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Not Just a Giant Duck: Raising Pittsburgh’s Architecture Standard

The future hotel of the convention center as viewed from the Allegheny.

The future hotel of the convention center as viewed from the Allegheny.

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I was going to write my inaugural TPOP article on public transit, but in light of the press surrounding the renewed interest in building a hotel complex for the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and the backlash to the U.S. Steel proposal, I feel compelled to start with a piece on the state of Pittsburgh’s architecture. At the cusp of an urban renaissance, Pittsburgh is at a critical point in the city’s history and we must address the issue of how we envision the city’s future.

I value my surroundings. I chose to work at Front Studio Architects because the firm ?s focus really is on design, and I get to learn from the best, Art Lubetz. Art is a stalwart in the Pittsburgh architecture scene who has been practicing for over 45 years and teaching at CMU for 27 years. For those of you who don ?t know him, Art is rather opinionated. He feels, very strongly, that the state of Pittsburgh ?s architecture leaves much to be desired. He insists that “any time developers apply for a variance or buy land from the URA, the quality of the building should be considered!” While Art has high standards, I don ?t disagree with him.

It’s true that in recent years, Pittsburgh has added some very exciting structures. Think the Convention Center, the new Gateway T station and the yet-to-be-completed PNC tower. All of these projects stress sustainability, helping to remove some of the tarnish of Pittsburgh ?s Smoky City image. Unfortunately, these seem to be the exceptions to the rule. Look for instance at the new plans for the bland U.S. Steel Headquarters on the Mellon Arena site. Worse yet, look at Consol Arena, which I continuously mistake for an oversized Home Depot with a glass blob attached to it.

Nevertheless, Pittsburgh has come a long way. The city has re-branded itself as ?American ?s most livable city ? and–under Mayor Peduto ?s watch–has been named a ?best all-American ? vacation by the Travel Channel. There seems to be a new major project popping up every week. We have half a century of pent-up energy, waiting for Pittsburgh to rebound from its dark days of the steel industry collapse. Now that we are finally here, it is time to demand more from ourselves, including from our new buildings. We now have a great system of bike lanes, an impressive restaurant scene and a flourishing arts community. But let’s not forget about the most concrete element of our city: our buildings. A giant rubber duck is nice, but its not very permanent. We don ?t have to kowtow to every developer that wants to build here anymore. There are major players from all across the U.S. lining up for the opportunity to invest in our humble city. Don ?t we owe it to ourselves to ask for more than boring filler buildings?

Where are the international design competitions for an alternative to the Buncher plan for the Strip? With all of our bridges, why don ?t we have one designed by Santiago Calatrava? How about some truly amazing parks along the riverfronts connected by a state-of-the-art transit system? Why do we have eyesore industrial buildings on the south bank of the Ohio, just opposite the Point? Why didn’t we save even a sliver of the Civic Arena?

This brings us back to the new excitement over developing a David L. Lawrence Convention Center hotel, the metaphorical front door to Pittsburgh. This isn ?t just another development in the city; it is a major project that demands insightful planning, creativity and artful execution. The building will be visible from PNC Park, the Strip, Bigelow Boulevard, Mt. Washington, and all along the Allegheny. It will mark the northwest corner of the Golden Triangle and act as a hinge between the Strip District and the Cultural District. In short, there are few projects that can have such an impact on our city as plans for a hotel here.

I was disappointed to hear that Wayne Fontana, the board chairman of the Sports & Exhibition Authority, ruled out large subsidies for the project. He is quoted in the Post-Gazette saying that the project will receive ?lower subsidies ? than developers asked for when the SEA issued a similar Request for Proposals in 2010. The figures five years ago were in the ballpark of $50 million. To give you some perspective, for a top-tier five hundred room hotel, the cost should be around $150-$200 million. So at $50 million, the public subsidy would be about 25-30% of the total construction. For Heinz Field, the public paid a whopping 61% of the total construction cost to the tune of $171.6 million, and that was fifteen years ago.

By no means am I suggesting that the public has as much invested in the convention center hotel as they do in our beloved Steelers. But, I know what will happen to the design if we strip developers of that extra funding. The less we aid developers, the less accountable they will be to create something special for Pittsburgh. And this really isn’t the time or place to cut corners and produce more blandness. In fact, I will go the opposite route, and suggest that Pittsburghers actually demand more from private development and more of its new architecture.

Pittsburgh is at a critical point in a city ?s history. We have a multitude of major sites along our rivers and in our downtown that are vacant, rife with opportunity in this burgeoning economy. We may be on the cusp of a major boom. Therefore, it is time for the Pittsburghers to change their expectations and demand more from the city ?s new buildings, starting with the convention center hotel. With the hotel site in the shadows of Daniel Burnham ?s gorgeous Penn Station and H.H. Richardson ?s monumental Allegheny County Courthouse, developers and the SEA owe it to Pittsburgh ?s future to build a quality structure.

Pittsburghers need to ask ourselves what a new project such as this can do for us. We need to ask ourselves what we want our city to look and feel like. The city ?s once-derelict sites are being developed by the dozen. If we don ?t start to ask these questions now, we risk being surrounded by boring, cheap buildings and squandering this once-a-century opportunity. If occasionally it requires a few more subsidies for developers in order to get better quality buildings, so be it. Let’s raise the bar for our new architecture. This is a beautiful gem of a city, and it is our responsibility to keep it that way.

Follow The Point of Pittsburgh on Twitter @thepointofpgh or like us on Facebook. Also follow me on Twitter @bsamson88

Ben Samson has a keen interest in improving public transportation and architecture.