Sunday, May 21, 2006


A friend, visiting from Philadelphia, spent some time Saturday in and around Downtown, the North Shore and the Strip District. He remarked that walking from the North Shore to Downtown, he had a tough time finding his way past the David L. Lawrence Convention Center to the streets that lead beyond it.

I'm not surprised. The convention center, in and of itself, is an attractive building, but like much modern architecture, it overwhelms its surroundings, and does not allow for any kind of meaningful street life. (I might add that it seems like an incredible waste of what would otherwise be some of the most valuable Downtown real estate.)

As I discussed in this article, officials say that the convention center has failed to meet expectations because it does not have a large enough adjoining hotel. As I also discussed, this is the same refrain heard in other cities with underperforming convention centers, and the hotels that are built in response--with public money, or publicly owned--also fail to live up to the hype.

It's a viscious circle, and a reminder that cities should try to be, first and foremost, good places to live, and not merely amusements for people who live elsewhere. That's why I agree it is better for Downtown redevelopment to focus on luring residents and not retail. My concern, as I've discussed previously, is that with so many high-end residential projects already online or in the works throughout the city--the North Shore, East Liberty, the South Side, to name a few--is that we may end up with a glut of luxury condos and loft apartments. That's why it's imperative that we hold Jack and Lucas Piatt to their promise not to seek local subsidies--and why they should not seek state subsidies, either. Let them assume the risk, and they'll be welcome to the rewards.


Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

the convention center, to borrow the title of an old nancy griffith song, is best appreciated "from a distance." it a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees at street level. and other than a UPS store between 10 and 11th streets, there's no curb appeal. not that the UPS store is that enticing.

8:38 PM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

it's 8:51 and i'm saying it now...bobby b's gettin whacked tonight on the sopranos.

8:55 PM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

okay, it's 10:04, and i'm saying it now...the pirates in 7 in the 2006 world series.

10:09 PM

Blogger smallstreams said...

I wholeheartedly agree that the convention center is pedestrian unfriendly. But that doesn't mean it has to be.

PPG Plaza has come a long way in attracting pedestrians. I think what they've done with the fountain and skating rink is magical, but it is by no means magic.

Perhaps a vendor-friendly policy and a few movable chairs might do the trick. (See William H. Whyte's "Social Life of Small Urban Spaces")

12:48 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

That brings up another point, which is that Pittsburgh has very restrictive street vendor ordinances.

PPG has the benefit of its proximity to Market Square and its street-level retail, and that of surrounding buildings. It offers little on the Boulevard of the Allies side, but there isn't much street life there anyway.

1:14 PM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

actually, PPG Square doesn't offer all that much on the Market Square side. Most of the ground level storefronts in the other PPG buildings are empty or aren't the kind of places to lure in walkby shoppers. The businesses in Market Square are mostly restaurants of some sort, which means retail traffic thrives only at lunch. There's no real shopping around. As for the Blvd. of the Allies lacking any appeal, unless retail operations other than restaurants open there, anything new on that street would just be more of the same...kind of like deciding whether to have lunch at the mcdonalds on wood street or stanwix. not much choice, not much difference. that's why i like piatt's plan to bring in stores where people might actually buy a purse or suit or something they'll take home besides too many fast food calories.

1:39 PM

Blogger Mark Rauterkus said...

The vendors in Pittsburgh are always getting whacked. Look at the area around Pitt's Cathedral. Ugly.

The convention center should be the new casino. That would be a win-win-win. As a convention center, it is a weight around our necks. As a casino, it could be great. And, the casino elsewhere is going to be another headache.

10:23 AM

Blogger djhlights said...

I don't quite get the confusion of walking from the North Shore to the Strip. I understand you friend was more than likely walking along the riverside of the Convention Center after crossing one of the bridges, which is strange just to drive, but the side walk does go all the way along it. Did they get lost when it bends around towards Smallman? Take the left or go one block to Penn and take a left. If they went around the other side of the Convention Center, Penn Ave runs along the whole way. I park in the the strip on days with a ballgame and walk to the Cultural District. It's not really that tough to figure out.

The Penn Ave side is slowly growing, but it is growing. You have resturants such as Mark's and August Henry's open by the new Courtyard Marriot with their resturant as well. The conventions have been smaller, but large enough that these resturants can make a living. Hopefully things will change for the better as more people live in the new condos going up. Besides the Penn Garrison and 900 Penn which has been serving as artist housing for the Pittsburgh Public Theater and CLO for close to 8 years now, nobody has been living there along Penn.

My major gripe about the convention center as a stagehand is that it is poorly set up to handle any modern tehnical lighting or sound rigging for major conventions. A brother in my local who sits on the national entertainment rigging safety board HATES the place. I know personally that Vincent Lighting Systems, the people who bring you Skyblast at PNC Park, also have issues in the place when they are brought in. It was designed by architects with no clue for usage and the consultants for the practical usage of the space were either morons or non-existant. That and the roof leaks all over the joint are enough reason to want our money back.

2:16 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I suspect his complaint was that the sheer size meant that it took quite a while, relatively speaking, to get to a cross street. (And short blocks are a hallmark of good urban design, even if we take the concept a bit far in Pittsburgh.)

I haven't walked in the area since February, and then I approached it from Liberty, crossing 10th to Penn, from the rear side. (I was going to the auto show.) So my memory is faint.

Aside from the design, which reasonable people can obviously disagree over, the expansion was doomed to fail from the beginning. The market for conventions was already flooded by the time it was built.

7:52 PM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...


The block the Convention Center sits on really isn't much bigger than it's been throughout the city's history over at least 50 years. Other than some widening at 10th, the distance between the intersection there to 11th is basically unchanged. Like the stagehand, I've walked from the strip to the baseball. A stroll from the History Center to PNC Park is roughly a mile.

Though Pittsburghers tend to overestimate walking distance in Downtown, Philadelphians usually are pretty hardy types when it comes to hoofing it around the city of brotherly love.

I've mentioned it before, but I think that biggest problem with our town is that sections don't connect well. Even the Strip and Downtown don't really blend into each other very well. If you take the convention center as the outer limits of the Golden Triangle, the strip doesn't really come into its own for 6 blocks...and despite a few restaurants, the history center and one club, that distance can seem barren (thanks to the acres of parking spaces.) and a trek to lawrenceville from the convention center can seem like you're too long in the wasteland.

The south side and north side basically are islands, not connecting to anything before of after their main business districts. Even Station Square and Carson's main drag seem to be miles apart. Again, the empty space in between makes creates the feeling of a disconnect. You might find this interesting, but the distance from the Birmingham Bridge to Kaufmann's is less than 2.5 miles.

The East End neighborhood connect a little better, but even though bloomfield, shadyside and east liberty are starting to meld better, squirrel hills seem cut off as do point breeze and regent square.

Blame it on the geography and topography, which are a blessing and a curse, i guess. But overall, some connective tissue would make the town seem a little more cohesive.

8:47 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

There are numerous issues that contribute to the problem you describe. One is that Downtown was created with two street grids--one perpendicular to the Mon, the other to the Allegheny. Now, this helps to avoid the aesthetic problem of street grids--the visual monotony. But it does make it harder to get around, on foot or car.

As for the Strip and Downtown, they are cut off from one another by not only the convention center, but also the bus station and its parking lot, and to a lesser extent the train station. The three-way intersection there is a bit dangerous if you are unfamiliar with it.

And of course, like so many American cities, we long ago cut ourselves off from our waterfronts, a problem that is being corrected in some places.

10:33 AM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

hell, that intersection of grant, liberty, and eleventh can be terrifying even if you've lived here all your life. i avoid it at all costs.

2:06 PM


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