Pittsburgh: Reconnecting the City

Video © Gensler

Design Director: Alex Fernandez


  1. Alison Wilkinson
  2. Lisa Adkins
  3. Matt Plecity
  4. Greg LaForest
  5. David Hall
  6. Patrick Kirchberg

Pittsburgh is a city that was developed around its topography. Three rivers intersect at the point of downtown Pittsburgh, where Fortune 500 companies have flourished and stationed their headquarters. Radially expanding from the central business district are small neighborhoods connected by main arteries, bridges, and tunnels. Due to the topographic, socioeconomic, and built conditions, barriers have developed between the two most vital neighborhoods, business downtown and educational Oakland. In the next fifteen years, we anticipate a transit link between these two will foster growth, create a new corridor, and serve as a pathway for the transfer of people and ideas. Our Tale of Two Cities identifies the contributing factors to each of these neighborhoods’ success and hypothesizes on strategies to link the two together. The resulting design intervention proposes a new transit link that will create a catalyst for slow growth to revitalize the neighborhood without destroying the existing fabric.

Downtown Pittsburgh is the land of the pinstriped suits. Professional services, engineers, lawyers, and financial services firms occupy class A office space in downtown high rises. The result is a busy and vibrant streetscape during the 8-5 workday. In the past five years, reinvestment in the public spaces has created a new public realm that extends activity past normal working hours. Renovated parks, temporary art exhibits, and foodie restaurants have enlivened the night and weekend scene dramatically. Increased residential stock, thriving cultural institutions and theaters, and higher education all aid in increasing diversity and activity downtown.

Despite recent reinvestment, there is still a disconnect between available office space and industry growth in the region. Energy and technology, two of the fastest growing markets in Pittsburgh, are located outside of downtown due to tax incentives, cheaper rent, or proximity to higher educational institutions. The key players in these markets are looking to invest in the East End, Oakland, and neighboring counties.

Oakland, a neighborhood five miles east of Downtown, is education city. Two large universities maintain an active student population and create a demand for a growing service industry. Technology companies, healthcare giants, and related higher education research organizations ensure that office space is densely occupied. Oakland has one of the lowest vacancy rates of office space in the nation, closing out the fourth quarter of 2013 at 1.9% vacancy.(Source: “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Office Market Highlights”. Colliers International. 2013. December, 2013. Pg 3.)

Pittsburgh is now characterized by two strongholds located at either end of the spectrum. Young(er), hip Oakland and the East End are home to students, startups, and educational powerhouses. The Downtown area is older, more developed, and overall wealthier, but lacks the densification and momentum that has enabled Oakland to thrive. While development in the downtown area has remained confined within its boundaries, the East End has been spreading further east, picking up unique building properties for companies like Google and strategically developing the area around transit stops and conveniences for residents.

What lies in between these two neighborhoods is an overlooked, abandoned middle zone. Aptly named the Hill District for a large hill that splits the two neighborhoods, the Hill has been neglected and void of investment for the last half century. Many residents are living below the poverty line and quite literally skipped over in terms of basic amenities, educational facilities, and public transportation access. Physical and socioeconomic barriers have created an isolated neighborhood where crime and drugs overtook the streets. Although this area has been a focus for revitalization for decades, recent funding and community initiatives are finally beginning to turn the area into a viable community. Future growth could strengthen this neighborhood and create a tie between two economic strongholds in the city limits.

A design charrette with public and private sector involvement confirmed a few things about the Hill District; it is prime for reinvestment, it has a unique identity different from other Pittsburgh neighborhoods, and past master plans have left a disparate neighborhood fabric. An underdeveloped corridor running parallel to an existing commercial stronghold provides for an easy integration of public transportation into the neighborhood fabric. A transit line along Wylie Avenue allows for residents to exit the community for amenities, but also establishes the Hill District as a new destination for visitors. Transit stops will become transit hubs with shared services, amenities, and co-working spaces to create a place of innovation and collaboration.

The transit stops become a means to insert wayfinding, signage, and branding to the Hill. The existing bus stops provide little shelter and only add to the blighted streetscape. A new system of transit stops create a connective tissue throughout the neighborhood that both reclaims the street as a place of safety and introduces a new architectural discourse into the built environment. The thoughtful insertion of nodes along the route serve as a catalyst for development hubs catered to expanding industries like healthcare, energy, and technology.

The middle zone becomes repurposed on a number of scales. The city is serviced by a new transit link connecting two strongholds in the middle, while a typical block is transformed by new development between each transit stop. As small as the building scale, shared office resources located in the middle allow for space and service efficiency that is not seen in either Downtown or Oakland. The large amount of available building stock and land parcels in the Hill District provides an opportunity to transform the way Pittsburgh residents move through the city and create new pockets of efficient work spaces.

The future of work in Pittsburgh is inclusive and collaborative. The creation of a transit link that can serve as a catalyst for economic development and incite social change is a powerful opportunity for the city and the region. The potential for the city in the next fifty years cannot be underestimated, and Pittsburgh can succeed in revitalizing existing blighted areas through infrastructure moves that lay the foundation for economic growth.

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