After more than 50 years under the same family ownership -- and in two buildings that have served as a car showroom for over 80 years -- the Don Allen Auto dealership is closing. Recently, developers DOC-Economou unveiled preliminary plans for a multi-use condo-hotel-retail-office development to rise in place of the old dealership on a multi-block parcel at Baum and Liberty avenues, where Bloomfield meets Shadyside. Much of the existing property has served as surface parking, one of the worst possible uses of urban land. But while new buildings are potentially very welcome additions to the neighborhood, such a welcome is not guaranteed.
Rick Swartz, of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., wonders aloud: "What's this project going to look like? How is it going to fit into the East End?"
Chris Fulton, DOC-Economou's vice president for public finance and external relations, emphasizes process and dialogue. "We're eager to involve community groups so that they know what the plans are." Her approach to the project, which she describes as "upbeat," is one of the enterprise's more encouraging features.
In that same spirit, however, you could say that the project as presented has room for potential improvement. While actual exchange with community members is a crucial part of the process, simply comparing preliminary sketches with the better buildings in the neighborhood is quite telling.
For starters, early renderings show street facades with varieties of historical-revival architecture -- classical arcades here, Tudor gables there and mansard roofs in between -- but with the existing 1920s structures removed. Such fanciful styles worked in the teens and 1920s for Shadyside apartment buildings, but similar attempts with contemporary construction materials will only look like sad parodies of a past that never really was.
Though connecting sensitively to residential Friendship is crucial, it's also true that Baum Boulevard and its nearby streets have been an automobile district for nearly a century. A number of structures have served as car dealerships at some point, but they live on in gentle renovations with pronounced tones of snappy modernism. These include Davis Gannon Partnership's Pittsburgh Glass Center, on Penn Avenue, and Doug Cruze and Liza Wellman's renovation of 5515 Penn into office, storefront and gallery spaces. EDGE Studios' former trolley and bus garage reasserts the wisdom of adaptive reuse in another similar structure.
DOC-Economou's Fulton cautions that the Don Allen buildings are much modified from their original configurations and not suitable for the type of development planned. But a few years ago, neighborhood groups prevailed upon Eckerd Drug to abandon its cookie-cutter building practices to fit a new store into an historic building -- a warehouse -- at Baum and Negley. It can be done.
The greatest tribute the developers could pay to the site's authentic history is to leave the two historic structures in place. If they're not sure how to reuse them, they can phase development so construction begins on any of the development parcel's numerous surface lots.
Likewise, in the absence of authentic historic structures, real contemporary architecture beats fake revivalism any day, since the new can follow rules of pedestrian-oriented urbanism just as easily as the old. Rothschild Doyno's Fairmont Apartments, on Penn, derive their contemporary design from careful study of the surrounding neighborhood, as the architects would be happy to show you in their design sketchbook for that project. Arthur Lubetz's upcoming residential project on Penn promises to be a shrewd essay in neighborhood contemporary. Also, Loysen Kreuthmeyer architects, whose offices are also on Penn Avenue, developed (perhaps underutilized) design guidelines for SouthSide Works that emphasize how contemporary architecture can work effectively in pedestrian-oriented environments.
Finally, there is the sustainability issue. "Our intent is to have this as a LEED project," says Fulton, referring to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green-building rating system. But though building-massing studies are ongoing, as yet the project has no sustainability consultant on board. While the developers are in the neighborhood, they should rush over to Evolve Environment Architecture, also on Penn Avenue. Principals Mark and Christine Mondor would inform building-massing designs with daylighting studies as only a beginning component in a full spectrum of services in sustainable architecture.
DOC-Economou can certainly develop a good project and benefit the Baum-Liberty corridor as part of the process. But it won't really improve the neighborhood until it meets or exceed the high standards that are already there.