Layers of the City: Pittsburgh Edition

I clench my teeth every time the “T”, Pittsburgh’s light rail system, slowly makes the first 90 degree bend leaving Gateway Station, squeaking like fingernails on a chalkboard.  After traveling a few hundred yards, it turns back 90 degrees–squeak, scratch, squeak–before pulling into the Wood Street Station.  As everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, I struggled to understand why the T was built with turns so sharp it is impossible for the trains not to screech, until my friend pointed out that there might be building foundations or basements that the underground tracks need to maneuver around.

Like many metropolises, the density of downtown Pittsburgh creates various physical layers of activity.  Yet compared to other some other cities (see future post Layers of the City: Chicago Edition), Pittsburgh’s layers can be hard to notice.  The T is perhaps the most obvious example.  For most of it’s length through the southern neighborhoods and suburbs, the T travels at grade.  Once it crosses the Monongahela River into Downtown, it becomes an elevated train for a few blocks before submerging underground until it passes under the Allegheny River to the North Shore, where it reemerges to end as an elevated train.

Underground Life

If you get off the T at Gateway Station and walk down a block to the start of 5th Ave, which actually feels like an alley, you might notice that the Highmark Building is built over an underground garage.  I assume that this garage has multiple levels below grade and is at least part of the reason for the T’s sharp turns.

The new PNC Tower also has a garage below grade.  Yet the most recent new construction project downtown, on the former site of Sax Fifth Avenue, places the garage between the first floor retail and proposed upper level residences.

The building I work in, the former Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill Headquarters, has at least 3 1/2 levels of basement.  The building is long past its days of glory with peeling paint, cracked foundation, and elevators that you may never make it out of again.  The mezzanine level of the basement is a maze of building supplies, file cabinets, discarded furniture and boxes upon boxes of documents.  It is damp and dusty.  Five minutes down there could lead to a severe allergy attack.  Yet the stairs keep going down and down, plunging further into the dark depths.  I’ve heard rumors of more documents being stored in the lower levels.

Street Level

Coming back above ground, most activity in downtown Pittsburgh takes place at street level.  Pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, cars, delivery trucks, dumpsters, and more compete for space on the narrow streets and sidewalks.  Most shopping and restaurants are located at street level.  The Highmark Building and the Oxford Building still have some retail above the first floor.

Pie in the Sky

As you walk around downtown, if you look up, you might catch a rare sight of pedestrian sky bridges.  The most famous of which is the Bridge of Sighs connecting the Allegheny County Courthouse with the former Jail.  The second most famous (speaking with pure bias) is the bridge connecting the parking garage with what used to be the shoe section of the former Kaufmann’s Department Store (always a necessary stop when shopping for back to school).  A handful of others are sprinkled throughout downtown.  Indianapolis has got us beat though.  That city has a network of pedestrian connections that enables you to walk for miles between the stadiums, office buildings, and other structures downtown without ever getting a taste of fresh air.

Higher up, there is a sprinkling of rooftop or penthouse restaurants.  This is one of our complaints at work: while many new, good restaurants have opened downtown in recent years, there is still a dearth of restaurants and bars with views.  Sienna Mercado’s Il Tetto, Harris Grill, and the Biergarten at Hotel Monaco all have rooftop decks, but they are surrounded by taller buildings limiting views.  Ollie’s Gastropub on the top floor of the Oliver Building has some good views, but no fresh air.

There isn’t much connection or relationship between the different parts of these layers in Pittsburgh.  It is like they are experiments, like the city is only dabbling.  As if to say, it can’t make up its mind whether or not to let the public leave street level and participate in or explore all levels of the city.