'Centre District' development must be more than anonymous and shallow work | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

'Centre District' development must be more than anonymous and shallow work

click to enlarge Architectural drawing from the May 15, 2019 Centre District Plan Update - GENSLER
Gensler
Architectural drawing from the May 15, 2019 Centre District Plan Update

In the storied 28 acres of the Lower Hill, no new building has been constructed since the Civic Arena was completed in 1964 (and even that building was razed). The once thriving neighborhood — bounded by Centre and Bedford, Crawford and Washington Place — became mostly parking lots and, eventually, nothing but.

Anything on this site would be an improvement, especially since a series of recent development plans and proposals — including an office building for U.S. Steel and an audacious, expressionistic master plan from Danish architects, BIG — failed to proceed. 

Now the current owners, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have unveiled for the so-called Centre District a new master redevelopment plan: a mixture of office, retail, and residential, with food market and entertainment components. The first scheduled components are a 274-unit apartment building and a 250,000 square foot office and retail complex. (see www.pghcentredistrict.com)

The October 2016 reopening of a few streets on the site, which have been closed since the 1950s, makes new construction seem more likely than ever. But the tighter, dense grid of the historic neighborhood will never return (Just look at the historic Hopkins Co. map of, say, 1906, on the Historic Pittsburgh website for a comparison). 

Language about reconnecting the Hill is political speech. Penguins president and CEO, David Morehouse, is widely quoted as saying, “Let’s make something great,” when really, something pretty good would do just fine. As masterplanning, it’s mostly impossible. Right now, plans as presented still need reconsideration and refinement. 

The Department of City Planning wisely demands a master plan for a property this large to preclude large-scale surprises later on. However, six decades of experience suggest this site might never be completely built in a still-shrinking Pittsburgh. And the published phasing plan leaves a majority of components without a schedule. Will they ever happen?

The desire to turn Wylie Avenue into a major thoroughfare and Logan Street into a festival market makes sense to connect to the Penguins arena, but not so much to the Hill. It’s easy to imagine such a street filling up with Penguins fans (maybe at the expense of existing local places). The grand axis to Wylie seems like a big gesture, but not a gravitational draw. And it doesn’t really connect to Downtown.

Maybe the Interstate Cap park will be nice, but there is no plan to redesign the intersections of Washington Place at either Bigelow or Center, so these will always be hazardous, daunting, and unpleasant barriers between this spot and Downtown. Not a real reconnection at all.

I’d settle for some well-designed buildings. Yet, the very reputable architecture juggernaut Gensler is thus far giving us anonymous and shallow work. The rendering published in the Post-Gazette in March was especially disappointing — poorly composed and badly proportioned. The version from the May 15 public presentation is more clear and less sloppy, but still dull and very far from the expressed aspirations. 

The hypothetical building would need a complete redesign that would improve the architecture while better connecting to the Hill. Whether Centre Avenue becomes a commercial street or not, it needs to have an open view corridor that showcases the beautiful Church of St. Benedict the Moor instead of obstructing it. That is a possible and necessary reconnection.

Doing that could also provide suitable additional public space next to Freedom Corner, while giving I.M. Pei’s Washington Plaza, now City View Apartments, just a bit of breathing room. This would be the place for a couple of shops–coffee, sandwiches, a small market–that could extend and improve the existing neighborhood fabric of Crawford Roberts, which looks so neighborhood-y, but suffers so much from an absence of public space.

Is it too late to bring in David Adjaye to work with Gensler? Or Rachel Gang? Speaking of architects who do award-winning housing design, what about Koning Eizenberg, who is fresh off another award-winning project for the Children’s Museum, and has done plenty of housing in L.A. that is just so much better than this? 

The desire to connect the Hill back to Downtown and the desire for greatness are fine as political speech. If this project is really going forward, though, then it is really time to apply these desires to the complexities of architecture and urban design. That can be a rewarding process, but it is notably unfinished at this moment.

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