In Pittsburgh, it's still possible to start construction on an entire hockey arena without submitting a required master plan ... or to have a gigantic illuminated sign approved for a Downtown bus station without going through the legally stipulated review process. So when a group of developers and architects voluntarily makes its plans public, and asks for community feedback, the public should take encouragement, and the mayor's office should take note.
Of course, such an open process is only an invitation to good design, not a guarantee of it.
Such is the case with the recently announced plans to build a multi-use complex at the intersection of Murray and Forward avenues in Squirrel Hill. The project, which would take over spaces currently occupied by the former Poli's restaurant, the Tango Café and the Squirrel Hill Theater, proposes to include a hotel, condominiums and retail spaces. There would be a limited number of attached parking spaces, with other, larger lots between Forward and Murray and between Forward and Pocusset.
The effort is being undertaken by Cambridge Venture Partners, R.E. Crawford Development and Renaissance 3 Architects. And in collaboration with the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, the project team held a public meeting on July 30 at the Jewish Community Center, where they presented their plans and solicited public comment. The event filled the JCC's auditorium with hundreds of attendees, many of whom lined up to make remarks on the project.
Many of these were positive, and in fact the enterprise was praised by enough politicians to run a small municipality: City Councilor Doug Shields, state Sen. Jay Costa and representatives from the offices of Dan Frankel and Rich Fitzgerald. The presence of so many dignitaries gave the sense that the gathering's real purpose was to defuse conflicts.
The theater will close, and a re-opened Tango Café will depend on discussions that have not taken place yet. Now we know. But an unstructured Q&A session is not a good format for elucidating key issues of architecture and urban design. And as presented, the project is an indecisive mass: Should the new complex be a symmetrical composition that hints at traditional classicism? Or something more rhythmic and modern? Even the architects seem unsure. Renaissance 3 principal Bob Murray explained, rather unconvincingly, that the new design takes cues from the handsome but restrained Morrowfield Apartments, the tall 1920s apartment building just up the block.
"Your voices will be heard. Your questions will be addressed," Murray reassured.
An audience commenter called the building ugly, to a smattering of applause. And unfortunately, the architects only seem to have concluded that in Squirrel Hill, buildings can only be executed in various tones of beige. The best lesson of the Morrowfield is that an architect can correlate the changing needs of the floor plans inside the building with the design of the façade, creating a monumental, yet neighborly, structure.
The neighborhood deserves an equally gracious effort this time around, especially at a corner that is the gateway to Squirrel Hill for cars coming off the Parkway East. (Moving the BP gas station across the street would be a huge help, but that's another story.)
In fact, the intersection is one of the project's biggest challenges. The development's success will depend on placing parking lots on slim parcels of land between Forward and Murray, and between Forward and Pocusset. That in itself is not such a bad move; the real nightmare will be for people who park in those lots -- and then have to navigate the terrible intersection at the base of Murray to get to the hotel or shopping.
Navigating that intersection always feels like fighting a three-armed boxer: Just when you think you're safe, something unanticipated hooks in out of nowhere. This is not an experience to endear first-time visitors to the neighborhood.
The developers are working with Trans Associates from Harrisburg, a well-reputed traffic engineer. If they really want to respond to community needs, they should not simply do the minimum necessary to allow cars to load and unload on-site. They should collaborate with the city to re-engineer that god-awful intersection. Traffic patterns desperately need to be clarified, organized and made safe for pedestrians. And then the area will require building façades that convey the new harmony.