First-Draft Choices | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Architectural renderings are deceptive. Invariably unveiled for the press with great hoopla, they convincingly substitute for a promised real article. Really, though, they represent only a few general intentions at the start of a long and often change-filled process. The final structure frequently ends up looking much different than the first dramatic images, regardless of how seemingly realistic the architects' graphics are.


Let's hope that's the case with the new design for Three PNC Plaza, a project announced in late December and intended for the corner of Fifth and Liberty avenues, Downtown. The building as presented -- a high-rise tower with office, residential, condominium and hotel functions -- really does need to be more exciting than the initial images indicate. Whether the lead designer is Pittsburgh's Astorino or their collaborators, the San Francisco office of corporate multi-branched Gensler, they should amplify the adventurousness of  PNC's Firstside Center, not step back from it, as the current rendering indicates. Judging from the vagueness of some of the announced numbers -- how many hotel rooms and housing units? -- this is still possible.


More important, though, is to recognize that this image both responds to and suggests changing ideas. Arthur Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, points out that some features of this proposal stem from the advocacy of his organization and others during the controversy over former Mayor Tom Murphy's ill-fated proposal for a more sweeping Fifth and Forbes redevelopment. "We had asked that somewhere in that space there be housing," Ziegler says: What was then a revolutionary idea (for Downtown Pittsburgh) and is now a me-too component of this project.


But the responsiveness is still welcome. Likewise, though this construction site will necessitate the loss of historic structures, "We explored those buildings extensively," Ziegler recounts. "It would have taken a great deal of money to put them back into service." Some may still disagree with the decision to sacrifice these pieces of architectural heritage, such as the damaged but still remarkable Floyd building. Still, the choice is much more palatable as a product of consensus with the preservation community, which still maintains other priorities. "Across the street, we consider the entire block important for restoration," Ziegler notes.


And the inquiry into Three PNC Plaza and its surroundings must continue. Rob Pfaffmann, principal of Pfaffmann Associates and president of Preservation Pittsburgh, views the design proposal as unfinished, particularly at the triangular intersection of Fifth, Liberty and Market Street. A successful design will address the complex urban issues of that intersection, Pfaffmann notes optimistically. "[W]e have not seen it yet," he acknowledges, though he is eager for the chance. "If PNC is smart, they will review the plan in an open and collaborative way with all Downtown stakeholders. Inclusive process is critical."


And just how much of that process should be reviewed? Press coverage of the project describes $48 million of public funding as part of a $170 million enterprise. Pfaffmann isn't asking for an end to tax subsidies for large, profitable corporations, but he does ask, "Are we getting an adequate return ... as taxpayers?" A more detailed financial description of the public funds should be available. Moreover, he thinks that smaller Downtown projects, such as the Forbes Avenue's "Skinny Building" and the former Regal Shoe building, "should also be given the same relative access to capital if they have merit."


This project is far enough along that it can and should continue. But it should not be viewed as a fait accompli. Its design is not yet responsive or human-scaled at the level of its surprisingly complex urban setting. Nor does it have the sculptural and dynamic synthesis of forms and textures to indicate the variety of its uses and the persistent energy of Downtown Pittsburgh. Most crucially, it needs to do all of these things through a process that continues to respond to an open exchange of ideas -- from the taxpayers who fund it and the citizens who use it and care about it. The best skyscrapers are designed not just from the top down, but also from the bottom up, to make a structure that is harmonious overall.

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