McKees Rocks Redux

10.29.2015 / Insights

Jonathan Glance, RA, AIA, NCARB

Frank Lloyd Wright once quipped, "Doctors bury their mistakes, Architects plant ivy." But what do urban designers do with the disproved utopian theories of midcentury that are still haunting our downtowns? You need more than ivy to cover up the mistakes of heroes like Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Each of them attempted to superimpose their modernist theories of architecture on cities and the tenets of urban design. And with a few exceptions, the results were disastrous.

Here in Pittsburgh, the most obvious example of such planning efforts was the Lower Hill District. Local city officials and planners used Bob-Moses-like eminent domain to take site control of the business district and heart of the Hill District, a once thriving, African American community. The centerpiece of the redevelopment was the Civic Arena.

Although a highly innovative engineering marvel of its era, the Arena was a totally self-referential design that disengaged the community and displaced more than 8,000 neighborhood residents. Further exacerbating the disengagement were the acres of surface parking, the creation of super-blocks, and the insertion of a new highway that bisected the neighborhood and divided it from the city. The I.M. Pei designed City View Apartments, a 26-story building added in 1964, did little to improve the situation. The situation in the Lower Hill District is looking up, however, with the City's recent commitment to redevelop the neighborhood and strive to undo some past damage.

In the 1970s, my father, Richard Glance, AIA, AICP was commissioned to design a new streetscape for McKees Rocks and their downtown district along Chartiers Avenue. During the design process, one of the loudest voices at the table was PennDOT, who insisted the design include narrowed sidewalks, multi-lane, one-way streets, and a sea of surface parking lots. Unlike most of the projects of its day, however, Richard convinced PennDOT to allow him to add street lighting, street furniture, crosswalks, and parallel parking, incorporating some pedestrian friendly features to the car-centric design. Despite the best efforts of the plan, the PennDot-mandated designs had a reverse effect on the town's revitalization, and Chartiers Avenue further fell into disrepair and disinvestment.

In 2014, Taris Vrcek, Executive Director of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation hired LGA Partners to revisit my father's 30 year-old streetscape. This time around, PennDOT was receptive to our ideas; we were able to reduce the cart-way, restore two-way traffic to Chartiers Avenue, create curb-extensions and cross walks, and create a new urban park that engages Chartiers Creek. We were also able to replace aging street furniture and lighting, and design a new, pedestrian-friendly face for the railroad tunnel that currently segments the downtown district.

Our streetscape design was just recently honored with a Certificate of Merit by AIA Pittsburgh for its success in reconciling the car with the pedestrian, and making user-based changes that will have a tangible effect on the community.

It is not often architects can revisit a project that was completed in a very different era with very different theories. We were honored to have had the opportunity and look forward to McKees Rocks' continued revitalization.