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$5 million redesign of Schenley Plaza approved

Thursday, October 02, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With a tweaking of the plan, the city Historic Review Commission approved the redesign of Schenley Plaza, which would convert the Oakland square from parking lot to park.

The commission yesterday gave the $5 million project a unanimous thumbs-up, despite concerns from some that the design, by the Boston office of Sasaki Associates, was not right for the location.

"It's a quite wonderful park," said landscape historian Barry Hannegan of White Oak.

"It simply is the wrong place for it."

Hannegan told the commission that the design doesn't satisfy the need for a monumental entrance to Schenley Park, which the plaza was created to be in 1915. But not long after the plaza's completion, the city began to allow parking around its narrow, central, elongated lawn. In time, cars were allowed to consume the entire plaza.

Historically, Schenley Plaza "has been open and encouraged movement through it," Hannegan said. "This is the opposite of that. It's a closed, hermetic design that doesn't give you a sense that you're entering Pittsburgh's great historic park."

Landscape architect Michael Stern told the commission the proposed diagonal promenade cutting through the lawn runs counter to the formal, symmetrical design principles of the City Beautiful movement, on which the 1915 design was based.

"From a historical appropriateness point of view, I have real problems with this proposal," Stern said.

City Planning Director Susan Golomb, who has been working with Sasaki's design team, told the commission that the goals were "to create both a visual and physical communication between the buildings and monuments in Oakland and Schenley Park and create a space people can use. It had to respect the historic character and understand Oakland is a bit gritty and informal, and needed to respond to people who would treat it that way."

In the end, the commission asked Sasaki landscape architect Alistair McIntosh to remove a row of trees along Forbes Avenue and a shorter row along Clemente Drive, opening up the view from the University of Pittsburgh and Stephen Foster Memorial to Schenley Fountain.

The vote was 4-0, with Golomb abstaining because of her involvement with the project.

The plaza makeover is a joint project of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development's Oakland Investment Committee and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Construction could begin in the spring, if the sponsors can raise an additional $750,000 -- the amount the city was expected to contribute in infrastructure improvements and can no longer afford.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.

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