Then & Now: East Liberty Pedestrian Bridge

Just after I began my 10-year anniversary celebration of bridge walking, the Forbes Ave Bridge over Fern Hollow collapsed on January 28, 2022. This accident shone a light on a pattern of infrastructure funding in the time since I became a bridge person. Ten years ago, there were several bridges built, repaired, or replaced in Pittsburgh. Five years later, the flurry of long overdue investment in our infrastructure stopped – before all the bridges that needed help received it. An article on the aftermath of last month’s bridge collapse reminded me that federal funds were allocated toward infrastructure under the Obama administration. As a result, many bridges that were falling apart were fixed or replaced. It seems that when that funding stopped, so did the repairs. Now that new funding has been allocated under the Biden administration, we should see a similar spurt of investment in our infrastructure, starting with the now missing Fern Hollow Bridge.

One of the bridges presumably supported by the Obama infrastructure funding was the brand-new pedestrian bridge across the East Busway connecting the Shadyside and East Liberty neighborhoods. This bridge is 10-years old this month. The “road” surface of the bridge hasn’t held up very well: the paint was faded and the top surface was patchy when I returned this month. On the other hand, the over-the-top lamps and giant glitter looked like they have held up well. Though it’s hard to say in wintertime, the landscaping between the cage and the bridge walls also appeared to be well maintained.

From the bridge, some of the new developments in East Liberty are visible. Looking southwest toward the current location of Whole Foods (soon to relocate), one of the several new apartment buildings along the Baum-Centre corridor is visibly under construction in the far right of the second set of photos. In the third set, the northeast view shows the new South Highland Avenue Bridge and (to the left of the bridge) the final phase of the East Side Bond development that brought several buildings of first floor commercial with residences above.

I was surprised to find that the highly controversial and massive redevelopment of the former Penn Plaza affordable housing complex was not visible from this bridge. Despite being only a quarter mile apart, the first phase of redevelopment is blocked from the bridge’s view by the iconic Motor Square Gardens building. One of the controversies of this new development is that affordable housing units were demolished without replacement for a series of commercial buildings which include the feature anchor of the pricey Whole Foods grocery store.

The pedestrian bridge was controversial when it was proposed and built. It connects the wealthy Shadyside neighborhood to the expensive Whole Foods, a high-end liquor store, and other luxury shops. It is also redundant as the South Highland Avenue bridge is only 0.1 miles away. A quarter mile away, is the neighborhood of Larimar whose residents are primarily living on low-incomes and do not have a walkable route to the lower cost Giant Eagle grocery store or Trader Joes that are just on the other side of the busway from their homes. For years, the residents have been asking for a pedestrian bridge over the busway to give them better access to these stores. Instead of a bridge serving those who need it, an ornamental bridge was built to provide access for those who already have abundant options.

Around the same time that this bridge was built, the Port Authority altered its bus service by eliminating the 94B bus that connected the low-income residents of Larimar with a shopping center featuring Walmart, Giant Eagle, TJ Maxx and similar clothing retailers, and other stores. In addition to providing shopping opportunities for necessities, these locations provided jobs. The 94B bus was never less than half-full (an unusual condition for Pittsburgh buses outside of rush hour). This bus was replaced by the 75 bus, which connected the higher-end shopping centers of South Side Works and Bakery Square through the wealthy residential neighborhood of Shadyside. For years, it was common to be the only person or one of a handful of people riding the 75. Eventually, the Port Authority acknowledged the value of the 94B route and tact it on to the end of the 75 route.

Presumably both the pedestrian bridge and bus route changes of 2012 were supported at least in part by the federal infrastructure funds of the time. With the current round of federal funding, it would be nice to see a greater focus of infrastructure investment for those who need it and not on additional luxury options.

Hebron Snow People

Pittsburgh dinosaur hunting is on pause this month. Instead, the public art feature of this month is from Hebron, CT. Hebron is a typical small Connecticut town built up at a crossroads. It was incorporated in 1708 and its current population is just under 10,000. In passing through on a recent trip around New England, my eye was caught by a public art display of snow people on the town green. I originally assumed that this was one of the fiberglass fundraisers like the Pittsburgh DinoMite Days dinosaurs, however these snow people are made of Styrofoam. However, like the fiberglass statues, each one is decorated by a different artist. They seem to be a new annual tradition of the town, having first appeared in the winter of 2020 then hibernating over the summer before returning this winter. Scroll through the slideshow below to see all eight of the snow folks (my favorite is the hula dancer).

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Dec. 2021

Overview

Uptown is one of the many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that experienced decades of neglect. For this neighborhood, the neglect was despite Uptown being sandwiched between Oakland and downtown, two places among the state’s strongest economic regions. Zipping through Uptown from Oakland to downtown on Fifth Avenue or from downtown to Oakland on Forbes Avenue, it is easy to overlook or dismiss the hodgepodge of ruined home foundations turning back to forest; scattered vacant lots, parking lots, and industrial uses; and the intricate architectural details on abandoned and renovated townhomes.

In recent years, new buildings started springing up here and there. Some of these new projects are the work of the two institutions in the neighborhood: UPMC Mercy Hospital and Duquesne University. Others are the work of a variety of commercial and residential developers. Two reasons for this recent investment are the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system, which will eventually run through the neighborhood, and the in-progress redevelopment of the Lower Hill, an adjacent neighborhood.

The Uptown community saw these changes coming and prepared. Between 2015 and 2017, the community organization Uptown Partners collaborated UPMC Mercy, Duquesne University, the City of Pittsburgh, and others to create the EcoInnovation District Plan and the Uptown Public Realm zoning district. The plan and new zoning district are intended to guide future development and leverage their economic investment for the greater good of the neighborhood. Ideally, this will reduce the number of those who will be left behind.

This blog post is part of an on-going series watching the changes in Uptown. Periodically, once or twice a year, I return to the neighborhood to take new photographs of the same areas. 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 is a map showing the location of the neighborhood and links to the previous posts in the series.

What’s new

Since the last walk through the neighborhood, several buildings have been demolished while those that have been under construction continue to make progress. Progress also continues on a handful of housing renovations in the neighborhood.

The roads and sidewalks were even more rough and patched from the utility line replacements started this spring. According to a recent press release from the Mayor’s office, this utility work will continue next year, so a temporary repaving will be happening shortly to smooth out the roads for the winter season.

While I believe that this utility work is part of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s lead line replacement project, there were new signs up in the neighborhood apologizing for the mess as the neighborhood prepares for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The utility replacement mess has happened in various neighborhoods throughout the city including those that are not part of the BRT routes. However, there was no other obvious mess, yet, that would be more directly associated with the construction of a BRT and need signs of apology.

The Photos

Uptown in the News & on the Web:

The pending Fifth and Dinwiddie development (image 8 above) proposes to be Passive House certified, include double the number of affordable housing units required by the URA as a condition of sale, and provide training on clean energy jobs. (September 20, 2021: NextPittsburgh)

UPMC’s Vision and Rehabilitation Center (images 19, 9, 12 above) is on track to open in 2023 despite construction disruptions, supply shortages, and the pressure placed on existing healthcare systems by COVID. (November 16, 2021: Pittsburgh Business Times, Tribune Review)

Locating Uptown


Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Jul. 2021

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Nov. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: May 2020

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Nov. 2019

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction (November 15, 2019)

Moral Economics (September 1, 2019)