Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: May 2021

The Lower Hill is a notorious site in Pittsburgh, a scar on the city from the height of Urban Renewal. A vibrant (but poor and predominately Black) neighborhood was demolished in the 1950s so the City could build a cultural mecca centered on a Civic Arena, most of which ended up not being built and was left as parking lots.

Now that the arena has been demolished and replaced adjacent to the former location, the Penguins hockey team has the development rights to rebuild the Lower Hill, stitching back together the fabric of the city and reconnecting the remainder of the Hill District neighborhoods with downtown.

However, grand language describing the wonderful benefits to a city are part and parcel of any major development project, including the 1950’s Urban Renewal of the Lower Hill. Fifty years later, the Urban Renewal of the Lower Hill is rarely, if ever described as a good thing. In fact the current redevelopment is sometimes described as undoing the mistakes of that project. However, can the negative financial, social, and emotional repercussions of the original demolition and decades of disconnect be undone simply by reinstating (most of) the former street grid?

This blog post is part of an on-going photographic series to watch the redevelopment of the Lower Hill. Periodically, approximately once every six months, I return to the site to take new photographs. In addition, I include links to articles about the project that I’ve encountered since the previous post in the series. At the end of the post, there are links to all the previous posts in the series.

Lower Hill in the News:

A deep look at the Penguins development in anticipation of ground breaking later this year (January 13, 2021, The Undefeated)

Is the project moving too fast to make sure it is done right for the community? (March 15, 2021, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Community questions if the first building is being rushed at the community’s expense (March 16, 2021, WESA)

Pittsburgh’s Equal Opportunity Commission approved the Penguins’ MWBE participation plan (March 18, 2021, Pittsburgh Business Times)

Penguins updated the community on progress of MWBE inclusion as ground breaking approaches (April 1, 2021, Pittsburgh Business Times)

The census line is moved to undo the Urban Renewal inclusion of the Lower Hill in the downtown census tract, but will this divert needed funds from the rest of the Hill District? (April 7, 2021, Public Source)

A major Black church was demolished as part of Urban Renewal while a nearby White church was saved from the wrecking ball, are reparations now possible? (April 14, 2021, Public Source)

Penguins propose a $5 million Opportunity Zone fund (April 16, 2021, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The final plan presented to Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission for the new FNB Tower proposes not finishing the last block to reconnect Wylie Ave to downtown. This is a change from the guiding redevelopment plan and technically requires an amendment that the developer says will take too long. (April 20, 2021, Pittsburgh Business Times)


Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Dec. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jun. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jan. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Dec. 2020

Lower Hill in the News:

URA board votes in favor of FNB Tower (Pittsburgh Business Times, May 21, 2020)

FNB tower will be among first post-pandemic buildings (Pittsburgh Business Times, May 22, 2020)

The Penguins and FNB Corp provide funds for tech center in the Hill District (Pittsburgh Business Times, August 27, 2020)

FNB and Penguins establish partnership (Pittsburgh Business Times, September 10, 2020)

Funding secured for FNB tower in Lower Hill (Pittsburgh Business Times, October 8, 2020)

Penguins miss deadline; URA considering next moves (Pittsburgh Business Times, November 12, 2020)

Lower Hill commercial redeveloper, Mayor Peduto, and Councilman Lavelle announce partnership (Mayor’s Press Release, November 19, 2020)

New Lower Hill partnership could move project forward (Public Source, November 19, 2020)

Lower Hill redeveloper establishes downtown office and announces local firms and personnel added to team (Pittsburgh Business Times, November 19, 2020)

Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jun. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jan. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Dec. 2020


The CAP in the News:

Project on schedule despite pandemic (Tribune Review, July 29, 2020)

Project continues on schedule (WESA, October 5, 2020)


Previous Posts in the Series:

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Jun. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Dec. 2019

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Nov. 2020

Uptown in the News & on the Web:

President Trump tweets about BRT grant award (Post-Gazette, May 29, 2020)

Locust/Miltenberger Development Website

51-unit apartment proposed in 1700 block of Fifth Avenue (Pittsburgh Business Times, June 1, 2020)

$99.95 million awarded for BRT (Next Pittsburgh, June 2, 2020)

Funding awarded for proposed mixed-use with affordable housing project (Pittsburgh Business Times, August 18, 2020)

BRT service may start in 2023 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 21, 2020)

Solidarity murals coming to the city (Next Pittsburgh, September 27, 2020)

Gentrification concerns raised for proposed tech development (Pittsburgh Business Times, September 30, 2020)

Interview with developer of proposed Uptown mixed-use project (Pittsburgh Business Times, October 5, 2020)

Partner pulls out of Fifth and Dinwiddie project (Pittsburgh Business Times, October 26, 2020)

Planning Commission approves Uptown tech development (Public Source – Develop PGH Bulletins, October 27, 2020)

Commercial portion presented for Fifth and Dinwiddie project (Pittsburgh Business Times, November 10, 2020)


Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: May 2020

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Nov. 2019

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood (across the tracks): Sept. 2020

Hazelwood is a neighborhood divided in two by railroad tracks. On one side of the tracks are Hazelwood Green, a residential enclave, and some industrial and commercial uses. This is what is across the tracks:

Second Ave

Hazelwood Ave

Other Sites


Hazelwood in the News:

New Businesses Revitalizing Second Ave (Next Pittsburgh, November 21, 2019)

URA Picks Community Builders for Affordable Housing Development on Second Ave (Pittsburgh Business Times, January 15, 2020)

Study Pushes Multi-modal Transit Improvements to Hazelwood’s 2nd Avenue (Post-Gazette, February 10, 2020)

Report Says Traditional Buses Better for Hazelwood than Autonomous Shuttles (City Paper, April 21, 2020)

Restaurants Reopen – Diners Return (Post-Gazette, June 28, 2020)

66 New Homes Proposed (Pittsburgh Business Times, September 10, 2020)


Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood (across the tracks): Apr. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood: Introduction


Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jun. 2020

Lower Hill in the News:

Mayor’s Press Release (May 5, 2020)

Penguins Stop Development (Public Source, May 14, 2020)

Penguins Pull Out (Trib, May 14, 2020)

Penguins Back Out (WPXI, May 15, 2020)

Penguins Cease Redevelopment (Patch, May 15, 2020)

Penguins Halt Lower Hill Development (WESA, May 18, 2020)

Mayor’s Press Release (May 20, 2020)

Mayor Urges URA to Approve Development (Trib, May 20, 2020)

URA Explanation of Community Benefits

URA Board Votes to Move Lower Hill Development Forward (May 21, 2020)

URA Board Approves Development Project (WPXI, May 21, 2020)

Never Mind, Penguins Back In (WTAE, May 21, 2020)

President Trump Tweets about BRT Grant Award (May 29, 2020)


Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jan. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Jun. 2020


Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Dec. 2019

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: May 2020

Uptown in the News:

UPMC Vision Plans (December 16, 2019)

Duquesne University Plans Expansion (December 18, 2019)

Uptown Art: The “Tiger King” Comes to Uptown (March 29, 2020)

Ecoinnovation District Plan wins Award (May 5, 2020)


Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Nov. 2019

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood: May 2020

Hazelwood is a neighborhood divided in two by railroad tracks. On one side of the tracks are Hazelwood Green, a residential enclave, and some industrial and commercial uses. Here is a snapshot of the residential enclave and surrounding uses:

Hazelwood in the News:

Post-Gazette Article on proposed new road between Hazelwood and Oakland April 10, 2020

Judging Buildings

When I first saw this building from a distance, its rooftop ornamentation made it stand out from its surroundings. I didn’t have time to investigate on that trip, but my curiosity was peaked. I built up a story about the long history of this building that I surmised started out as a produce terminal in the 19th Century.

Six years later, I walked past the building on my way to my hotel. I was surprised to see it was a public library. It seemed unusual for a former marketplace to be converted to a library. As soon as I checked-in, I hurried back over to explore this unique building.

Despite entering immediately into a narrow, angular, white hallway, I held onto my belief that it was an old building. The hallway felt odd in that narrative, but I quickly forgot that feeling once I emerged into the main lobby with its high ceiling and sparkling white marble floors, counters, and walls. I found a directory and decided to make my way to the map room several floors above. This “room” turned out to be a corner in an open floor plan. The corner featured one row of computers and a full-service counter. Unable to browse a collection of maps, I made up a research question and asked the staff if they had maps to help. While one librarian looked in the back room for hard copy maps and another showed me their digital resources, our conversation ranged from how awesome maps are to the history of the building.

I was surprised and embarrassed to learn that the library was built in the 1990s. The rooftop sculptures of owls stand out so much in part because they were designed for a taller structure; the final floor of the library was cut from the project due to the financial crisis. I suggested it was nice that the designers included such details as the sculptures and marble countertops. The librarian pointed out that the marble was faux and did nothing to alleviate the industrial feel of the building.

Looking again, beyond the cleanliness and sparkle of the space, I noticed the low ceilings and uniform bright white light throughout the open floor plan. I also noticed the distortion of the wooden escalator enclosure. The proportions would have been better balanced if the enclosure reached twice as high to the next floor.

This discussion with the librarian made me question my default reactions to the space. My initial reaction of excitement for a unique example of adaptive reuse changed to awe when I thought that a new building, open to the public, incorporated expensive historical material. But this reaction did not match reality any more than the first. Both assumptions blinded me to the cramped spaces with migraine inducing lighting. This experience also taught me that it isn’t just the material that matters. Incorporating the materials, whether faux or real, while leaving out the related historic design elements such as natural lighting and high ceilings does not lead to a better building.

I came away with a better appreciation for my neighborhood library branch that combines modern materials (such as curtain wall windows and bamboo flooring) with thoughtful design. From the outside, I cringe at the modern angular look, but inside it is a warm and welcoming space. Apparently, the lesson of never judging a book by its cover applies to buildings, too. Never judge a building by its facade.