The press has been very kind to the City of Pittsburgh recently, and rightly so. The Brookings Institute heralded Pittsburgh as one of only three cities nationally to fully recover from the recession, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the city as the most liveable in the nation, and U-Haul even rated Pittsburgh as the top growth city in 2012 as measured by the number of one-way U-Haul trips into the city. While these achievements and accolades are impressive, even more impressive is that the city accomplished these feats with one of America’s most troubled mayors, whose antics have included drunken partying, use of Homeland Security vehicles to attend concerts, and ultimately a federal investigation into city financials that already netted the Chief of Police with conspiracy to steal from the city and failure to file tax return convictions.
With the embattled mayor’s term expiring, the city officially elected City Councilman Bill Peduto to replace him. While the new mayor will not take over the position until January, Pittsburgh urbanists have much to be excited about in the mayor-elect. His priorities read like a laundry list of urbanist dreams: a subway connecting downtown and the city’s cultural district, a new city Bureau of Special Projects that will undertake transformational initiatives in city neighborhoods, and complete street renovations in key corridors downtown. Most telling for the mayor-elect, however, has been his focus on improving development patterns.
Demanding Better Development
Even before taking office, Peduto has challenged some of the largest developers in the city to ensure quality urban development. Three massive redevelopment projects are close to breaking ground: a massive brownfield redevelopment named Almono, the construction of a new urban neighborhood on the site of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ former Civic Arena, and a mixed-use riverfront development in the city’s Strip District.
While the Almono project (named for the city’s three rivers—Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio), already aimed to be a large, mixed-use, urban infill project, the mayor-elect challenged the non-profit developers to improve the development by more thoroughly addressing water-quality issues, a major problem in the heavily urbanized city. The mayor-elect’s solution? Invest in a series of canals throughout the development that would not only hold storm water before releasing it into the area’s rivers, but also improve the aesthetics of the proposed community.
At the Civic Arena site, Peduto directly challenged the developers when they asked for additional tax incentives and investments from the city. Rather than offering up no-strings-attached funding, Peduto demanded that infrastructure money be invested in better connections to nearby struggling and largely African American neighborhoods. Through this effort, Peduto is making good on long-overdue promises to these communities, particularly the Hill District and Uptown, two places promised large returns when urban renewal initiatives first demolished large swaths of the neighborhoods for construction of the Civic Arena.
Finally, the mayor-elect’s last foray into development initiatives has been in the city’s historic Strip District—a wild cluster of butchers, grocers, and neighborhood markets reminiscent of turn-of-the-century market districts. The longest building in the area is the Produce Terminal, a historic structure that once housed numerous wholesale fruit and vegetable distributors. The massive rail yard that once fed the Produce Terminal, however, has largely been paved over, and developer Buncher Company bought the site for a mixed-use development. Urban design critiques notwithstanding—and there are many—the major source of citizen complaints with the project has been Buncher’s proposal to demolish a third of the historic Produce Terminal and rehabilitate the remainder for better access between the new development and the shops of the Strip District. As mayor-elect, Peduto is seeking to disassociate the Produce Terminal from the larger development, thereby saving the building from partial demolition.
A Brighter Future for the Steel City?
With the election of Councilman Peduto, the Steel City has made a choice for a more progressive mayor who is willing to fight for better development. Whether the mayor will be successful in altering development patterns, and to what extent he will be able to accomplish his other priorities is unclear, but for now, urbanists have reason to celebrate in Pittsburgh.