Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Pittsburgh is planning to revive a radical alternate vision for its Boulevard of the Allies, in an effort to reconnect a long-bypassed neighborhood.
In the earliest years of the 20th century, Pittsburgh’s roads were a mess, with no logic to the layout. To sort the streets out, the city recruited Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.*, the nation’s first dean of urban planning, in 1909 to bring some order to the city’s ad hoc patchwork of cobblestone, gravel, brick, and sand-clay roads.
Olmsted found a lot of promise in the waterfront areas lining Pittsburgh’s Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, despite the fact that these embankments had already been carved up pretty well by railroad tracks.
There was one road he identified at the top of a hillside, running parallel to the Monongahela, at the edge of the neighborhood that’s today called Uptown. In his report to the Pittsburgh Civic Commission in 1910, “Pittsburgh Main Thoroughfares and the Down Town District,” he wrote:
The location of this street, high on the hillside above the Monongahela River, presents unusual opportunities incidental to serving its primary purpose as a main thoroughfare. With an ample roadway for all kinds of traffic, with trees for shade and decoration, with a broad promenade overlooking the river and the hills to the south, it would furnish rare and much-needed facilities for recreation; and, further, it would have a distinctive character most appropriate to the rugged topography of the Pittsburgh District.
Despite that vision, Olmsted’s green promenade didn’t materialize. Instead, his dreams were usurped by a collective of car executives who concocted a cross-country road experiment called the Lincoln Highway. The nation’s first coast-to-coast automobile thoroughfare, it stitched together a bunch of existing roads stretching from New York City to San Francisco. It was officially inaugurated in 1913, just as cars began to take off in mass production, and helped serve as the model for the federal government’s federal highway system for the rest of the 20th century.
Pittsburgh’s part of the original Lincoln Highway ran through the city, closer to the Allegheny River to the north. But in the 1920s, it was rerouted along the hillside road that Olmsted had his sights on. That stretch of road was named the Boulevard of the Allies in 1921 (a World War I commemoration) and it exhibited few if any of Olmsted’s recommendations.
The Boulevard remains a highway today, a connector between Pittsburgh’s north-south interstate 579 and the east-west Interstate 376. It runs along the southern edge of the city’s Uptown neighborhood, home to Duquesne University, Mercy Hospital, and the Allegheny County Jail. The primary function of the road is helping transport drivers from their jobs in the city to their homes in the suburbs.
Here’s what Uptown’s residents get out of that commuter deal: a lot of noise and air pollution, a bunch of car collisions, pedestrian injuries, and an almost completely obstructed view of the river.
Except for a foot bridge sprouting from Duquesne University, there is no way to get from Uptown’s residential parts to the other side of the speedway to see what lies below and beyond. The bus stop located at the end of that footbridge was dubbed one of the “sorriest bus stops in America” by Streetsblog USA this year because of its proximity to speeding traffic.
However, a new vision for Uptown, called the Eco-Innovation District plan, hopes to restore Olmsted’s original intentions for the boulevard: It calls for a comprehensive array of projects that would not only slow down traffic on the Boulevard and add some much needed greenery, but would also make the neighborhood more walkable, bikeable, and breathable. This road may have been stripped away from the neighborhood to make room for cars during the Lincoln Highway era, but under the Eco-Innovation District plan, the community has a blueprint for how to take it back.
The portion of the Boulevard that runs by Uptown is currently a four-lane roadway that carries nearly 40,000 cars daily. Under the Eco-Innovation District plan, that road would be reduced to three or two driving lanes. One of the deleted lanes would possibly be replaced with a median built down the center of the road with trees planted on it. The other deleted lane would become the promenade that Olmsted wanted for river viewing. Crosswalks would be placed throughout the Boulevard, to help Uptown residents access the river. (Currently there are none.)
Reclaiming the Boulevard for the community will be no small task, though, and is, in fact, one of the farthest-reaching measures of the plan. Jeanne McNutt, executive director of Uptown Partners, one of the principal stakeholders in the plan, describes the Boulevard makeover as “aspirational.” Making it happen in real life will require convincing (and pissing off) a lot of drivers who might not want to lose two lanes of their favorite commuting route. It will also require a significant level of rezoning, a process that has already begun for the rest of Uptown to prime it for the possibilities of the plan. For the Boulevard specifically, the state’s department of transportation will need to approve any highway modifications.
“The challenge with the Boulevard of the Allies is a political challenge first and foremost,” says Scott Page, whose Interface-Studio design firm is a lead consultant on the project. “The other challenges are things that other cities have tackled, where they’ve wanted to make major changes to a very active regional roadway. Our standpoint from day one is that this is a safety issue, it’s a health issue, and it’s an economic issue.”
The city is touting the Eco-Innovation District plan as a “first-of-a-kind” neighborhood revitalization strategy that places “healing the environment, supporting the needs of existing residents, and expanding job growth” as its guiding development principle. It borrows from similar projects in other cities, such as Boston’s Talbot-Norfolk Triangle Eco-Innovation District plan. But the Pittsburgh version will attempt to cover an entire neighborhood—the 200-acre Uptown district, which is five times larger than the area covered by Boston’s project.
“Many of the established eco-districts we looked at as models were grounded in a significant amount of new development, but this is an existing neighborhood that has its own character and flavor,” says Page. “It’s really about trying to help a community evolve in the most eco-friendly way that creates jobs for residents, and that in and of itself is a distinct challenge.”
Why Pittsburgh chose Uptown, one of the city’s most overlooked neighborhoods, is worth exploring. This small community is Pittsburgh’s worst- or best-kept secret, depending on whom you ask. Until the Pittsburgh Penguins built a new hockey arena there in 2010, there were few reasons to visit it. Of the near-7,000 people the neighborhood counts as its population, all but a thousand are either Duquesne University students or Allegheny County jail inmates.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood sits on some of the most stellar real estate in the city. To the east is Oakland, with its ever-expanding and modernizing landscape of universities (Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University) and hospitals. To its north is the Hill District, which is going through an August Wilson- and Pittsburgh Penguins-inspired revival. To the west is downtown, which is increasingly getting spruced up with new hotels, restaurants, and theaters. And to the south are the Monongahela River, a few of Pittsburgh’s most notable bridges, and a magnificent view of the tree canopy on the slopes of Mt. Washington, ornamented with churches and homes.
In the center of all of that is Uptown—often labeled as the “Bluff” on maps, either because of the land’s elevated perch or because “Uptown” has a less than welcoming reputation around the city. Compared to all the new development happening in its environs, Uptown is almost a hypoxic zone—37 percent of the district are either vacant properties or parking lots.
The neighborhood was historically the landing pad for many of the city’s immigrant mill workers, meaning nothing fancy or flashy about the area. As early as 1922, the homes were already being described as “old and not attractive,” a reputation that has followed the community to the present day, though unfairly.
The zombie vacants aside, many of the homes in Uptown exhibit a certain working-class ruggedness—the vintage patina of a pair of smudged coveralls. A stroll through it reveals a village of all kinds of quirks, kinks, and eccentricities not even found in Andy Warhol’s native South Oakland neighborhood less than a mile away. Murals animate the walls and facades of homes both abandoned and occupied. Signs and marquees of the bars, tailors, butchers, and printers of past lives still adorn doorways and transoms. The Eco-Innovation District plan calls for investments to expand public art, to make Uptown even funkier.
Sitting along the Boulevard of the Allies is a line of abandoned buildings, few of which have front doors or storefronts facing the road. The way these buildings and the Boulevard highway are positioned, the residents of Uptown have few ways of accessing any of what lies below and beyond them.
“It’s as if they’ve all sort of turned their backs on the Boulevard,” says Derek Dauphin, senior planner for the city of Pittsburgh. “So what we’d be doing through the Eco-Innovation District Plan is have [the buildings] open their front doors again to the Boulevard, or at least create a space where they’d want to have a front door there.”
In the early 20th century, the whole nation was watching Uptown Pittsburgh. It was the original hub for the motion picture industry in the early 1900s. The Paramount Pictures Film Exchange, built in 1926, is located on the Boulevard, and this was where major studios sent films for theater owners to screen, review, and purchase before distributing and presenting them to the public.
There are a few of these film exchange buildings next to the Paramount, making up what was once called “Film Row.” Though movie studios no longer use them, they’re still standing, complete with the vaults that were used for storing the highly volatile and flammable film used in that era.
The Paramount is included in that pack of buildings Dauphin mentions as having their backsides turned toward the highway. A nonprofit called Avenu, formerly known as StartUptown, one of the Eco-Innovation District stakeholders, is looking to help turn those buildings, and the neighborhood itself, around. It’s a network of “community-based work” campuses that host several startups and nonprofits that are dedicated in some way to “inclusive innovation” and “responsible neighborhood revitalization.” It has two locations Uptown, one of which is in the Paramount building, which is one block away from the Universal Pictures Film Exchange building where the city unveiled the Eco-Innovation District plan to the public in July.
“It’s not attractive,” says Tad Hale, Avenu’s executive director, of the highway. “As someone who works out of that space, you wouldn’t really consider it an amenity. If it was transformed into a more walkable greenway, attracting businesses to occupy those abandoned buildings would be much easier.”
As Dauphin suggested, the resuscitation of those buildings could help lead to Uptown coming back into alignment with its natural southern border, before it was paved over with the four-lane Boulevard of the Allies.
A lonely Gulf gas station rests smack in the middle of Uptown, holding on for dear life. A huge sign that reads “LAST GAS! BEFORE DOWNTOWN” stands on the sidewalk beside it. It’s misleading. There’s no gas station downtown, either, so if you’re running on fumes, you’d best not pass this one up. It’s one of the few remaining full-service stations you can find on the East Coast outside of New Jersey. It opened in 1968, when the Gulf Oil headquarters was still located in Pittsburgh.
The gas attendant on duty one early Sunday morning told me hadn’t heard anything about the Eco-Innovation District plan, but was suspicious about whether it would bring jobs to black people in the neighborhood. Looming over the Gulf station is the new Flats on Fifth luxury apartment building, which just opened last fall, boasting studios that start at roughly $1,200.
The gas attendant, an African American, who says he’s worked at the station for about 27 years, said he didn’t see any black people working on the Flats’ construction. Just “foreigners,” he said, meaning people not from here. Nor have the new condos brought him any new business.
“Far as I see, they’re mostly college students and doctors and nurses who like to bike everywhere,” he said.
If the Eco-Innovation District comes to life, he’d be seeing more of that, as the plan would encourage more biking and walking. Uptown’s main drags—Fifth Avenue, where the Gulf station is located, Forbes Avenue, and the Boulevard of the Allies—are set up for drivers to whizz through the neighborhood. The city has given people little reason to actually stop there. As a consequence, Uptown has basically become an urban heat island, with high concentrations of black carbon, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter.
Which is why, besides making Uptown more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, the plan also seeks to take more cars off the main drags through the installation of a Bus Rapid Transit system. This is one of the first orders of business under the plan, and the city is currently seeking funding for it.
And just as the car company execs of yesteryear used the Lincoln Highway to jump-start the highway-building industrial complex, the boosters of this face-lifted thoroughfare are thinking about the cars of tomorrow: The plan calls for the installation of charging stations and a smart sensor network throughout the neighborhood, to accommodate the burgeoning autonomous and electric vehicle cultures, along with pollution monitors and air scrubbers placed along the Boulevard. The Eco-Innovation District plan is also incorporating the city’s established district energy strategy, already in motion, to develop a combined heat and power system and microgrid, so the neighborhood can produce its own clean energy, independent of the main power grid.
In other words, all this eco-innovation—should it come to pass—would effectively erase the last vestiges of the Lincoln Highway, which used the Boulevard mostly as a vessel for advancing the car industry and treated Uptown as something that should be bypassed. If ever there was an argument to be made that highways were created essentially to allow people to avoid urban areas, Pittsburgh would be it.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Olmsted Jr.'s suffix was omitted.