Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Re-imagining Pittsburgh (Part 1)

And now for Part 1 of an infrequent and open-ended series that I would like to call:

Pittsburgh in a Perfect World

I love the city of Pittsburgh. I love cities in general, but Pittsburgh in particular. The downtown is walkable and safe. Pittsburgh is full of interesting neighborhoods like the Strip District, South Side, Shadyside, Bloomfield, and Oakland, to name just a few.

But it has its quirks. Hey, don't we all.

If you had the chance to change something about waving a magic wand over the city...what would you do? That's what I would like this post and subsequent ones (and your comments) to focus on.

For this first post, I wanted to discuss my thoughts about transportation in and around the city...
Make an Light Rail System out to the North Hills
I always used to refer to the HOV lane of I-279 as the "HIV" lane...It's there, but nobody wants it.

If this financial boondoggle of a multi-modal transportation center is going to be shoved down our throats on the North Side (complete with our own tunnel!), let's put it to good use. The HOV lane is criminally under-used, so let's re-purpose it to good use by making it a Light Rail line out not only to its current terminus, but extending it out to the intersection with I-79.

It would have limited stops along the way, perhaps only 3 or 4 at the key population nodes: McKnight Road, Camp Horne Road, and Wexford (and North Shore of course). The North Hills is already the easiest direction to travel into the city, but imagine the usage a Light Rail would get in the North.

Dissolve the Port Authority and make it a privately-owned entity
I'm not exacting breaking new ground here, but it needs to be said. There are many facets of why the Port Authority does not work, but the bottom line is that it is a beached whale. A large part of the problem is the current union structure, the pension problem, and insurance costs.

Port Authority needs to be torn down and started over. This time, make it a privately run enterprise with either a more favorable union contract or a non-union entity. It needs to be sleeker, more efficient, less stops and perhaps less routes. It should encourage more park and rides in the suburbs to concentrate pickups. It should work with planning departments to create more walkable neighborhoods in the city for urban users.

I would even like to see the new Port Authority explore water transit. Some entreprenuers are giving it a go in the Strip District during summer time months, but get serious about it with decent sized, powerful boats. There are plenty of marinas that would probably love a little extra revenue by acting as a daytime park and ride facility.

Make all planning and land development be completed at a county-wide level
There are too many municipalities in Allegheny County. Again, no surprise to many, but that will be a subject for Re-imagining Pittsburgh Part 2 probably.

However, not even discussing municipal consolidation, I'm proposing that we handle land development and land use on a county-wide basis. It can eliminate the urban sprawl and "me-first, gimme-gimme" attitude that suburbs have right now. Everyone is grasping to find tax revenues to keep their municipalities afloat, so they will develop any piece of land no matter how detrimental it may be to the greater region around them.

Case in point: Pittsburgh Mills in Frazer.
When it was proposed, it was going to be a regional mall that would attract a wide range of shoppers because of its unique-to-the-region stores. To that end, millions of taxpayer dollars were committed to adding new lanes to Route 28, new on and off-ramps at the mall's entrance points. Multiple acres of prime wetland, vital to the recharge and filtering of pollutants, were destroyed in the process.

The end result? A white elephant of a mall that was Dead on Arrival. The developer went bankrupt right before the mall opened. The unique stores proposed did not come. Today it is just another homogenous suburban mall, with the same restaurants and stores that you can find anywhere in the Pittburgh region.

Why was it a bad idea from the start? If you want to build a regional mall, you need to have a corresponding increase in regional population to support it. Pittsburgh's region does not have that. As a result, the Mills was like a shell game with a street hustler. You're just shifting the same money around from the Waterworks mall and Ross Park Mall and Monroeville Mall.

The ironic part is that Ross Park Mall, in order to compete, had to re-imagine itself as an upscale mall. Now, Nordstrom's, Burberry, Kate Spade, LL Bean, Tiffany's and other either unique or high-end stores occupy this mall, with Crate and Barrel on the way. In other words, it is exactly what the Mills was billed as being.

County wide planning would have potentially steered this development in a different direction. By taking a wider picture, it could have seen that this region did not need another milquetoast mall to suck the life out of the existing retail centers.

Please feel free to leave your comments about this topic or other future topic ideas in the comments.

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