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Old Posted Dec 26, 2011, 3:09 AM
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Evergrey Evergrey is offline
Join Date: Apr 2003
Location: Pittsburgh
Posts: 24,339

Pittsburgh's profile holds gifts large and small

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Downtown Pittsburgh has changed dramatically for the better over the past 20 years or so.

There are still a few too many empty or underused storefronts and a few too many jagged empty spaces filled with cars. But on the whole, our Downtown has become distinguished for good looking new buildings, revitalized old ones and superb new civic spaces -- things that make it stand out among cities of our size.

These changes have all been grounded in good planning, and they represent, in most cases, a generosity of intentions, both public and private. So, because today is Christmas Day let's pick out a half dozen of those changes -- think of them, perhaps, as gifts we've given ourselves!

PPG Place: There was tremendous excitement in the late 1970s when the designs for PPG Place were revealed by the celebrated architect Philip Johnson. His plans showcased a new, dramatically central public square set just a block away from Market Square and connected to it by a small pedestrian mall. But the new square turned out to be a huge disappointment. Barren and severe, its focal point was a stone obelisk improbably mounted on four round black balls. Pittsburghers quickly dubbed it "The Tomb of the Unknown Bowler." Then, in 1999, the Hillman interests acquired PPG Place, and following the wishes of civic leaders Henry and Elsie Hillman, soon transformed the square with a gorgeous plaza-level fountain with dancing waters in the summer and a Rockefeller Center-style skating rink in the winter. This has made PPG Place a destination year-round and, most importantly, a wonderful place in the midst of all the city's towers to take children.

The Grant Street Revitalization: The term "Grant Street Revitalization" may seem oxymoronic to all who wish that our city and county governments could, in fact, revitalize themselves. But, for our purposes, we'll use it to describe the physical transformation of that street by the city over the years. A long line of now-maturing trees -- extending down the center of the street for six blocks -- has proven to be spectacular. And the attention paid to brick paving, curbs and sidewalks give it an almost European feel for public amenities.

PNC everywhere: Some like to joke that PNC, the big bank and financial services company, is gradually taking over the whole Golden Triangle. It only seems that way. PNC actually has a distinguished architectural history downtown. Two buildings from the 1970s -- One PNC Plaza on Fifth Avenue and Two PNC Plaza on Liberty (this is two glass octagons joined together, originally built for another bank) are among the most elegant tall buildings Downtown. But PNC has lately been on a building binge, starting in 2001 with a handsome low-rise operations center on First Avenue at Grant Street with its own park in front. (It's the building with a curved facade that overlooks the Parkway East). Most recently, it opened the sleekly modern 3 PNC Plaza at Fifth and Liberty designed by Gensler, a major international firm headquartered in San Francisco. And it's now hired Gensler to plan a new 33-story PNC headquarters on Wood Street between Fifth and Forbes that promises to be one of the most interesting buildings of any era Downtown. PNC seems to reliably keep in mind the public's interest in having an attractive and stylish city.

Pocket Parks and Plazas: PNC also had a hand in creating Triangle Park, at Fifth and Liberty Avenues, one of several "pocket parks" that have proliferated in Downtown in recent years and that continually surprise and delight pedestrians. The grandparents of these pocket parks are the plazas in the Cultural District adjacent to Heinz Hall on Sixth Street and EQT Tower on Liberty. Both are urbane and pleasant spaces. More recently, on Penn Avenue, there's the Agnes R. Katz Plaza next to the O'Reilly Theater, with lively sculptures by Louise Bourgeois. And across Seventh Street from that is a small corner park notable for sculptures that look exactly like magnolia trees in bloom. Also, Point Park University, as part of its "Academic Village" approach to revitalizing its part of Downtown, recently created a small plaza on the other side of the Golden Triangle at Boulevard of the Allies and Wood Street.

The Riverfronts
: Take a walk along the rivers. It's far more enjoyable these days than ever. There are new park-like walkways along the Monongahela Wharf and along the Allegheny, where you can now walk all the way to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. You can get comfortably close to the water and the broad views afforded there. Coming soon are trail connections that will enable you to walk or bike all the way from the Point to Washington, D.C. And maybe someday: trails leading up the Allegheny Valley.

The View From a Bridge: Next time you're on the Fort Pitt Bridge, be reminded that a dozen years ago, under a new federal safety mandate for Interstate highways, PennDot planned to erect 42-inch-high solid concrete barriers on each side of the bridge. That would have made it impossible for anyone not in a truck to see views of the Point and rivers while crossing the bridge. A determined coalition of civic groups got PennDot to reconsider and partnered with the agency to develop what are now known as "Pennsylvania Barriers," with stout metal rails atop a low concrete base that still allow you to see some of our scenic city's most stunning views.

It's a good reminder of how seemingly little things can make a big difference. And how the best gifts usually require thought and effort.

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