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Places: Market Square ain’t broke, so please don’t fix it

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, January 23, 2006

A little more than five years ago, during the barrage of competing plans for the Fifth-Forbes district, New York developer Stan Eckstut made an observation that had never occurred to me, and probably many others: Downtown Pittsburgh has too much public open space for a healthy retail environment.

In the alternative proposal he developed for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, Eckstut suggested eliminating some of that open space by building a new market house in Market Square.

Earlier this month, in one of his first volleys as mayor, Bob O’Connor said that Downtown doesn’t have enough parks and green space. He wants to create more for the many new residents it will be getting when about 3,000 apartments and condominiums are built Downtown over the next few years. For one thing, O’Connor wants to eliminate the crossroads through Market Square — Market Street and Forbes Avenue — and turn its four quadrants into a small park.

Eckstut’s observation was a sound one, but his solution was flawed. And for much the same reasons, only part of O’Connor’s idea is worth embracing.

Downtown does have a lot of public open space, much of it clustered at the western tip of the triangle, in Point State Park and Gateway Center. But Eckstut also was referring to the many public plazas created in the last half of the 20th century — Mellon Square, PNC Plaza (along Wood Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues), USX Plaza, Heinz Hall Plaza, PPG Plaza, Katz Plaza and Mellon Green. And let’s not forget the new linear parks lining both sides of the Allegheny River.

No, Downtown Pittsburgh as a whole doesn’t want for public open space. Still, small “pocket parks” could be tucked in on narrow lots between buildings, as space allows and residential density dictates. Manhattan’s Paley Park, with a city-noise-screening water wall, moveable tables and chairs and shade-giving locust trees, is a good model.
O’Connor is right, though, in suggesting that buses be rerouted out of Market Square. With brick and Belgian block streets and lined mostly with historic and low-rise buildings, the square has a relaxed, pedestrian feel — until a bus bears down on you, catching you unawares. Removing them would go a long way in improving the ambience and air quality.

But O’Connor also wants to close to vehicles McMasters Way and Graeme Street, which connect Fifth Avenue with the square, and eliminate Market Street and Forbes Avenue through the square. It’s almost never a good idea to close streets to cars where businesses are located, as the failed pedestrian malls of the 1960s in East Liberty, on the North Side and in many other American cities proved. Cars bring people, and people bring their shopping dollars and watchful eyes to the street. Closing Forbes through the square would have the domino effect of turning the blocks adjacent to it, between Stanwix and the square and between Wood and the square, into dead-end streets, making travel by car there difficult and jeopardizing those businesses as well.

And what, really, would be gained by turning Market Square into a grassy park? It already provides shade trees, a stage and plenty of seating, thanks to the low granite walls that surround three of the four quadrants. Most people don’t sit on grass, but it does provide comfortable bedding for vagrants and the homeless, as the edges of Point State Park attest.

The mayor thinks the square has an “old, tired” look. It’s supposed to look old; it’s historic. Tired? I just don’t see it, at least not in the design of the square.

Despite the drug dealing and the bars, which won’t go away if the streets are closed, Market Square is one of Downtown’s liveliest and most successful public spaces. In the warm months, men play chess there, vendors hawk fruits and vegetables, art students play hacky-sack, bike messengers take their breaks, office workers and culinary students eat their lunches, and the pigeons — a component of every thriving public square — couldn’t be happier.

Here’s another reason not to monkey with Market Square: The intersection of Forbes Avenue and Market Street is sacrosanct, the historic heart and soul of Pittsburgh. Even during the more than four decades that the massive Diamond Market occupied the square, both roads passed beneath it.

Those streets through and around Market Square are among the oldest in the city, dating to the Woods-Vickroy plan of 1784. The public square — which Scotch-Irish Pittsburgh called the Diamond, like the ones back home in Northern Ireland — was a gift that year from the heirs of William Penn, who owned the land.

In January 1800, the square’s new Georgian-style courthouse hosted the memorial service for President Washington, and soon also was being used as a borough meeting house and community theater. By 1815, the square also held a crescent-shaped market-house, which was replaced by a new market house in 1853. Diamond Market, built in 1914, was torn down in 1961, and the square reverted to public open space.

Market Square, as it’s now known, once again is our Speaker’s Corner and rallying place, comfortably home to noon-time concerts, sports celebrations and political protests.

“BETTER DEAD THAN RED,” Chinese students protested in 1979, when President Carter normalized relations with Peking. In 1985, a libertarian man wearing a barrel and carrying a “BORN FREE, TAXED TO DEATH” sign led a horse carrying a woman wearing a long blond wig and a flesh-colored body suit through Market Square, as they re-enacted Lady Godiva’s 11th-century tax protest. The square as civic center is exactly what the Penns envisioned, and turning it into a lawn would shut all of that down.

If the mayor wants to update Market Square, he could, as a friend said last week, make it wireless, along with PPG Plaza and that congenial connecting space between them. Marrying historic form with high-tech capability, after all, is a large part of what 21st-century Pittsburgh should be about.

(Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

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This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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