Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pittsburgh's Missing Keystone

With a revitalized downtown and an economic engine in Oakland (CMU and Pitt), all that seems to be missing is a more functional link between these two parts of the city. For me, thinking of Pittsburgh as a college town was an epiphany:

"Pittsburgh's College Corridor" starts in downtown with Point Park University and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. In Uptown is, of course, Duquesne University. Oakland has Pitt, CMU and Carlow University. Lastly, there is Chatham University in Shadyside. Increasing the connectivity between these institutions, along with better transportation to and from the airport, should be priortiy one for economic development.

The biggest obstacle to realizing this vision is the barrier between downtown and Uptown. At the heart of the matter is Mellon Arena, which some residents would like to save. The Civic Arena effectively isolated the Upper Hill District and destroyed the Lower Hill District neighborhood. Reconnect the Hill with downtown and breathe life into the College Corridor.

Such a project is long overdue. The lack of prioritization is somewhat maddening, but that's urban politics for you. As Pittsburgh looks forward, the idea may become reality:

"When the arena was built, the Hill District was thriving. Unfortunately, we now see that in many ways the arena cut off access to this area and hampered its growth. With this new project, we want to fix that mistake," said Tess Mullen, Mr. Altmire's communications director.

"We're hoping that improving pedestrian access will help to revitalize the Hill District. It's important to remember that in many cases, increased foot traffic goes hand in hand with increased business revenues and job creation," she said.

The walkway at the new arena is estimated to cost $1.5 million. Named "Curtain Call," the 300-foot path would have what the designer calls a "quilted curtain skin" -- four curved stainless steel structures that would be the framework for a mosaic of up to 27,000 tiles bearing images and photographs of people and places in the Hill District.

Isolation of the Hill District has been brutal to the economic fortunes of that neighborhood. As gentrification has spread uprivers, it has largely skirted Uptown. Restoring connectivity to these two parts of Pittsburgh would put economic redevelopment into overdrive.

As a footnote, I haven't stopped thinking about ways to further the College Corridor. What if admission to one of the institutions of higher learning meant access to all? The nature of the access could be discussed, but the marketing potential of such an opportunity would be tremendous.


Schultz said...

I think connecting the light rail to Oakland would be a huge step in revitalizing uptown. It is shame that they haven't already started extending the T from Steel plaza towards uptown. The first new station of that leg could have been at the new arena, with and entrance on 5th ave. As for the Mellon Arena - I say they implode it and turn it into a park surrounded by more residential development, maybe even some higher rise apartments.

Paz said...

The Quaker Consortium is a similar idea on the other side of the state, and though the colleges there have more historical ties, ours are closer geographically.

Jim Russell said...

Paz: The density and proximity to downtown are crucial. This is how I would describe the Pittsburgh advantage. Standing in the way is legacy urban planning and physical geography. But just imagine ...

Schultz: Public transit (i.e. the T) along the College Corridor makes great sense. In a perfect world, this would already be done. For now, I'll take better pedestrian connectivity between Downtown and both the Strip and Uptown.

Didn't there used to be fununcular between the Strip and the Upper Hill? Why not rebuild it?

Stephen Gross said...

You should take a look at the "Five Colleges Incorporated". Details at:

Note that these are five prominent schools all in the same region; they have shared transportation services between them and policies for allowing students from one school to attend classes at another.

Jim Russell said...


I'm familiar with Five Colleges, Inc. I graduated from a New England high school and that arrangement in and around Northampton was an attractive option. If it doesn't already exist, then this is a good example for Pittsburgh to follow.

Marketing Pittsburgh in this fashion as a big college town would be an effective way to re-brand the region. I'm a big Pittsburgh booster and the idea of the College Corridor blindsided me. It completely re-oriented my view of Pittsburgh.

Stephen Gross said...

I'm glad to see that there are folks in Pgh who recognize that the economic value of the universities is not simply additive. That is, the combination of--and interaction between--so many schools is potentially transformative. There are a number of schools in Pgh and, more importantly, they serve a wide range of students. There's a lot of potential for cross-pollination of ideas and economic development.

What would it take to make this happen?

Jim Russell said...

Joanna Burley, Director of Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, has openly solicited ideas. The caveat is as follows:

"We've got an awful lot of schools in this area. If someone came through with an interaction plan that really made sense and benefited all of the schools and higher education in this region, I would take a very serious look at it."

I'm not sure the College Corridor benefits ALL the schools in the region. Well, I think it would, but I don't count.

kosh said...

"What if admission to one of the institutions of higher learning meant access to all?"

Actually, that already exists. Students at any of the nine colleges and universities in Pittsburgh can cross-register.

Stephen Gross said...

Sounds great--how well advertised is this? Is there any kind of subsidized transport to/from the various schools?

kosh said...

Pitt, CMU, CCAC and Chatham all provide free or deeply discounted bus passes for students. Also, there is a Pitt shuttle loop that connects the Oakland and Shadyside campuses.