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Two new local housing developments anticipate greener times.

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Down by the old mill site: River's Edge of Oakmont. Artist's rendering courtesy of Rothschild Doyno Architects.
  • Down by the old mill site: River's Edge of Oakmont. Artist's rendering courtesy of Rothschild Doyno Architects.
Once you get the sense that Pittsburgh is becoming unstuck in time, like a vignette from Vonnegut or French cultural theory, you start to see the phenomenon everywhere you look. Or at least you will in the future. Maybe it's just that uncertain times lead to romanticizing the past. More likely, the contemporary age has brought us so many thoughtlessly excessive practices -- Urban Renewal and suburban sprawl, as examples -- that merely dialing back the most egregious ones seems like a darned sensible plan for the future, in which our new concerns will also play a role. Two upcoming urban-design projects in the Pittsburgh area demonstrate that beyond simple nostalgia, the past and the future need to engage in a more complex counterpoint for successful urban design.

Recently, at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, with the sponsorship of the Green Building Alliance of Pittsburgh, members of two design teams showed plans for the River's Edge of Oakmont, by Rothschild Doyno Architects for Brooks Blair Property Development, and the Mellon's Orchard South redevelopment in East Liberty, under the guidance of East Liberty Development, Inc.

Both projects are part of the pilot version of the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED-ND initiative. The well-known LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, through which Pittsburgh has staked out legitimate national leadership for environmental conscientiousness in building, is now expanding to document and recognize neighborhood development as one of several type-specific subprograms. River's Edge and Mellon's Orchard South are two of only four projects in the state to participate in what is essentially beta-testing of the program.

LEED is a widely praised, forward-looking endeavor, whose few detractors sometimes argue that it doesn't move forward fast enough. (You try changing the entire construction industry.) So on one hand there is a certain curiosity that LEED-ND projects embrace traditionalism so readily. This seems partly like the influence of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the LEED-ND program co-sponsor, whose advocacy for traditional housing types and streetscapes in neighborhood design has been criticized as formal and irrelevant, especially by some contemporarily minded architecture critics. Can neo-Victorian homes really save the city of the future?

What these projects show, though, is that many aspects of traditional architecture and planning do make palpable environmental sense. Housing density and mixed uses -- the way it was with old rowhouses and traditional Main Streets -- lead to greater efficiency in land use and reduced need for automobiles. Similarly, in the River's Edge rendering, 28 acres of planned residential and mixed-use development on the former Edgewater Steel site, along the Allegheny, seems especially green and well-planted. As someone who grew up in a house within walking distance via sidewalks to a small park by the river, I find the image especially engaging.

But the payoffs in stormwater retention, reduction of heat islands and increased energy efficiency in shaded and green-roofed buildings are palpable improvements that earn points under the program. "It's especially helpful to have means of measurement that the owner can weigh," says Ken Doyno, a principal with Rothschild Doyno Architects.

Mellon's Orchard South provides an instructive comparison. The site is an irregular plot of several blocks around Penn Circle West, where the plan is to build around 80 residential units in houses and apartments. Nathan Wildfire, sustainable policy coordinator at East Liberty Development, Inc., boasts of the geo-thermal heat pumps that will warm and cool the new houses, and of the management of stormwater runoff. Both features contribute desirable points in the LEED-ND checklist.

Significantly, though, simply building in an existing traditional neighborhood fulfills a number of categories toward certification: proximity to businesses, access to public transportation, reuse of abandoned sites. The LEED program is shrewd in encouraging specific practices in architecture and urban design. There should be a federally sponsored program to earn tax credits, not simply praise, for these pursuits.

River's Edge imagines a traditional town that has yet to be, while Mellon's Orchard South yearns for the city that once was there. The technological aspirations of the LEED-ND program and encouragement of innovative thinking can stimulate designers and builders to learn from the past, not simply imitate it.

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