The Canopy Effect

The P-G’s Mark Belko has written a favorable article on North Shore Development.

The article has a nifty map of stadiumgraphic and a strong peg.

Ever so gradually, the North Shore is going from bust to boom.

For some 30 years, the land surrounding Three Rivers Stadium served as Pittsburgh’s biggest parking lot, a bleak patch of asphalt with virtually no development.

The article and graphic numbers the new developments and those to come (the casino, hotels, office buildings, and parking garages), but I still don’t see a boom. If you’ve ever walked in the area outside of game time, you’ll know that the points of interest are sparse and pedestrians are rare. The North Shore surface is still mostly asphalt. Perhaps the P-G should have had a graphic of the decrease in asphalt surfaces.

The developers aren’t intentionally trying to squeeze out the small points of interest, urban articulations, or the little guy. Developers, too, are at the mercy of forces outside their control. Essentially, they are part of an ecology that favors the spreadsheet formula over the dreams and determination of an individual, that favors the respectable over the quirky.

In the succession of old growth forests, some trees dominate and block out the sun for competing trees. The same can apply to commercial districts. They’re planting a lot of big trees on the North Shore, when they should be thinking about creating some opportunities for undergrowth.

Witness the demise of a place like Rosa Villa, a decent enough restaurant where you could get a plate of pasta and red sauce. Rosa Villa did just fine for decades, but they could not, or did not want to compete with highly-capitalized restaurant chains, nor has any local entrepreneur stepped in to take their place.

Parking is also an overwhelming force. If anything the sea of asphalt has expanded in the last few years. Parking spaces and sidewalks, trees, or storefronts can’t occupy the same space at the same time. The Carnegie Science Center must attract between a half a million and a million people a year, but their parking space footprint means that the science center is close to nothing. You must walk a half a mile to reach the nearest local business.

Benevolent real estate despotism can work. College Avenue in State College is a well known example of how one developer can come up with a popular mix of retail uses. But control of property doesn’t necessarily mean pedestrian-friendly, Pitt’s ham-handed real estate development on Forbes is a good counter to the benevolent despot argument.

There’s also a problem in letting the ball club owners and a handful of politicians call the shots when it’s mostly public money being invested. The ratio of public to private investment on the North Shore is still lopsided. Many bloggers are better than I am in talking about the unintended consequences of trying to rejigger the system. Sam McDonald of AntiRust being the most notable.

Even though I’m complaining, especially when it comes down to top-down planning, the North Shore can become an interesting place 365 days of the year, if the developers can begin to let go.

Let go of maximizing profit on every square inch. Let go of centralized planning. Let go of ownership. Let go of the all encompassing vision. And by all means, let some of the other trees reach the sun.

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