Then & Now: East Liberty Station Bridge(s)

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.

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Ribbon-Cutting

The ribbon-cutting for the CAP, now called the Frankie Pace Park, happened on schedule on November 22, 2021. The Tribune-Review, Pittsburgh Post=Gazette, WTAE, KDKA/CBS, and SAI Consulting Engineers reported on the ceremony. The Tribune-Review and WTAE also have articles on the resolution earlier this month by City Council to name the park after Frankie Pace (1905-1989), a community activist and business owner in the Lower Hill.

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.

This post is an update on the on-going photographic series to watch the development and usage patterns of the CAP. Periodically, once or twice a year, I return to the site to take new photographs. I plan to take the next series of photos next year in the warmer weather to see who uses the park and how. At the end of the post, there are links to the previous posts in this series.

Locating the CAP


Previous Posts in the Series

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Nov. 2021

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: May 2021

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Dec. 2020

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 the Lower Hill: Dec. 2021

Overview

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, but most of the site 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.

What’s New

Ground has broken! There are a large hole, giant piles of dirt and debris, and closed sidewalks as construction begins for the new FNB Tower, the first building to be built on the site.

This was also the first time that I’ve visited the site on the day of a Penguins game, which was interesting to see how the sea of parking lots get used for events. At least one of the lots is reserved for employees only during events. There is also a slight price differential, the lot closet to the arena costs $30 to park for the event, while the one at the top of the hill is “only” $25.

Photos

Lower Hill in the News

Controversy and concerns continue over the redevelopment of the Lower Hill from the Executive Management Committee that was appointed to answer how the redevelopment would benefit the entire Hill District in private meetings (September 17, 2021, Public Source, & September 23, 2021, NextPittsburgh) to the impact of a pending change in owner of the Penguins (November 23, NextPittsburgh) and the pending registration of a second community organization in the Lower Hill, which would then also participate in the Lower Hill development activities meetings (November 19, 2021, Public Source). The potential new owner has previously been involved in real estate development around sports arenas (November 21, 2021, Post-Gazette).

Locating the Lower Hill


Previous posts in series

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: May 2021

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 CAP: Nov. 2021

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 being 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 expected to be completed in November 2021. As the photos below show, it appears to be predominantly completed mid-November 2021, but the construction fence was still up. There are still a couple weeks left in the month to meet the project schedule. There do not appear to be any news articles about this project since the May post of Keeping an Eye on the CAP. The next bit of news about the site will probably be either announcing the ribbon cutting or a project delay.

This post is part of an on-going photographic series to watch the development and usage patterns of the CAP. Periodically, approximately once every six months, I return to the site to take new photographs. At the end of the post, there are links to all the previous posts in the series.


Previous Posts in the Series:

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: May 2021

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Dec. 2020

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 the CAP: May 2021

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 being 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 is expected to complete in November 2021.

This blog post is part of an on-going photographic series to watch the development and usage patterns of the CAP. 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.



The CAP in the News:

WPXI and the Post-Gazette both shared an update on the project in March noting that construction had progressed far enough for the outlines of a park to begin to be recognizable.


Previous Posts in the Series:

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Dec. 2020

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 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

Arena Developments

Allentown, PA, had been on my travel list for years because of the awards and acknowledgements it was receiving from the planning community (and because I grew up near there). When I finally visited, the only thing that engaged my interest was the Liberty Bell Museum. There was a stark contrast between the cohesion and vibrancy of Bethlehem’s main street, where I stayed, and the hodge-podge of Allentown’s main street. The proportions in Allentown felt all wrong. In the core, the roads and sidewalks felt too narrow for the density and height of the buildings. At odd moments, this claustrophobic spacing suddenly opened out into large vacant plazas with buildings placed far from the road. After the pleasant surprise of Bethlehem’s tree-lined, historic business district with wide sidewalks for promenading and window shopping (and now social distancing), Allentown was a disappointment.

However, since being home, I find I have a growing appreciation for one of Allentown’s newer developments. The PPL Center gave me a sterile vibe at the time. I only glanced at the façade as I investigated the map out front with recommended lunchbreak walks and the historic building next door. From the outside, the partial attention I gave the center suggested a shopping or office complex. It wasn’t until I accidentally entered the lobby and saw the stadium seating beyond the ticket booth that I realized it was an arena. Perhaps due to my distraction at the time, it was only in the comfort of my home that I registered my shock over finding an arena that managed the rare feat of fitting into its surroundings.

Pittsburgh’s arenas have done the opposite. For decades, there was the Civic Arena that looked like a spaceship plopped down in the middle of a city spewing parking lots out from the landing center. A flagship of Pittsburgh’s Urban Renewal, it has since been demolished with the plan to rebuild the urban fabric on the site to reconnect the Hill District to downtown. The replacement arena made some attempts to fit in more with its neighborhood. It is built up to the sidewalk or, rather, the sidewalk is built up to it creating a large sea of concrete out of proportion with the sidewalks opposite. The principal street façade includes one restaurant open to anyone inside or outside the arena during normal restaurant hours, though I don’t recall ever seeing anyone eating at their sidewalk café (even before quarantine and social distancing). Instead, the restaurant feels like a weird mistake pasted onto the building’s towering blank wall.

In contrast, the street facing restaurants in Allentown’s arena are part of the reason I mistakenly identified the structure as a retail and office building. They felt like places with lives of their own, independent of special events. The plaza in front of the arena is proportional to the plaza on the adjacent corner. The building is built up to the sidewalks with the same building height and sidewalk width as the surrounding urban fabric. As a result, this arena blends into its neighborhood, such as it is.

The Story of the Spires – Bethlehem

While exploring Bethlehem’s bridges, my eye was caught by the numerous spires rising above the surrounding buildings of South Bethlehem. Instead of resting upon returning to the hotel, I felt compelled to go back out and take a survey of religious buildings within walking distance. Due to the topography, those on the slopes of South Bethlehem were the easiest to spot, but I also located some in Bethlehem’s historic district and in West Bethlehem. I found twenty-three buildings in all.

As with my experience in Erie, I was surprised that the vast majority of these buildings were still open for use as religious worship. Bethlehem Steel Company was the main employer in Bethlehem for most of the 20th Century. Like steel mills elsewhere in the northeast, its business declined. In the early 2000s, the company went bankrupt. This makes it seem like the town should have experienced the classic rise and decline of other Rust Belt Cities.

One of the typical landmarks of this change is an abundance of vacant or adaptively reused religious buildings. In Pittsburgh, I have found over 50 former churches and synagogues now being used for secular purposes or in the process of being converted to secular purposes. Many more are vacant and boarded. Wilkinsburg, a town adjacent to Pittsburgh, has so many closed churches that its zoning code incorporates guidelines for converting church buildings to secular uses. Homestead, PA, the former home to US Steel and the site of the famous Homestead Steel Strike, has several shuttered churches. Bethlehem’s religious buildings did not fit this pattern.

In searching for an answer to what made Bethlehem different than other steel towns, I realized that the business districts and residential areas I passed through were mostly intact. There were few vacant buildings and no vacant and abandoned grass lots. This suggested that Bethlehem did not experience the same decline as the other former steel towns that I have explored. The historical population data corroborated this hypothesis. Bethlehem and Erie experienced their peak populations in 1960; Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg in 1950; and Homestead in 1920. In 2010, the cumulative population loss from each city’s peak was:

CityPopulation Loss
Bethlehem1%
Erie26%
Pittsburgh55%
Wilkinsburg49%
Homestead85%

The stable population of Bethlehem explains why so many religious institutions are still operating. It doesn’t explain why the people stayed when the jobs left.

I picked up Jeffrey A Parks’s “Stronger than Steel: Forging a Rust Belt Renaissance” to look for clues to what made Bethlehem different from other Rust Belt cities. For the most part, it seems to have pursued the same actions and initiatives as elsewhere. Bethlehem’s leaders even hired consultants from Pittsburgh in the 1950s to learn how to do Urban Renewal. Other similarities include the creation of a redevelopment authority, the use of eminent domain to force people out of their homes for commercial development, the building of a highway through town, and the change of traffic patterns to prioritize the regional over the local.

The one thing mentioned in Parks’s book that was different from other cities was the school district. In the 1960s, the Bethlehem School District expanded to incorporate two rural townships. These townships later became wealthy suburbs that combined with the population of Bethlehem to create a racially and economically diverse district. Parks’s implication seemed to be that the result was a school district with better funding and resources than its neighbors. Perhaps, as a result, families did not have the conversation about moving to the suburbs for better schools as their children approached school age.

A decent inner-city school district may reduce the flight to the suburbs. It also may attract new residents. Yet, I wonder if it is enough to prevent hemorrhaging population loss as a region’s major employer cuts jobs in the decades before it closes.