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Claiming Dominion

Late-night closure of public space may be the final frontier in this not-yet-24-hour city

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During the day, the plaza next to Dominion Tower at 625 Liberty Ave., with its sculptures and marble benches, is a gathering spot for the lunch crowd and smokers. It also sees the occasional teenage roller-skater, and a steady stream of pedestrians crossing between the Cultural District and other parts of Downtown.

But "it's a whole different element after midnight. The crackheads are doing deals out there," says Ron Lubic, site manager for Mid-Town Towers, a residential high-rise that also borders the plaza. "I have the narcotics cops on speed dial."

Lubic, who says he sometimes stays beyond midnight to patrol the building and flush out drug dealers, says he understands why Dominion Tower's owners are about to take an unusual step: On Sept. 26, the building's owner, Liberty Avenue Holdings, received approval from the City Planning Commission to close the plaza -- a public space -- between midnight and 6 a.m.

At the commission's hearing, Jeremy Smith, the city's zoning administrator, said that was "an unusual request" but the owner cited public urination and drug traffic as reasons for the restriction. The city's other zoning official, Susan Tymoczko, says she is not aware of similar restrictions to public space elsewhere in the city. Pittsburgh police in Zone 2, which covers Downtown, could not say whether the plaza is a hot spot for crimes. Officials at Liberty Avenue Holdings didn't return several phone calls for comment.

Under city zoning laws, a commercial building must make available at least 10 percent of its lot as public space. The Dominion plaza, which takes up about a quarter of the lot, will soon install planters on the Liberty Avenue side and perhaps a gate in order to secure the space, Smith says.

Although city parks maintain posted hours, this attempt to use barriers to control who uses a particular public space may be singular in the city.

However, "we're allowing for this restriction really because it's in the best interest of the public," says Smith.

"They are justified for what they want to do," says Lubic. "It might deter some" of the unwanted activity.

Sandwich maker George Nalepa says he walks through the plaza every weekday before 5 a.m. to start work at Rosebud deli on the ground level of Dominion. During those early hours, he often sees what he believes is nefarious activity. "There are a lot of nooks and crannies," Nalepa says. "Usually there are a few characters milling about. ... A lot of [drug] traffic filters into the plaza."

But experts on public-space use say closing off the plaza could deter even legitimate users, and may eventually make matters worse.

"Good activities drive out bad," says Ben Fried, senior associate with the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit consultancy dedicated to creating and sustaining public places. Last month, city officials brought in PPS staff to study how to revamp Market Square. "If you start closing that space off, that would start sending [a] signal that is going to affect activities during the day," Fried says. "It reinforces the negative perception people already have."

It's uncertain whether closing the plaza overnight could set a precedent for other public spaces in the city. But Fried says moves to invite more public use of public space can have a positive effect.

In fact, Liberty Avenue Holdings, which is part of The Blackstone Group in New York, added another request to its application to the planning commission: It sought to put out tables and chairs for the lunch crowd patronizing the deli where Nalepa works. That move, along with investing in activities that draw more people to the plaza, Fried says, would be the right steps to build a positive image for the plaza.

"Once you have that kind of momentum going on," Fried says, "the 'undesirables' don't feel so comfortable using that space, even during those off-peak hours."

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