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Sight Preparation

An early look at an ambitious Downtown plan

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If you are the Steelers and you win your big contest, you get to spend the next several months just resting on your laurels, trying to avoid motorcycle accidents. But if you win the design competition for the Cultural District Riverfront Development, the game has really just begun.

 

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust recently announced the winning design for the development, a six-acre Downtown parcel bounded by Fort Duquesne Boulevard and Penn Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets. The victor is called the RiverParc team, a consortium including Behnisch Archhitekten, architectsAlliance, Gehl Architects, Transsolar and WTW Architects, as well as Gateway Engineers, led by developer Concord Eastridge.

 

Behnisch, a firm based in Stuttgart, Germany, and Venice, Calif., leads the design group and is the most exciting name on the list. (A note to press-release writers, however: When your team really is "world class," you don't need to say so.) But an extensive team is necessary for a complex $460 million project that needs experts in master planning, residential design, landscape design, retail planning and environmental sustainability. Indeed, Cultural Trust Chair James E. Rohr boasts that the project "has a scope and magnitude unparalleled in the Cultural Trust's history."

 

 The drawings and documentation released this month to describe the project show some welcome thoughtfulness about what this prominent riverfront site needs to help revive Downtown. Robert Campbell, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Boston Globe, praised this design for "[dealing] intelligently with every significant urban design issue."

 

The drawings are certainly seductive. Diaphanous vitrines in a seemingly modernist patchwork of glass and grass emerge glowingly from the ground; an elegant and similarly verdant plaza-as-multi-use-arts-space descends to the Allegheny. Notably, the structure would cover the Tenth Street bypass, potentially making it our own Big Dig, but (hopefully) without the falling panels. Interwoven with these elements at street level is a network of comfortable pedestrian walkways; these will focus on a retail corridor along Eighth Street, with stores below and pleasant residential overlooks above. It's an "urban living room," presumably catering to those who have spacious living rooms of their own.

 

Yes. I vote for all of this, too.

 

But as in any lengthy design and construction process, these early images are almost more of a wish list than a set of guarantees. And let's read the fine print. The first phase will indeed include four different mid- and high-rise residential towers, providing around 700 units of housing ranging from 700 to 3,200 square feet each. The retail component will include 159,000 square feet of stores, accompanied by 530,000 square feet of structured parking. But the riverfront plaza, called the "Three Sisters Gallery," will wait for a later phase of the project. Likewise, the 45,000-square-foot cultural-arts venue envisioned for the project will have to wait for "receipt of appropriate funding."

 

It's tempting to say, "What a coincidence! My cultural-arts venue is waiting for receipt of appropriate funding, too!" The most desirable parts of the proposal are also the furthest away on the calendar ... and potentially the most expensive. This is typical of any large master-planning project, but I just hope that the cost-cutting that also comes with every project doesn't prune away too many exciting features.

 

But the Cultural Trust has an unparalleled record of ambitious revitalization efforts that have borne fruit, from the Benedum Center restoration to Allegheny Riverfront Park. And it has already announced a series of public meetings to solicit input on making a better project ... a promising sign, and a direct contrast to the closed-door approach former Mayor Tom Murphy took with Fifth/Forbes. While they're at it, the Trust should also mount an exhibit, not only of the winning proposal, but also of the other competitors. That would only enhance the sense that considerable effort and expertise is going into this process ... and add to the excitement about the forward momentum.

 

It would also add to the enormous list of tasks necessary to move this project onward. As Cultural Trust President J. Kevin McMahon concludes, "We have a lot of work ahead of us."

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