redevelopment of The Point had been tried before, always unsuccessfully.

But the conference gained power unexpectedly in 1945, when Lawrence won his first mayoral election.

The Allegheny Conference had rooted against Lawrence, hoping to deal instead with his Republican opponent. Lawrence, after all, was a populist politician who railed against the city's elite. When Lawrence squeaked out a 14,000-vote victory, though, a bespectacled attorney named Arthur Van Buskirk suggested that Mellon meet with Lawrence.

Van Buskirk was a close adviser to Mellon in the years after World War II. Yet, Mellon resisted the Lawrence meeting. Van Buskirk suggested he use a gift to break the ice. Mellon relented. He walked over to Lawrence's office and offered him 13.5 acres of land at Fifth Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard, as a park.

Mellon, 46, and Lawrence, 56, had never before met or spoken.

"Few more incongruous meetings had perhaps ever taken place," wrote Michael Weber, author of "Don't Call Me Boss," a Lawrence biography.

They saw each other only a few times after that first encounter. Although never friendly, their relationship evolved into a partnership. In Lawrence, Mellon found a politician willing to back the Allegheny Conference's ideas and play the role of thug.

The unspoken bargain was Lawrence would get much of the publicity.

In Mellon, Lawrence found someone willing to poke the business community with a sharp stick. When coal companies resisted new smoke controls, Mellon leaned on Consolidated Coal, the city's largest coal company. Mellon could do that because he was Consolidated's largest stockholder. When the Pennsylvania Railroad balked at the new regulations, Mellon dialed up the railroad's president. Mellon could do that because he was a director at the company.

His phone call implied the threat that other railroads would be only too happy to carry the goods of Mellon-owned companies.

"This became Mellon's part" wrote "The Mellon Family" author, Burton Hersh. "That low, definite voice on the long-distance telephone which hinted of recourses nobody preferred to consider. The bank held paper on just about everybody."

Mellon's heft allowed his deputies, Richards and Van Buskirk, to spread their fingers everywhere, creating a shadow Mellon government. In 1945, they lobbied the state to approve the Urban Redevelopment Authority, a powerful tool that allowed Pittsburgh to seize private properties through eminent domain.

Van Buskirk convinced Lawrence to be the URA's first chairman, and Van Buskirk became its first vice chairman.

Van Buskirk used his position as finance chairman of the Republican County Committee to push legislation favorable to Pittsburgh, persuading the governor to create a new parking authority, establish county smoke controls, release money for a new parkway and allow insurance companies to invest in center-city real estate.

Van Buskirk also convinced the state to buy land and provide funds for the new Point State Park. New York insurer Equitable Life Assurance Society agreed to buy land east of the park, provide the URA with annual fees of $50,000 and build a series of stainless-steel office buildings known as Gateway Center.

It was a gamble.

To get Equitable, Van Buskirk guaranteed a clean piece of land. He also agreed to fill 60 percent of the projected space. Mellon asked companies such as Westinghouse Electric, Pittsburgh Plate Glass and Jones & Laughlin Steel to commit to space that had yet to be built, for rents higher than other buildings Downtown and on land prone to flooding.

Originally, Equitable talked to the city about building 11 office towers.

But the first three did not fill quickly, holding at 70 percent occupancy. "There was not anything like the demand for space to fill the rest of the buildings," one Equitable executive told Hersh, the author. "It's not a big city. The thing about Pittsburgh is that its appetite exceeds its digestion. We were stuck with it."

Image is what counted, though.

Conference member and Falk Foundation Director J. Steele Gow would later say that Mellon got more credit for the Renaissance than he deserved and that, "All the extravagant language that was used about Dick at the time of his death is an illustration. It just wasn't so that he did everything."

Yet Mellon, who never served on the Allegheny Conference's board, became the organization's most identifiable public figure. In 1956, Life magazine referred to Point State Park and Gateway Center as "Mellon's Miracle." Late in life, Mellon could see the new buildings from his office on the 39th floor of the Mellon-U.S. Steel Building. Through tall windows, the "city spread out so far below it looked like a museum model," wrote one journalist. "All looked like toys."

Sprawling with Uncle Sam

In the late 1950s, when the URA demolished 1,300 buildings and cleared 95 acres in the Lower Hill District, it was the largest attempt in the nation to redevelop a city neighborhood. This picture shows the neighborhood before the URA began demolition work. The shaded part of the photograph shows the area slated for demolition to make way for a silver-domed Civic Arena, an apartment tower, the Crosstown Boulevard and Chatham Center. (Photo courtesy of URA) 

In the second half of the 20th century, public and private officials spent more than $5 billion trying to repair Pittsburgh and its old neighborhoods. Yet, the city's population never again moved higher than 676,806 -- its head count at mid-century.

People began fleeing Pittsburgh, using new automobiles and new highways to find new homes. It was the thing to do. As auto maker Henry Ford predicted, "We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city."

President Dwight D. Eisenhower led the way. As a young tank corps observer, Eisenhower noticed how difficult it was to travel the country by car. Between World War I and World War II, a trip from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco took 62 days. West of Illinois, pavement was hard to find.

Eisenhower recommended his bosses build a national highway system, to protect cities in case of attack. Military planners, in turn, sold Congress on a 40,000-mile system. After Eisenhower became president in 1953, the federal government began using gas taxes and other fees to pay up to 90 percent of the costs for new highways across the country.

In Pittsburgh, officials tapped federal funds to build sections of the Parkway East, which gave drivers an easy route from the new Greater Pittsburgh International Airport to the new Pennsylvania Turnpike. Another early highway funded by the federal government was Interstate 79, which linked the Parkway to Washington and Butler counties.

Planners thought the new roads would alleviate congestion and make cities more attractive.

But the opposite occurred.

People left Pittsburgh for new suburbs such as West Mifflin, Mount Pleasant, Shaler, Penn Hills and Oakmont. Monroeville, which stood at the junction of the turnpike and the parkway, exploded in the 1950s and 1960s. Middle-class workers from the city and Turtle Creek gravitated to its new homes and a shopping strip known as the "Miracle Mile."

People could afford a move to the suburbs because of The G.I. Bill, which gave World War II veterans access to long-term mortgages backed by the Veterans Administration. Between 1947 and 1957, a new home appeared every three days in Pleasant Hills.

The city did not fare as well. The federal government provided Pittsburgh with money to clear "slums," and it agreed to cover two-thirds of any loss. Though it wasn't the original plan, the city would spend this public money first on clearing the Lower Hill District.

The Politician and The Hill

Lawrence, a boxer, rarely backed down from a fight.

When some of The Point's property owners demanded higher prices for their buildings, Lawrence threatened tax increases. When property owners tried to challenge him in court, saying the project represented an unconstitutional use of the city's land-taking powers, Lawrence called them "morally unacceptable," declaring that only the "meanest-spirited citizens" would work against the city's goals.

There was one confrontation that Lawrence avoided, however. It led, indirectly, to one of Pittsburgh's biggest urban renewal projects -- the clearance of the Lower Hill District.

In 1949, the city decided it wanted a new Civic Auditorium, and department store owner Edgar Kaufmann wanted it to have a retractable roof for Civic Light Opera concerts. An Allegheny Conference committee looked at 15 sites. The Hill was one, but the committee ruled it out because the area's density presented a "rehousing problem." The first choice was in Highland Park, along North Negley Avenue.

Most of the land belonged to Robert King, an uncle of Richard King Mellon. As a child, R.K. Mellon rode ponies on King's estate, the sprawling grounds framed by English parapets. King's home was capped with a mansard roof and tower.

Highland Park's middle- and upper-class homeowners hated the idea. As Lawrence put the Highland Park condemnation before City Council, 1,000 people signed a petition fighting the project. More than 300 citizens showed up at a public hearing to argue against it. An attorney decried the "terrible power of eminent domain." A councilman criticized Lawrence's closed-door decision making and his collusion with the Allegheny Conference.

But the hearing reached its climax when the 74-year-old King walked to the stand leaning on a cane, dressed in "black tie and hard collar," according to the biographer Weber.

"I am in favor of light opera and musical comedy," King said, "but I am against the proposal by promoters who may think that this particular site, which is now a refuge for birds and wildlife, can be manmade by destruction into something better than God made it."

If the city backed off, King said, he would donate his land as a park. At first, Lawrence refused to budge. However, after King's attorney challenged the move with an injunction, Lawrence changed his mind.

Why? Opposition from local residents was part of it, Weber said. More likely, though, Lawrence could smell defeat. Taking land from a Mellon relative in a wealthy neighborhood may have posed a serious legal threat to Lawrence's larger urban redevelopment plans.

In looking for alternative sites, Lawrence eventually settled on the Lower Hill District, a popular neighborhood for Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans and blacks. Politically, it was a better choice. "There was not a lot of opposition," Weber said, in an interview. "Was that easier? Absolutely."

It was a lively neighborhood, bulging with shops, nightclubs, restaurants and small businesses. But it had problems, too. There were more than 1,000 tuberculosis cases reported in 1933. A 1953 building's inspector's report, cited in Weber's book, rated 681 of the 901 homes as "substandard.

"You could smell urine," said Pease, URA director at the time. "It was a bad, overcrowded neighborhood."

The URA's demolition, which began in 1956, forced out 1,239 black families. About 800 relocated to the nearby Third, Fourth and Fifth wards -- predominantly black neighborhoods. And the relocation did not go well.

The federal government, at the time, did not provide displaced homeowners with relocation money, as it does today. Also, homeowners had no contact with the city until the acquisition had been made. They got a notice in the mail. "Chaos. It was absolute chaos," URA official Irving Rubinstein told an interviewer in 1974. "We didn't know what to do."

In the end, the city Housing Authority found standard-rated housing for 1,218 families. But about 80 families had to settle for substandard homes, according to a Chatham College study.

"They were trying to do a good job," Pease said. "Was it perfect? No. Was it as good as we could do? I think yes."

The population of the Lower Hill dropped from 17,334 in 1950 to 2,459 in 1990. People forced to leave the integrated area moved mainly to neighborhoods that reflected their own race, thus worsening the city's segregation problem. By 1960, Pittsburgh was one of the most segregated big cities in America.

Also, that redevelopment project never lived up to some of its promises. Early on, there was talk of a cultural district -- an "Acropolis" on the Hill. The $22 million Civic Arena opened in 1961. An apartment building and the Crosstown Boulevard opened in 1963. Chatham Center opened in 1966. But when the Heinz family decided to build a new symphony hall Downtown instead, the cultural center evaporated.

So did some of the glow of the Renaissance. A 1968 editorial in The Pittsburgh Press read, "The men of the Renaissance have been unable to produce anything but a crop of weeds on 9.2 acres of prime public land next to the Civic Arena."

The land remains a parking lot today.

The Opposition

After the URA removed 1,300 buildings, 413 businesses and 8,000 people from the Hill, a billboard appeared near Crawford Street and Centre Avenue. "Attention: City Hall and the URA," it read. "NO Redevelopment Beyond This Point."

The message worked. Further demolition of the Hill stopped at an intersection known as "Freedom Corner."

The sign was the work of the Citizens Committee for Hill District Renewal, one of several groups formed in the 1960s to fight off large-scale urban renewal projects. These groups wanted the city to drop its demolition plans and focus instead on anti-poverty programs, rehabilitation of old buildings and construction of new, affordable housing for the poor and minorities.

There were architectural concerns, too.

In an early 1960s paper published by a group of local architects, the city's redevelopment methods came under attack. The architects refused to watch "our City being defaced by thoughtless buildings and projects ... The inane things that have all but ruined this place have been unchallenged much too long."

Architecturally, the inspiration for the city's early urban renewal program was the Modernism movement, a European import that rejected decorative touches for chilly, pragmatic expressions of steel, concrete and glass. Its motto: "Less is more."

French architect Le Corbusier, a Modernist, provided the archetype for countless urban renewal projects with his "Radiant City" concept -- a set of tall apartment and office towers surrounded by parks and superhighways.

"The whole city is a park," the architect once said.

As the URA and the Allegheny Conference took their urban renewal program to the city's neighborhoods, utilitarianism reigned.

"It was architecture for everybody and not just for an elite," said Beth Dunlop, who covered urban renewal for The Pittsburgh Press in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But, "it became something much different. It was subverted. The problem was, it didn't work because really basic notions of how human beings perceive and use space were completely misapprehended."

On the South Side, there was a plan to replace 42 acres of land and buildings owned by the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie railroad with "Mon Plaza," a vertical community of office towers from the Ft. Wayne Railroad Bridge to the Fort Pitt Bridge. In the Strip, the Penn Central Transportation Company and the URA wanted to tear down the old Union Station and carve out several blocks of land for "Penn Central Park," a vision of trees, cars and tall, white office towers.

As part of that plan, the Strip's wholesalers would have relocated to McKees Rocks. "Penn Central Park" collapsed when the Penn Central Transportation Co. filed for bankruptcy. Union Station was spared and is now The Pennsylvanian, an apartment complex.

One of the first Radiant City experiments, though, was on the North Side. The URA replaced 518 old buildings with apartments, homes, office buildings and a shopping mall known as Allegheny Center. At the project's borders are parks and highways.

"I still say, conceptually, it was a great project," Pease said.

Arthur Ziegler, now 62, got his start as a preservationist fighting Pease's plans for the North Side. Ziegler describes it differently. He sees Allegheny Center as "an exhibit of almost every aspect of urban design of its period that proved not to work."

Ziegler was one of the city's first preservationists. In 1964, he was editing an architectural magazine called Charette when he heard about a plan to demolish Manchester and much of the North Side. He and architectural historian James D. Van Trump formed the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation later that year. "Major urban renewal plans were very difficult to oppose," Ziegler said. "They had the image of enormous success. They were very widespread. But we thought they would not be successful."

Starting with little money, Ziegler and Van Trump used their first grant to buy a slide projector. Their first restoration project was a home at 1329 Liverpool St., in Manchester. Raising money from local foundations, Landmarks began restoring homes on different parts of the North Side, including the Mexican War Streets. Ziegler rented many of the homes to low-income and minority families.

Elsewhere, Ziegler campaigned against demolition of the old Pennsylvania Railroad station at the entrance of the Strip District. He redeveloped 52 acres of railroad buildings on the south shore of the Monongahela River, turning them into "Station Square." He urged South Side property owners to preserve their buildings with facade restoration money, a project that turned into the "Main Street" program. He also made an unsuccessful attempt to save the Allegheny Market House, an 1863 building at Ohio and Federal streets demolished for Allegheny Center.

Ziegler's work coincided with a national preservation movement fomented by writer Jane Jacobs in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

Because Pittsburgh was a pioneer of 1950s-style urban renewal, it was a frequent target of Jacobs, who lived in New York. In her first book, Jacobs portrayed the Gateway Center complex as uninviting. She lauded the Allegheny Conference's cleanup work, but she also said Pittsburgh had severed its Downtown from the rest of the city with parking lots and highways.

In Jacobs' second book, "The Economy of Cities," she was more critical.

"So many irrelevant things have been tried there, so ambitiously," she wrote in 1969. Instead of spending money on creating new businesses, she said, the city had devoted capital "to manipulating the people of Pittsburgh and to immensely expensive urban-renewal and highway programs that have not helped the economy at all."

Jayne's campaign

The course of Pittsburgh would have been altered if the courts had listened to Jayne Burt.

A woman from East Orange, N.J., Burt owned part of a two-story building at 424-426 Penn Avenue in the late 1940s. When the URA wanted to buy her building for the Gateway Center office complex, Burt joined a group of property owners suing to stop the project.

Calling the URA's plan "arbitrary and capricious," Burt argued her constitutional right to own property, saying the city should not be allowed to take land from one private owner and resell it to a private developer.

Gateway Center, she said, benefited one big developer more than it did the public.

As Burt's lawsuit lingered in the courts, city officials took pictures of every building they demolished, in case Burt forced them to put the buildings back up again. One lawyer working for the developers said if the courts validated Burt's claim, he would seek "permanent exile in Antarctica."

But the courts sided with the city. A Western District Court judge wrote, "The city improvement project is not a matter into which the federal courts should rush lightly."

Burt took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in October 1950, that court dismissed Burt's case, too, thus ending the first serious legal challenge to urban renewal.

Back to the Future

On November 6, 1998, Mayor Tom Murphy stood on Fifth Avenue, his back to a new Lazarus department store. He looked at the other buildings on Fifth that he wanted to demolish and replace with new shops, restaurants and a movie theater.

Pointing to some of the buildings, Murphy made a noise that sounded like the crumbing of brick, concrete and glass.

He laughed.

The moment, meant to diffuse some of the tension surrounding Murphy's $480 million redevelopment plan, revealed how controversial his project had become. Almost a year later, Murphy stood at the same corner, unveiling his proposal to a large crowd of people and television cameras.

"Dump Murphy!" someone shouted.

With his Downtown plan, Murphy is returning to a model developed by Lawrence, Mellon and the Allegheny Conference. He wants to buy land, demolish buildings and sell the real estate to Chicago developer Urban Retail Properties. Downtown property owners, like Burt in 1950, consider the plan to be an unconstitutional use of the city's land-taking powers. Like Burt, they say they are willing to take the city to court to stop the project.

Lawrence once told author Stefan Lorant that Pittsburgh "took pleasure in the swing of the headache ball and the crash of the falling brick."

Murphy does not have such leeway.

People now are suspicious of any plan involving government aid, bulldozers and the threat of eminent domain. Murphy is up against preservationists and planners who don't want to lose any more historic buildings and who don't want to sacrifice the local character of Downtown to out-of-town retailers.

He also stands in front of 50 years of history and the mixed legacy of urban renewal in Pittsburgh.

"Interventions always have unintended consequences," said Moe Coleman, a University of Pittsburgh professor and former mayoral aide. With Murphy's Downtown plan, "Are we working out of conventional wisdom or are we trying to think about the world that might be here 10 years from now?"

One of the few people left to defend the past is Pease, who had the longest tenure of any director in the URA's history.

After growing up poor in Atkinson, Neb., dreaming of a life as an engineer and helping fighter planes navigate Europe during World War II, Pease joined the URA at 28. He became its director at 32. "It was a very exciting time," he said. "I was a young guy with a lot of responsibility."

One of several young planners who had access to a lot of federal money and political power, Pease did what he thought was fair, smart and equitable.

Pease is proud of what happened.

Gateway Center, he said, kept several big companies in Pittsburgh.

The Hill, he said, was a bad area that needed help. When redevelopment stalled in the 1960s, Pease pressed for more anti-poverty programs and brokered neighborhood meetings between black leaders and Allegheny Conference executives.

The redevelopment of the North Side, he said, "was a great project."

In East Liberty, he added many new homes and apartments for people who needed them. The shopping district did not collapse because of the renewal project, Pease said. Instead, the suburban malls killed it.

"I guess it is a feeling of sadness," he said. "You put a lot of work in, and when something doesn't work, it is just too bad. But I am not staying awake at night crying about it."

But a bigger question remains, said Aldo Colautti, 73, who was Mayor Barr's chief aide from 1959 to 1967."What would Pittsburgh be like today if nothing was done and no effort was made to preserve the Downtown, improve the housing supply and extend the benefits of urban renewal into the neighborhoods?

"I think we would have slipped," he added. "I think we would have slipped even faster than we have the last 40 years."

Put yourself in Pease's shoes.

"If you had all that money to spend, would you spend it better and could you have had better results than you have now?" Coleman asked. "If you could, how would you do it? What would you have done differently?"

bottom navigation bar Terms of Use  Privacy Policy