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Places: Architects' study offers ways to repair the damage done to the North Side

Saturday, October 23, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architect Critic

Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny City by force in 1907 and has been having its way with the town ever since.

The 1960s, '70s and '80s -- decades when highway construction and suburban-style planning were devastating cities around the country -- were especially hard on old Allegheny, now Pittsburgh's North Side, which lost entire neighborhoods as well as landmark buildings.

Now, a study commissioned by the city from UDA Architects has found ways to begin to right some of the wrongs.

When Allegheny City was laid out in 1788, its heart was a public square surrounded by housing, which was in turn surrounded by a commons. In time, the four quadrants of the square, divided by the intersection of Federal and Ohio streets, held the Allegheny City Hall, Andrew Carnegie's first library, the great market house and Ober Park, with its centerpiece fountain.

It is no exaggeration to say that in the late 19th century, Allegheny was one of the country's most beautiful and thoughtfully designed cities, with its great houses and a park laced with walking paths and accented with fountains.

Pittsburgh's wealthy industrialists and merchants much preferred it to their own town, which had no public parks until the 1880s, and settled there in substantial numbers.

Allegheny's growth was fueled by construction of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, which by 1834 connected Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with a combined canal and portage railroad, the latter used to hoist canal boats up inclined planes through the Allegheny Mountains. It was, needless to say, slow-going and eventful travel.

Charles Dickens, taking the canal from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh in 1842, wrote that he had to "duck nimbly every five minutes whenever the man at the helm cried 'Bridge!' and ... when the cry was 'Low Bridge,' to lie down nearly flat."

By 1857 the canal system was surpassed and purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad, but not before it had established Pittsburgh as an important trade link and gateway to the west.

The canal ran three blocks south of the public square, just about parallel with highways that now swiftly carry motorists into and out of Pittsburgh. The highways and related ramps cut off the North Side's historic neighborhoods from the North Shore, where development is heating up with construction of PNC Park and the Steelers stadium.

For pedestrians coming from the North Shore, the highway underpasses are dark and downright scary, not exactly an invitation to see what lies beyond.

If the North Side neighborhoods are going to benefit from the new developments, something has to be done.

UDA's plan goes beyond the obvious solutions of better lighting, landscaping and new trees, sidewalks and curbs to suggest the underpasses be turned into semi-attractions, each with its own theme drawn from nearby buildings or places.

Merchant Street's theme would be the history of the industries and neighborhoods that once thrived in the lower North Side. Allegheny Avenue would terminate in a river overlook and relate to the nearby Steelers stadium and Carnegie Science Center.

Three of the five themed streets -- Federal, Sandusky and Anderson -- parallel each other and extend from the "Three Sisters" bridges. Federal Street, next to PNC Park, would have a baseball theme, with baseball icons or figures atop poles.

Sandusky Street would play off of The Andy Warhol Museum, turning the underpass walls into a sort of gallery showcasing Warhol's posters.

This is a splendid idea, and an appropriate way to begin showcasing the museum, Pittsburgh's premier international attraction, throughout the city. Anderson Street would be treated as the gateway to the city's river trail system and a new linear park that would re-create a portion of the old canal, using the stones discovered in 1987.

The canal portion of the new park would run from Anderson to Sandusky streets; along the wall of the adjacent railroad overpass would be photographs, drawings and text interpreting the history of the canal and its importance to the city's growth.

A canal boat might give schoolchildren on field trips a taste of mid-19th-century travel. The park also would be an east-west link on game days.

Bravo, UDA.

Still, necessary as they are, you have to wonder how successful some of these improvements will be if the problem of the former Allegheny Center Mall isn't addressed. Pedestrians who walk along Federal Street inevitably run into the monolithic ex-mall, a behemoth fortress protected by a four-lane, one-way moat. Once the moat is breached, there's the matter of the steps up into this two-block-long building, which looms menacingly above the darkened passageway, offering no clue of what lies beyond.

Inside the former mall, now housing offices, the sterile environment is unredeemed by the potted plants scattered throughout. The only sign of life is a lone, mid-mall coffee and pastry stand -- stand being the operative word.

Decaf in hand, earlier this week I asked the man behind the counter why there aren't any places to sit down.

"They won't let us."

Why not?

He searched for the right words: "Poor element."

The mall, part of a 1960s makeover of old Allegheny's public square that saw the demolition of the market house and Ober Park, gives way to outside spaces that are quite pleasant, with plenty of seating, planting beds and mature trees.

Unfortunately, you'd never know this public open space lies beyond the fort. Should we blast through the ex-mall and open up a pedestrian street? Or, at the very least, make those entrance steps a more prominent, brighter and welcoming gateway?

Or do we simply keep the whole thing as is -- a never-again monument to misguided planning?

As instructive as that may be, it won't be much help for the neighborhoods of old Allegheny.



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