Strip District: Pittsburgh's Biggest Planning Debate

For far too long, it has seemed that Pittsburgh has stayed out of the architectural and artist communities, leaving larger more progressive cities such as New York or Los Angeles to meddle in finer culture.  With the sudden resurgence of the city and its transformation to one of the most advanced technological hubs along with some of the absolute best healthcare in the world, the need for great art, architecture and cultural advancement in general is at the forefront of the young population's desires.  As a beaming blue collar city since the term's establishment, folks were down to earth and simple, wanting only to help progress the labor force and leave a true impact on how things were made.  And they did, but as the mills have faltered away and universities and technologically-advanced start-ups have replaced them, new infrastructure and aesthetics need to be considered.  One great example of the signs of such progress lay with the PNC tower under construction in downtown Pittsburgh slated to open in late 2015. Elsewhere, however, the debate on how to move an aging city with an increasingly younger population forward has brought on some boiling points and demonstrated the true stratification that lies with the variety of people living in this beautiful city today.

Strip District Produce Markets

Probably one of the biggest ongoing debates to date has been the Pittsburgh Produce Markets that run along Smallman Street in the Strip District.  At one point in time this long building acted as a railroad terminal and produce market serving Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities with fresh fruit and vegetables.  It was a bustling place that saw frequent traffic both by foot and rail.  Today, however, it stands as a solemn reminder of the industrial past as it slowly fades to dust similar to the way the mills evaporated into the once smokey atmosphere.  It is a constant reminiscing point of a Pittsburgh that once was and isn't anymore, and it will remain that way until something is done to help push the building out of the 20th century and into current times.  Whatever that solution may be, it must address Pittsburgh's growing desire to be new, hip and insanely green while at the same time be cognizant of our rich and telling history.

A smokey Produce Market, circa 1950s

The markets (still in high operation) in the early 1970s

Should It Stay, or Should It Go?

The debate about the status of the Produce Market building that occupies roughly 1500' has gone on for years now.  During the decline of its usage and through its current state today, many Pittsburgh residents see the building as a necessity to tell the story of the past.  It was a landmark in the city and many residents fondly remember paying a visit to pick up some produce for dinner. More importantly, it was an anchor to what eventually grew up to be the Strip District one street over on Penn Avenue.  This building was and still is a huge part of the city's development, except today it's literally just a big part of the city - in terms of the land it monopolizes, slowly draining the resources around it away.  Going unused, this facility has no give-back to the city in either finances or drawing factors.  Instead, it provides very little in the way of giving except occasional reminiscence of what it once was and the memories that are ingrained in its thick masonry walls.  

To clear up its status of the structure being demolished, Pittsburgh's Mayor Bill Peduto found this building's way onto the National Record of Historical Places, so it's here to stay.  The most important question planners, developers and architects must answer is should it be remedied or should it be maintained in its current state of infrequent and spontaneous use.  This building either needs to be reactivated, or it needs to be reactivated - there is absolutely no reason nor does it make any sense for it to remain barely used and untouched. Especially as it begins to fall in on itself and continues to leech off of a city barely out of the abyss of economic depression and bankruptcy.  

The Plan

For the longest time, Pittsburgh-based Buncher Co. had exclusive development rights on the building per the URA's direction and some other various outlets.  Everything employed kept both the URA - who had early plans to demolish the building - and Buncher from doing much of anything.  While the building is held with high regard, both parties argued that if there is no redevelopment interests in its spaces, what good does it do in such a prominent and profitable location?  As Buncher put together several plans for the Market, each one hit a wall, especially the iteration which sought to tear down over one third of the building to create a green alley to the river.  Everything continued to be struck down and in the beginning of September 2014, Buncher lost their bid but received over half a million dollars in back pay for work done and expenses incurred.  Instead the mayor and the URA are now looking to combine two proposals of developers and architects, one from Pittsburgh and another from Chicago.  At the end of the day, it almost feels as if the process is back to square one.  

McCaffery Interests (Chicago) and Rubino Partners (Pittsburgh) have tentatively been awarded the bid to combine their two proposals to create a solution for the Produce Markets.  Rubino, who has been working with local architect Rob Pfaffmann has a plan that tends to respect the built confines of the area a bit more than many other proposals.  McCaffery's plans are a bit more ambitious, but still play to the tone of the Strip District dwellers.  That being said, many area residents have been quoted in their anguish about new vending spaces coming available when the Penn Avenue corridor already provides these services, many business owners have signed petitions seeking to find even more alternative options.  While the idea of essentially creating an extension of the Strip District is enticing, the Produce Markets have attempted to create such an experience for years to no avail (indoor produce markets, especially in the colder months).  How does Pfaffmann and more specifically Rubino plan to draw local, non-corporate retail to the area with increasing rent rates and densities?    

Each proposal would combine to cost roughly $67 million and provide 110 live-work units, 25,000 square feet of office space, 75,000 square feet of new retail, 33,000 square feet of public markets, 14,000 square feet of exterior vending space as well as and additional 21,000 square feet of public common areas.  These two solutions have been seen as the best way to maintain the building and character of the neighborhood while propelling the general area into the 21st century.  Up to date, the biggest problem for either proposal seems to be financially supporting it and collaboration on the implementation of each plan with several different parties, stakeholders and government officials involved.

Moving Forward - The Produce Markets  

As the debate continues to progress and local residents and government officials put more effort into ensuring the plan works for them, there will surely be more snags in the line.  While it's a wonderful idea to preserve the historically-rich building, if nothing can be solved with it standing, then there is no reason for it to continue to exist.  Ask yourself, what's the point of adoringly looking at this edifice when something  useful could be occurring here? Buildings are meant to serve a function, and absentmindedly staring isn't one.  Once a building fails to serve a function of any kind, whether it be a reused one or its original use, it should not be held onto like some ancient priceless relic.  This building is historically significant but remember it's not like Monticello or the Frick estates, it was an industrial space that helped build a neighborhood that still operates, it's not a fundamental Pittsburgh landmark like the USX tower. Buildings have a shelf life too, like many of our favorite foods and beverages, once it reaches a certain point it may be out of its prime and unusable (this of course can be different for much more historically significant structures).  If there is no settlement and this once again falls through, the markets should be removed and the plans for the Green Boulevard (Sasaki: see below) to progress.  There is no point to keep something around simply because it stirs memories, if it cannot prove to be useful today, then what good is it doing a city that soon - if not now - will need all of the space it can get?

The Sasaki Proposal - Allegheny River Green Boulevard

A glimpse into a residential corridor along the riverfront with new waterfront attractions and high amounts of greenery

Acting as a catalyst, the Allegheny River green boulevard project has closely followed in the footsteps of the Produce Market.  In fact, Buncher Co. wanted to rip down a third of the building to make way for the green boulevard after initial plans were released in their report. While it isn't directly connected back to the building itself, it can have the same - probably greater - impact that the Markets are expected to have.  This green avenue would be the first of its kind in Pittsburgh and one of the real pioneers in the country, it could serve both daily commutes and bicycling tourism which has soared here with the completion of the GAP trail system.  Seen as a way to extend the riverfront presence back into the Strip District and create more recreational space along the waterfront, this ambitious plan calls for new housing, bicycle trails (have been implemented), new public transportation infrastructure based off of existing rail lines, retail space and a natural buffer between development and the river to continue growing the restoration efforts that have been crucial to the rivers becoming clean.  

A crucial 'green' buffer would exist between development and the river to maintain the integrity the waters have brought back to the city

'Green' infrastructure including bicycle paths to and from the city as well as a high concentration of new vegetation have been proposed to overtake what currently is an industrial wasteland

While this report was only commissioned as a way to envision what the next generation of Pittsburgh could look like, it certainly caught the attention of many local architects and designers.  Sasaki has continued to work with the plan and with funding from local, state, and federal grants work is looking more promising to begin in Lawrenceville and move toward the downtown area in years to come.  This would revitalize not only a significant portion of riverfront property which currently lies in an overgrown disarray, but it would provide a sustainable corridor to and from a popular neighborhood and the city.  It seems that many local residents prefer this plan since it will take less business away from them and instead bring larger volumes of people to this part of town via increased living density and more readily available public transit and a green bicycle avenue. The Produce Markets are just a small part of the larger problem that spans from the downtown area all the way to Highland Park, but illustrate the effects many conservative and non-progressive stakeholders can have on such an ambitious plan.  

Sasaki's plan for the Green Boulevard to run from the city to the neighborhood of Highland Park

Unfortunately only time will tell how the plans for the Strip District/Allegheny River corridor continue to move forward, however the Green Boulevard does seem to have some serious backing locally and nationally.  Both the Produce Terminal and the Green Boulevard can be seen as crucial pieces in creating a more diverse city as well as drawing more potential urbanites to an already popular area.  As it stands now, the last leg of Penn Avenue is the most developed and advanced part of the Strip District and lower Lawrenceville.  To eradicate the past and progress toward a brighter future, there is nothing better to do than wipe away the industrial (non-built) wastelands that are doing much of nothing along the river and transform this land into readily accessible, public domain with some new housing and recreational activities.  Until then, we'll continue to stare at the eye-sores of what once was wishing for what could be. 

VIA | ArchDaily

VIA | Next Pittsburgh 

VIA | Biz Journals 

VIA | Sasaki