November 15, 2005 |

Councilman wants to get the word out about Pittsburgh's special slopes

Pittsburgh has developed a national reputation for its three rivers and steel-making history.

The city's hilly topography is regarded by some as the most unique terrain among all urban centers in the country. However, many outsiders are not aware of this unique characteristic within the city boundaries. The hillsides do not stand out as much from an “outsider's point of view” like Pittsburgh's rivers or industrial history.

City councilman Bill Peduto, members of the Allegheny Land Trust and Hillside Committee of the City Department of Planning want to get the message out about the unusual terrain of the local area while also enhancing it.

They made this announcement during a news conference last Thursday in council chambers Downtown in the aftermath of an award-winning study produced by Perkins Eastman Architects Inc. The study documents the unique features of the city's hillsides.

Perkins Eastman finds there are four distinct types of development that has evolved on the steep hillsides which constitutes 11 percent of the landmass within the city's 57 square miles.

First there has been very little or no development in areas like one finds above Quarry Park on the South Side Slopes or in Hays (aka 40 Acres) above East Carson Street.

Secondly, there is edge development such as one finds along Grandview Avenue in Mount Washington.

Third, there is ribbon development like the type built along Josephine Street between Arlington and the South Side Flats.

Finally, there is large-scale grid development like there is in several portions of the South Side Slopes or the Fineview neighborhood on the North Side.

The study was conducted through a $50,000 grant from the Heinz Endowment as well as many hundreds of hours of work done gratis by volunteers.

With Pittsburgh in competition with other urban centers for attracting continued economic growth and development, the local area needs to set itself apart by accentuating its unique characteristics to the world, according to those in support of the study.”Peoples' perceptions have changed [in Pittsburgh] regarding hillside values,” said Stephen Quick, an architect for Perkins Eastman who headed the study.

The study looks look at how residential development has progressed on the hillsides. Perkins Eastman won the award through the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects for a detailed report on how developers have built on the slopes during the past 100 years.

The study recommends more specific regulations for building on the slopes not only in the South Side and Mount Washington, but throughout the city (North Side, Hill District, Hays, etc).

Some of the zoning recommendations are expected to restrict lot sizes and limit multi-unit dwellings. Officials at the news conference say the study finds potential growth in the South Side Slopes, middle Hill District and the Duquesne Heights section of Mount Washington, but this growth should be accomplished in a “responsible” manner.

“If Pittsburgh is to realize its potential, then it must show off its uniqueness,” Peduto said. “The views of the hillsides are more important than the views from the hillsides.”

Susan Golomb, director of city planning, said changes in city zoning regulations based on the Perkins Eastman findings will likely occur, but declined to go into detail until the City Planning Commission meets on this topic November 22.

Peduto said he will look at the recommendations by the zoning planners for consideration of land-use legislation by council.

The study introduces a new approach to zoning that is specific to Pittsburgh, yet offers urban designers a way to use zoning more effectively.

“Like other cities, Pittsburgh's traditional land-use and zoning codes do not address the challenges facing our cities today, such as lifestyle, sustainability or civic identity,” Quick said. “Conventional definitions of public welfare exclude urban design issues on the basis of subjectivity of aesthetic preferences, effectively rendering them impotent in influencing zoning.

“The identity of the city, however, can be shown to consist of objectively derived characteristics of urban form. More particularly, its unique sense of place can be defined in terms of recognizable physical patterns. Patterns of urban form can set precedent, define character and reflect community values. Through a rigorous analysis, urban form can be shown as a valid basis for legislation and an integral part of public welfare.”

Pittsburgh's urban form embodies its unique identity. The city's 88 neighborhoods are typically bounded by steep hillside slopes that separate one from another. Each is different and sometimes culturally distinctive. Because building on flat land is very limited, much of the housing has been formed in “clusters” which form “island” neighborhoods or self-contained “urban villages” between slopes, according to Perkins Eastman.

The hillsides study recommends that enhancing Pittsburgh's physical identity should be the primary goal in planning for the future and protecting the characteristics that support this identity should be an integral purpose of zoning.

“Pittsburgh has made great strides in cleaning its air and water and has taken the lead in green-building design,” Allegheny Land Trust Executive Director Roy Kraynyk said. “It is time to make the same commitment to the land. The hillsides report provides the statistical backbone for city council to take a stand and protect the landscape through good zoning.”

The study points out the recognizable physical patterns and features of the city's urban form. This includes the steep slopes, the dense neighborhoods and dramatic portals (e.g. driving into the city through the Fort Pitt or Liberty tunnels).

“Our hillsides are a unique asset to the city,” Peduto said.

“Responsible development of our hillsides is critical to preserving the value of this asset,” said Anne Swager, executive director of the American Institute of Architects. “In a global economy, the cities that will thrive will do so because their uniqueness will be apparent.”

Perkins Eastman is a national architecture firm with offices not only located in Pittsburgh but throughout the United States, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The firm also has offices globally in Toronto and Shanghai.

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