Revitalize city by building on its natural strengths
By Jack Markowitz
FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, January 6, 2002
Here are some old ideas for improving the business situation in downtown Pittsburgh, especially in the so-called Forbes-Fifth Corridor.
You read it right. Old ideas, not new ideas. Cheap ideas, too, mostly.
A public-private committee is working at this moment on ways to reinvigorate the central business district of Pittsburgh, after several renaissances that haven’t quite cut it. Before January is over, we are told, a so-called “Plan C” ought to be in front of Mayor Tom Murphy and other decision makers. Plans A and B for one reason or another misfired. No disgrace that. Everybody is well advised to keep at it.
Well, here is a guess that Plan C will click if it includes:
Making several blocks of either Fifth Avenue or Forbes Avenue, at long last, into a pedestrian mall. That is, an open-air place for exclusive use by people on foot, in wheelchairs, and baby buggies, from wall to wall of the building lines, nothing but people. Vehicular traffic would be banned.
This is a very old idea and there have always been obstacles to its realization. Yet in a fair number of cities such a pedestrian-dedicated thoroughfare works very well. It creates a special sort of urban delight as well as being good for business.
There is a temptation to expand on these virtues, but first some additional inputs to Plan C:
The beautification of downtown’s southern backdrop: that is, the high cliff wall of Mt. Washington and Duquesne Heights.
Here is an immense garden-in-waiting. It was at least 50 years ago that the late Gilbert Love, a columnist for The Pittsburgh Press, proposed planting it with thousands of shrubs and trees (even as the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy now does so nicely with more level bits of public real estate). Horticulturally the mountain wall would be timed to blossom at varying intervals March through October, creating a natural curtain of modulating colors to please the downtown eye. Along about November, true, the escarpment would revert to wintry drab. But only by day. Multi-hued lights, as at Niagara Falls, might play over the craggy face at night. Think of the statement that a wall of shimmering reds, whites, and blues might be making right now, for instance.
Mt. Washington could be exploited even more, as a kind of “vertical park.” A steep pathway, lighted by night, with park benches along the route, would be a challenge to hikers from bottom to top. Lunchtime joggers downtown, already a hardy breed, could cross a bridge, “do” Mt. Washington and get back before the first afternoon appointment. Where else in America?
By all means, when it’s time to paint them again, let’s have a different color for every bridge in the city. We’d feature a rainbow of river crossings, as proposed some time back by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. And why not illuminate all those bridges, too, a favorite idea of the late Pittsburgh stalwart Walter F. Toerge? Strings of light bulbs playing on vari-colored arches and trusses above and reflected in the rivers below. Talk about pretty.
Tax incentives ought to reward the voluntary painting, cleaning or repair of downtown building facades. Architectural beauty is a king of public benefit. And it would spur more residential living downtown, already a well-advanced goal.
Possibly no big city mayor has more correctly emphasized cleaning up the litter problem than Tom Murphy. Whatever it takes – more trash cans, more volunteers, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, civic, school and religious groups – this is doable and affordable. Why not “the cleanest city in the country?” It’s an honor up for grabs.
But back to the idea of making a pedestrian mall of Fifth or Forbes:
The two long blocks between Smithfield Street and Market Street appear the most rundown and vacancy-ridden. Yet they are blessed with the most preservable low-rise buildings. Get the cars, trucks and buses off those blocks (but let them run as now on the Smithfield, Wood, and Market cross-carriers). Let people walk freely, and that’s where they will go.
There is something liberating and cheerful about a busy street without cars. Restaurants likely will put tables out; specialty shops and kiosks will open. This happens along Church Street, which used to carry most north-south vehicular traffic through downtown Burlington, Vt. It happens along charming Washington Street, in Cape May, N.J.; and in any number of European cities, even in a neighborhood of West Los Angeles.
Why hasn’t the idea taken hold here? Political inertia and perceived business risk (“if cars are kept out, will the people come?”). Also, the costs, inconvenience, and transplanted congestion of rerouting public transportation, and the scheduling of truck deliveries in the wee hours of mornings. All these are natural enough concerns.
But the Forbes-Fifth corridor never seemed like such a sore point before. Now it does.
So take it away, Planners C.
Retired business editor Jack Markowitz writes Sundays and Wednesdays. E-mail him at email@example.com.