This week, I took a lunch-time walk through the new Frankie Pace Park to see what the completed CAP project looks like and how it is used. There were two men sleeping on benches in the park and a handful of other people walking the paths singly or in pairs. Prior to 2020, I would have interpreted this as a failure of the park to attract users because any green space downtown between 12 and 1 was always full of people. However, in the continuing fallout of the pandemic, a handful of people walking or using the seats is typical even of the parks that you used to need to arrive before 11:59 if you wanted to find a seat to eat your lunch.
The CAP is a project in Pittsburgh “fixing the mistakes” of Urban Renewal. The Crosstown Blvd was built in the 1960s creating a freeway in a canyon dividing the Lower Hill neighborhood from downtown. The Lower Hill neighborhood, formerly predominantly poor and black, had already been demolished by this point to make way for the Civic Arena and other cultural amenities that were never built.
The CAP is a park on a bridge built over the Crosstown Blvd and is intended to reconnect downtown and the Lower Hill, while the Lower Hill is being rebuilt by the Penguins hockey team. Construction began in June 2019 and was completed in November 2021.
Below is a side-by-side comparison of the four corners of the CAP from November 2019 when I first started this photographic series and from my August 2022 walk. At the end of the post, there are links to all the previous posts in the series.
There was a lot of news about the bridge this month. PennDOT and the Mayor’s office held a press conference on Monday to announce that the bridge may be completed before the end of the year. This unusually fast pace is because construction is underway while the design is still being worked out. Inspired by the event, I went to Frick Park after work and explored the view of the bridge from the northern approach along the Tranquil Trail.
While the news is good for the Fern Hollow Bridge reconstruction, there were hiccups this month on the Swindell and Port Authority bridges.
Below is a slideshow of photos from my hike this month followed by the news updates on the Fern Hollow Bridge and other bridge maintenance and replacement efforts in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
The City created a Commission on Infrastructure Asset Reporting and Investment in March 2022, but this commission has not been added yet to the city’s website listing all Boards and Commissions and I have not seen any announcements of any appointments to the new Commission. However, there was a press release this month asking for applicants interested in serving in any of the city’s boards and commissions.
WSP USA was selected to manage the City’s new Bridge Asset Management Program. (Tribune Review, July 19, 2022)
On Tuesday, Port Authority found a crack in one of the rails on the bridge that was just repaired. The inbound T service was discontinued for two days to enable the replacement of this portion of track.
On July 1, Pittsburgh’s Swindell Bridge was closed due to falling debris. The falling debris was noticed during the first phase of repairs, which was repaving the road. (City Press Release, July 1, 2022) The subsequent inspection found that the debris came from the repairs – material accumulated in one of the drainage troughs, putting unusual pressure on the trough and causing it to “tear open and spill” the debris onto route 279 – hours after I had driven under it. (City Press Release, July 5, 2022)
Our next stop on the 10-year anniversary series looking at the changes to and around Pittsburgh’s bridges is the Herron Avenue Bridge. This is another bridge that passes over the MLK Jr or East busway. Traveling down the busway toward downtown from the Baum and Centre Bridges we looked at last month, this bridge is three bridges closer to downtown. It connects the Polish Hill and Lawrenceville neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.
On the northeastern side of the bridge is the former Iron City Brewery. When I walked this bridge in 2012, there were plans in the works to redevelop this complex of 20 or so buildings. Ten years later, not much has changed on this site – other than the clearing away a large pile of dirt and debris near the loading docks (visible in the second photo pair below). According to new articles about the site published in 2019 and 2021, some exterior stabilization has occurred and there are still plans in the works to renovate the site (WPXI, CBS, City Paper, Pittsburgh Business Times).
One the other side of the bridge, a major transformation is underway changing from a warehouse with large parking lots to a dense mixed-use development. The new buildings are visible from many angles of and from the bridge (see all but the second photo pair below). Construction started last summer and the project website says that pre-leasing was to begin in spring of this year, but based on the information on the website it doesn’t look like this has begun yet. One of the amenities listed is the views, which include the views of downtown stolen from the bridge.
My foot is finally healed enough for me to begin to explore the site of the bridge collapse over Fern Hollow in Frick Park. I started at the Frick Environmental Center and explored the western slope into the hollow looking for gaps in the trees to see the progress on the bridge construction. The Clayton, Biddle, Bradema, and Tranquil trails all provided glimpses of the bridge site. According to the Hiking Project’s website, the elevation change between the highest and lowest points I encountered was 250′ and the steepest grades were between 13 and 16%.
It was pleasant hiking through the leafy forest, but the foliage hid most of the bridge site. From what I could see through the gaps in the leaves, construction seems well on its way with the four primary support columns erected. In future updates (barring further injury), I will explore the views from the park along the eastern slope and the northern trails.
Below is a slideshow of photos from this exploration followed by the news updates on the Fern Hollow Bridge and other bridge maintenance and replacement efforts in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
There are no new updates on PennDOT’s project page regarding the reconstruction of the bridge since my post last month.
The City created a Commission on Infrastructure Asset Reporting and Investment in March 2022, but this commission has not been added yet to the city’s website listing all Boards and Commissions and I have not seen any announcements of any appointments to the new Commission.
The RFP is now closed for the Bridge Asset Management Program that Mayor Gainey announced in early May. (Bidnet.com)
Port Authority’s bridge has been repaired and is back in service. The stop upgrades to the stations in Beechview and Dormont have reached a point where they have reopened to use, though repairs (including morning jackhammering) continue.
Earlier this month, Public Source published an article revisiting the first four months after the bridge collapse. From this article, I learned that the City has launched a separate investigation into the collapse, that the overworked and understaffed Department of Mobility and Infrastructure will need more staff and resources to implement better bridge management in the city, and that a table of the status of Allegheny County’s poor condition bridges was released in February shortly after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse.
The Campbell’s Run Road bridge replacements identified in the County’s list of poor condition bridges are indeed happening this year. I have gotten caught up in traffic congestion caused by the detour for the work several times. (WTAE, February 3, 2022)
Pittsburgh’s Swindell Bridge is one that has been on the radar since the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge. The City announced this week that a first phase of repairs will be conducted over the next couple weeks. This initial phase consists of repaving the road surface. (City Press Release, June 24, 2022)
The next look back at the bridges I first walked 10 years ago moves “downstream” or toward downtown on the former riverbed now east busway and railroad route. From the East Liberty Pedestrian Bridge featured in February, the inbound buses and trains pass underneath three bridges in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood (the South Negley Avenue and South Aiken Avenue Bridges and the Graham Street Pedestrian Bridge) before reaching the approximately parallel Centre Avenue and Baum Boulevard Bridges. The bus station next to the Negley Avenue bridge is currently under reconstruction, otherwise the three bridges and their surroundings in Shadyside are relatively unchanged – except perhaps for some deterioration due to long deferred maintenance. On the other hand, the surroundings of the Centre Avenue and Baum Boulevard Bridges have seen a couple new developments since I first walked these bridges.
The first of these developments is the Luna Parking Garage for employees of the local, ever-expanding hospital giant UPMC. UPMC Shadyside is on Centre Avenue two blocks away from this new(ish) garage on Baum Boulevard. Work had already begun on the parking garage when I walked by in 2012. The permit in the first photo in the then & now sets below is to finish the demolition of the structure formerly on the site. In the paired photo, the landscaping appears in good condition several years after completion of the construction. The second set of photos shows the formerly sloped site change into a massive retaining wall with multi-level garage. On a side note: the “Luna” in the garage’s name is a reference to the Luna Park amusement park that had a short life in the early 1900s on a site across the tracks and two blocks up the hill.
Between the Baum Boulevard and Centre Avenue Bridges is a site that has had a much longer life. Originally a Ford plant and showroom, this building and site were redeveloped by the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) into a research and development space with laboratories, offices, an auditorium, and parking (Pittsburgh Business Times, May 5, 2022). Prior to the redevelopment, this site had caught my eye as I rode the bus by every day on my way to Pitt. The floating doorways and loading docks captured my imagination. My imagination now speculates that these openings were used to create connections with the new addition seen in the fourth photo pair. The pedestrian experience walking by the sloped parking lot in the early 2010s wasn’t pleasant. While the sidewalks felt larger now, the experience was still unpleasant as I felt like I was walking through a pedestrian unfriendly loading and service area while the cantilevered building towering over me felt oppressive. The final photo pair shows the sidewalk experience on both sides of the new addition.
Seven years after the initial eviction notices went to the low-income residents of the former Penn Plaza Apartments, the mixed-use redevelopment of the size nears completion of Phase 1.
The former Penn Plaza Apartments was a group of large of apartments buildings that served a low-income population. After years of neglecting these apartments, the owner gave 200 residents notice to vacate within 90 days in the summer of 2015. By then, the surrounding neighborhood of East Liberty was a hopping place to live with low vacancy rates and the average rent much higher than what these residents could afford. There was a large outcry at the time, which only got worse as the owner’s plans for the site were understood. The owner wanted to swap some land with the City and change the zoning district to build a large scale mixed-use development: 54,600 sq ft of retail and 246,090 sq ft of office with accessory parking (see the application materials starting on page 54 from the final Planning Commission review and approval). After months of negotiation with the City and the community, the land and the zone change were given to the development while the affordable housing crisis in Pittsburgh only got worse and the former residents were forced to uproot their lives.
While the construction of Phase 1 of the new development appears to be nearing completion, I did not find any news items specifically about the site. News about affordable housing issues in Pittsburgh continue.
New affordable housing units opened and another project broke ground in October 2021 (Tribune Review).
A brief from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on the homeownership gap in that city including findings applicable to Pittsburgh and other cities (East Liberty Development Inc, January 4, 2022).
Closing out the East Liberty portion of the Then & Now 10-year anniversary series is the Penn Ave Bridge Ramp. This ramp inspired the second Pittsburgh edition of What is a Bridge?. As best as I can make out from the data on the National Bridge Inventory, the Federal Highway Commission does not consider the ramp a bridge. It is not marked as one of the bridges inventoried by the Commission. And the data for the Penn Avenue Bridge does not include any approach spans. This leaves me wondering who, if anyone, inspects the ramp.
As I cannot find a public source that shares inspection data of the ramp (if it is inspected), its condition rating is anyone’s guess. However, this lack of data may be attributable to the change the ramp underwent in the last ten years. It was originally a ramp for buses to travel from a major bus stop off Penn Avenue onto the East Busway. With the redevelopment of the East Busway Station, this bus stop was redesigned as a regular on-street stop and the ramp was converted to pedestrian access only (second photo set below). The National Bridge Inventory seems to skip over pedestrian bridges as the East Liberty Pedestrian Bridge featured in February is also not listed.
Regardless of the ramp’s condition, its fate now seems tied to the fate of the Penn Avenue Bridge as the gap between the two been filled in with much needed greenspace (first photo set below). The Penn Avenue Bridge was last inspected in May 2020 (which means it probably has been or will be inspected again this month). It received a “poor” condition rating in that inspection – a rating that is worrying for Pittsburghers since the collapse of the “poor” condition Fern Hollow Bridge, despite reassurances from the bridge engineering community that “poor” condition does not necessarily equate to imminent danger.
Just beyond the South Highland Bridge from the East Liberty Pedestrian bridge is the busway’s East Liberty Station. When I moved to Pittsburgh over a decade ago, there were two pedestrian bridges over the busway and train tracks – one at either end of the station – and a ramp providing buses on Penn Avenue access to the busway. Across the tracks from the busway was a one-story, graffiti-covered warehouse, a parking lot, and a drive-through bank. Along Penn Avenue and connected by the ramp to the busway was a major bus stop on its own governor’s drive.
All of this was replaced in 2014-2015 with a transit-oriented development. The two boxed-in (a step beyond caged) pedestrian bridges were demolished and replaced by a new open bridge (first photo pair below) and a crosswalk on the busway. The bus ramp was renovated into an accessible pedestrian ramp (seen in the east view, second photo pair). Plantings were introduced on both the bridge and the ramp, changing this portion of the vast paved, treeless area into a desert oasis. It is still a hot and uncomfortable place to be in the summer months, but at least now there are black-eyed Susans to bring cheer.
The warehouse, parking lot, drive-through bank, and Penn Avenue bus stop were replaced with a massive mixed-use complex called EastSide Bond (glimpsed on the right in the final pair of photos, also visible in the South Highland Avenue Bridge Then & Now post). The new development features 360 residential units, 43,000 sq ft of retail (most of which is occupied, except for the promised anchor tenant), 554 parking spaces in a garage under the buildings, and a 120-space bike parking garage (which I’ve only ever seen a handful of bikes in, probably because Penn Avenue is not a bike-friendly thoroughfare).
Similar to the older, new developments near the East Liberty Pedestrian Bridge, this site and its uses cater to a White and moneyed demographic. However, in 2010, East Liberty had a population that was 67% Black (down from 72.5% a decade prior) and the median income was $23,000. This means the site is catering to an audience that currently makes up a minority of the neighborhood. Perhaps that is why whenever I pass by or stop at one of the retail locations at EastSide Bond, I feel like it has a luke-warm success. In contrast, the Target across the street is heavily trafficked as is the busway station – both are used by the current population.
Once upon a time, Black residents were pushed to East Liberty through Urban Renewal and the demolition of their previous lives. Now, we may be witnessing the pushing out of Black residents through redevelopment and the demolition of their current lives. The current proposed redevelopment of the shopping center south of the East Liberty Station promises to bring the grocery store back and to include 35 affordable units out of 232. There is no mention of whether any of the other smaller retail stores that catered to the current population will be returning. I also wonder if the grocery store will still carry beauty products for darker skin tones when it reopens. Down the street, the redevelopment of the former affordable and predominantly Black Penn Plaza apartments is the latest project that is definitely catering to people who are not the majority residents of the neighborhood, after permitting affordable housing units to deteriorate through neglect before demolishing them.