Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 16, 2000

The 2-block area

The expected demolition late this month of the buildings bounded by Forbes and Oakland avenues and Sennott and South Bouquet streets to make way for the Multi-Purpose Academic Complex (MPAC) will close an important chapter in Pitt's history and in the history of Pitt's relations with the Oakland community.

In the block just south of the MPAC site, Pitt's Bouquet Gardens undergraduate student housing construction project is expected to add 800 beds by this fall.

This two-block area has been a battleground for University/community sparring that has spanned the tenures of four chancellors.

The two-block area was part of then-Chancellor Edward Litchfield's 1958 plan calling for construction of six professional buildings and several student dormitories in what was called the Forbes Area, loosely defined as the sector bordered by Fifth Avenue, Bigelow Boulevard/Schenley Drive, Boundary Street (off Joncaire Street in Panther Hollow) and Oakland Avenue. The plan depended on the University's ability to secure funding for the Forbes Field site, which was up for sale.

In addition to the major construction projects, Litchfield proposed closing South Bouquet Street south of Forbes, closing Bigelow between Fifth and Forbes, and closing Forbes between OaklandAvenue and Bellefield Avenue. Under the plan, traffic would have been rerouted at Oakland Avenue and swung southeast on a new road that would have run behind Carnegie Museum and connected to Craig Street.

"In short," according to Jay Roling, Pitt's director of local relations, "the plan was to eliminate the Oakland community in all directions surrounding the site of Forbes Field."

The Litchfield plan caused an uproar among Oakland merchants, who objected to being shut out of planning discussions, and was rejected by then-Mayor David Lawrence and Pittsburgh City Council.

Though the University's well-publicized financial crisis was the chief cause of Litchfield's downfall, his plan for Oakland also was a major factor, according to Roling. Only two buildings resulted from the Litchfield plan, Hillman Library and the Common Facilities Building (now Lawrence Hall).

While most of Litchfield's plan never came to fruition, Pitt did purchase the Forbes Field site from the Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball Club in 1959 for a little over $3 million. The agreement stipulated that the Pirates would play there until Three Rivers Stadium opened. The 1960s — A decade of dramatic change and growth For the Oakland community, Forbes Field was an immense source of civic pride and a sustaining force commercially during baseball season. (And, to a lesser extent, football season. The Steelers played a majority of their home games there from 1933 to 1963.) Restaurants, sports-theme bars and neighborhood shops relied on the popularity of the Pirates.

The Bucs, who had played in Forbes Field since 1909, expected to be playing in Three Rivers Stadium by the mid-1960s, but repeated clashes between the city and county over the financing, ownership and tax structure of the new North Side stadium delayed the opening until July 1970.

At the same time that Forbes Field's days were numbered, Oakland's position as the city's primary cultural district was eroding. Heinz Hall, the Civic Arena, the proposed Three Rivers Stadium and, eventually, the restored Benedum Hall were shifting more of the cultural and sports focus to Downtown and the North Side.

In 1966, mostly due to financial necessity, Pitt joined the Commonwealth System of Higher Education as a "state-related" institution, a quasi-public status between public institutions that are state-owned and private institutions. Prior to 1966, Pitt had been private.

The change had a profound and almost immediate effect, according to a 1974 dissertation titled "Institutional/Community Relations in an Urban Setting: The University of Pittsburgh Experience" by Bernard J. Kobosky, former Pitt vice chancellor of Public Affairs. Since 1907 Pitt had received minimal state support, but between 1966 and 1971 commonwealth appropriations increased state support to the University by 673 percent. By 1971, half of Pitt's operating budget was coming from government sources, according to a report from Pitt's Budget and Finance office.

The state also began influencing the direction of the University. The legislature enacted measures giving the State Board of Education some approval authority over Pitt's educational policies and requiring the University to submit annual reports on student enrollments and faculty workloads, which would be used to determine state appropriations.

Tuition dropped from $700 to $225 per term, and total student enrollment nearly doubled — to 35,000 — in the first six years after Pitt became state-related, according to the Budget and Finance office's 1972 report.

In 1967, to expedite Pitt's expansion, the General State Authority (GSA) stepped in and, invoking eminent domain, condemned all the buildings in the two-block area south of Forbes Avenue between Oakland Avenue and South Bouquet Street, and sent eviction notices to tenants and business owners there, many of whom were long-term occupants. The GSA also declared that only academic buildings could be developed in the two-block area, a position that became important later.

According to Roling, once eminent domain is invoked, there is no legal recourse. "It's a done deal. You can only haggle about the price of sale," he said.

In 1968, then-Chancellor Wesley Posvar introduced a new master facilities plan, designed to accommodate Pitt's expanding enrollment.

Posvar's original plan called for four phases of construction, beginning with a major professional building, facing Forbes Avenue, that would extend from the site of today's Law School Building to Oakland Avenue. South Bouquet Street and a segment of Sennott Street were to be eliminated. The building was to extend southward to about midway between Forbes and Pier Street, a short block north of Bates Street.

Phase II called for a social sciences building, connecting to the professional building's south end by a raised pedestrian bridge. That building was to cover the area south to a new street that was to be extended from Joncaire to Oakland Avenue. Oakland Avenue was to be widened to 100 feet and carry two-way traffic.

Phase III was to be a cluster of buildings: an undergraduate library building, a law building, a humanities/business/public and international affairs building and a performing arts building, all on the site of Forbes Field and the land just east toward Frick Fine Arts.

A fourth phase called for a building (its use not designated) south of the social sciences building between the Joncaire proposed extension and Bates Street. That phase also proposed new dormitories south of Bates.

Posvar presented the plan to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. When that group expressed no opposition, the University assumed the Oakland community approved of the plan. It was a seriousmiscalculation and began a period of unparalleled hostility between Pitt and the community that would rage until summer 1971, with residual effects of mutual suspicion continuing for years.

In addition to plans for the two-block and Forbes Field areas, Posvar's 1968 plan called for an addition to the School of Dentistry (now Salk Hall) for pharmacy, and new buildings for nursing, allied health professions, math/computer science, biochemistry, physical education and a public service center, in addition to extensive renovations to existing buildings.

The plan also called for construction of a 1,200-student, high-rise dormitory on the hillside north of University Drive, between Falk School and the site of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Several smaller dorms and a living/learning complex were planned between Eberly Hall (formerly Alumni Hall) and the new high-rise dorm, which would be connected via escalator on the south end to the then-proposed Learning Research and Development Center. The plan called for closing streets in the area of University Drive. The 1970s —

A line in the sand Residents near the high-rise site objected to the proposed heavy influx of students. They also had concerns about traffic and parking congestion.

As it turns out, a minor, but crucial component of the hillside dormitory plan was the removal of part of the Falk School playground. PTA and Falk School administrators objected and joined with residents from neighboring Brackenridge Street and the Schenley Farms area to protest the project. The upper-campus protests received extensive local media coverage and had a domino effect in South Oakland, where small groups opposing the University's plans joined forces in what in 1971 became People's Oakland.

Sandra Phillips, one of the founders of People's Oakland, was studying urban planning at Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the time. She recalled, "I couldn't believe that Pitt was just going to destroy the neighborhood instead of considering alternatives. It made me furious and I was not alone."

People's Oakland appealed to the City Planning Commission for support and the commission withheld approvals on Pitt's construction plans until the city, the community and the University agreed to discuss the plans.

These discussions, which became known as the tripartite meetings, were regular, but unfriendly, according to Phillips. Little was accomplished, other than delaying the construction projects.

The city primarily was concerned that Pitt's expansion would take more real estate off the tax rolls.

The Oakland community saw itself as the victim of an institution gobbling up land, with no thought for residents.

"It wasn't that we spoke with one voice on every issue, but we waged a series of battles," Phillips said. "In a way, South Bouquet Street became our line in the sand. We slowed Pitt down. Eventually, they lost a lot of the state funding for the giant hillside dorm. Finally, Pitt abandoned the plan altogether."

In early 1971, the community began suggesting alternatives to Pitt's plans for the Forbes Field site, including renovating the existing structure and making it "an interface" space, with some academic elements and some community affairs components.

Pitt refused, and in early July 1971, the University, tired of delays and concerned about the deteriorating structure of Forbes Field, commissioned bids for the ballpark's demolition.

Infuriated, People's Oakland representatives and others went to Harrisburg to lobby state officials to stop Pitt. They found in then-Gov. Milton Shapp a sympathetic listener. Shapp, through the GSA, ordered suspension of all construction projects until the tripartite group could agree on a plan.

In a watershed agreement announced July 28, 1971, Pitt abandoned the two-block area plan, re-sited the proposed Law School Building from the Forbes Field site to its present location and moved the professional building to the Forbes Field site.

The community agreed to stop fighting the demolition of Forbes Field, but a battle began on a new front when then-Mayor Pete Flaherty proclaimed a city-wide moratorium on increasing the number of tax-exempt properties, including the two planned Pitt buildings.

The University responded by volunteering a payment of $28,000 in lieu of city taxes. The city rejected Pitt's offer as insufficient and further said Pitt would have to pay taxes on all new buildings. The City Planning Commission threatened to deny final approval of the revised construction project.

Pitt took its case to Gov. Shapp, who opposed the city's position because, he argued, it was one level of government taxing another, since Pitt was heavily underwritten by the state. Shapp also felt taxing Pitt could set a precedent for other state-related institutions. Through the GSA, the governor threatened legal action against the city.

Frustrated by plans that had been stalled for more than five years, in May 1972 Pitt's Board of Trustees offered to pay the city $60,000 in lieu of taxes for that year. Future payments, dubbed "municipal services reimbursement," were to be negotiated. The city accepted the offer and the Planning Commission granted conditional use application for construction of the Law School Building and Forbes Quadrangle.

But the issue was not closed. The city wanted reimbursement for the closing of Pennant Place and Girts Way, two small streets on the project site. It asked for nearly $100,000 and actually halted construction until it accepted Pitt's counter-offer of $42,000 in July 1973.

Roling credits former Chancellor Posvar for bringing Pitt through the crisis. "He acknowledged the University had not sought the community input as much as it should have. He was willing to compromise with the community and the city. We could still be fighting this, if it weren't for his efforts," Roling said.

Posvar, who stepped down as chancellor in 1990, recollects the efforts he and his administration made to work with the community. "We did agree to the tripartite meetings to foster mutual respect, which had eroded, with the community. The city went along to help keep the peace. At first there was tension to be sure but that tension eventually eased," said Posvar, who today is professor of international politics in Pitt's Department of Political Science. "When we agreed to re-site the quadrangle and the law school it was really out of deference to the community's wishes. The community began to see that we were willing to work in everybody's behalf for mutual benefit," he added.

"We had a helluva fight over this," Roling remembers. "Ultimately, we lost the battle, but I don't think we really lost the war. Pitt probably didn't have the money to do the whole four-phase master plan. We did get the law school, Forbes Quad, later David Lawrence was expanded. We also built a nursing school on the Lothrop garage and re-built the American Institute for Research (now the Information Sciences Building)."

In fact, between 1960 and 1980, Pitt went from 23 to 40 buildings in Oakland and from 64 to 110 acres (most of that land at the Forbes Field site).

During that time, the University built Hillman Library, the Learning Research and Development Center, Litchfield Towers, Benedum Hall, the Graduate School of Public Health and Trees Hall, among other facilities.

Phillips said the real benefit of the tripartite agreement was that the community gained a say in what happened to its neighborhoods. "We worked ourselves into a position of influence. If you look at Sutherland Hall and the fraternities on the hillside now, you have a modified version of the plan that is much more in scale. You have fraternities on-campus, which everyone wanted. You have a residence hall that didn't kill the neighborhood."

But what of the two-block area?

In effect, the GSA was holding the buildings at that site for the University's expansion, forbidding commercial enterprises from using them.

In addition to the Forbes-Oakland-Sennott-Bouquet block, the GSA-governed buildings included three brick houses on Oakland Avenue south of Sennott Street and two frame structures on Bouquet Street also south of Sennott. The brick structures were renovated by the University in 1973 and rented to community groups; the frame buildings were demolished in early 1974.

But the other two-block properties, already deteriorated, remained empty for about 18 months, Roling said. Finally, Pitt agreed to restore the commercial buildings to their former condition and, at Posvar's recommendation, share the property and house both Pitt and community units there, subject to the GSA's approval. The edict to house non-commercial, academic-oriented organizations remained in force, the GSA said.

So Pitt moved in its personnel office and the black studies department. Oakland organizations approved for occupancy included the Pittsburgh Filmmakers, WYEP-FM radio station, the Medical Committee for Human Rights (later the Pittsburgh Free Clinic), Environment: Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Poor Players, a theatrical troupe. The former Bimbo's restaurant (corner of South Bouquet and Sennott Street) was turned into a combination commuter student lounge and community meeting place. The local GSA office eventually was housed in the buildings, too. The 1980s —

More cooperation In the late 1970s, a project funded by the state Department of Community Affairs and the city, employing Urban Design Associates as consultants, worked with Oakland Directions, Inc., (ODI) to create the Oakland Plan, published in 1980.

ODI, formed in 1972, is a nonprofit umbrella organization with representatives of various Oakland community groups and institutions to address Oakland concerns.

"The Oakland Plan was not a master plan in the traditional sense," Phillips said. "It was more an analysis that designated areas throughout Oakland as 'fixed' or 'areas of opportunity for development.' We studied residence areas, institutional areas, commercial areas, pedestrian and traffic patterns, just about everything and made some recommendations. The most important thing, I think, was that the process involved all the stakeholders."

Phillips said that by the time the Oakland Plan was released, Oakland had become a model for other university/community interactions, in sharp contrast to a decade earlier.

Phillips and Roling agreed that the University's internal planning process changed for the better as a result of lessons learned in the 1970s. "There seemed to be much more input from Senate committees, more task forces, just more communication," Phillips said.

Roling pointed out that, administratively, the University designated the Office for Public Affairs, to which he was assigned under Kobosky, to be the sole liaison for Pitt/community interaction.

Some of the 1980 Oakland Plan recommendations became reality, including reversal of traffic flow on Bouquet Street and Oakland Avenue, as a one-way pair; the residential sticker parking system; the Pitt Ridesharing Program, which was designed to reduce auto emissions in Oakland; surface and traffic signal improvements on Forbes and Fifth; the designation of the Schenley Farms neighborhood as a historic district, and the establishment of Oakland Planning and Development Corp., a nonprofit organization that acts as the residential community's private planner and developer.

While Pitt's relationship with the community was improving, its problems were not over. Sasaki and Associates, Inc., an urban planning firm from Boston, was hired in 1988 by the University to study Pitt's overall land use, including short- and long-term plans for student housing.

Based on neighborhood survey data, the Sasaki report recommended that the University consider building undergraduate housing on the hillside behind Eberly Hall and buying and renovating graduate housing in the North Bellefield Avenue area. But the University did not present any of the Sasaki recommendations to ODI until more than a year later. Again, Oakland residents were miffed.

Then-Executive Vice President Jack Freeman, defending Pitt's stance, said the Sasaki study had been in preliminary stages of internal planning, in which the University did not want input. He also promised community input at a later stage.

But Phillips countered that the process was "too internal. Pitt has chosen not to participate in a joint planing process for the master plan," she said at Pitt's July 1989 presentation to ODI.

The 1990s —

Final decisions

In 1992, the City Planning Commission said all city institutions had to present a master space plan before it would grant permission for any new construction. It gave Pitt a May 1994 (later extendedto October) deadline.

From the early to mid-1990s, the University Senate plant utilization and planning (PUP) committee, co-chaired by James DeAngelis, associate professor of regional planning at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), helped guide the evolution of the University's facilities plans.

"Chancellor [J. Dennis] O'Connor came in [1992] and empowered the PUP committee to really study the planning process," DeAngelis said. "He took the Planning Commission charge seriously, that the University present a comprehensive plan to the city. PUP didn't have authority or final oversight, but O'Connor made all the administration's officials available to us. We brought in representatives of the community and city. The meetings were sometimes uncomfortable, but we had all the right people there for input."

Information gathered by DeAngelis's 1991 graduate class in urban planning disputed the 1980 Oakland Plan's portrayal of housing in south/central Oakland as a stable, owner-occupied neighborhood.

Census data between 1940 and 1990 suggested that only about 15 percent of south/central Oakland residences were owner-occupied. The vast majority of owners were absentee landlords who gouged their mostly student tenants, knowing that a new supply would be there the following year. In 1992, DeAngelis's students presented a "capstone paper" (with findings cited in Pitt's 1994 master plan) and held a series of public forums on the condition of student housing in the south/central Oakland area.

"We learned that University-owned housing in south-central Oakland was essential to stimulate private residential development there and put pressure on absentee landlords," DeAngelis said. "The question was: How will the central Oakland housing market be most influenced to reduce the exploitation of students by landlords? One thing was to insist on better housing code enforcement. And clearly, a major University dorm project would help."

But the PUP committee nonetheless recommended constructing a College of Business Administration (CBA) building — considered a high priority — across Bouquet Street from Mervis Hall, and building new undergraduate student housing on the hillside above Eberly Hall, subject to feasibility studies.

The PUP committee endorsed the CBA project in its 1994 plan draft, but withdrew endorsement of the hillside housing when a feasibility study found the project to be cost-prohibitive. When the University presented its plan in October 1994 to the Planning Commission, the commission denied approval, citing a lack of comprehensive student housing and transportation components.

In January 1995, Ben Tuchi, then senior vice chancellor for Business and Finance, told the Planning Commission Pitt would construct a 300-400-bed dorm on the old Pitt Tavern site along Fifth Avenue between Bouquet Street and Oakland Avenue. This surprised PUP committee members, who had recommended exploring a number of options for the site, including conference and hotel suites, a parking area and green space.

The Planning Commission in April 1995 gave conditional approval of the 1994 plan, asking for a more detailed housing proposal, since the plan said the University's overall, on-campus bed needs were 2,200 over the next two decades.

Also in April 1995, following instructions from the Board of Trustees, Pitt's administration began a review of all capital projects requiring University funds over a 10-year period.

Chancellor O'Connor appointed the 15-member University Facilities Planning Committee to make short- (1-4 years), mid- (5-7 years) and long-term (8-10 years) recommendations for facilities improvements. The resulting plan, building on the foundation of the 1994 plan, called for some $361 million in renovation and construction projects over a decade.

In the draft of its recommendations, issued August 1996, the facilities planning committee argued against construction of a CBA building (previously endorsed by the 1994 plan). The committee favored housing the CBA in existing space in Mervis Hall and in one floor of the proposed MPAC building.

Tom Anderson, co-chair of the PUP committee until 1995 and a University Facilities Planning Committee member, said the facilities committee also verified that the cost of hillside housing was prohibitive. "That fact, and since the CBA would be housed in the MPAC, made the logical place for student housing to be on the South Bouquet site," Anderson said. "But the South Oakland community was wary of rowdy undergrads let loose in that area. The compromise was to have only upper-level undergraduates and to show a strong University commitment to take care of the property and watch the students' behavior closely," he said.

Pitt had a precedent for recent student housing working well in the community, Anderson said. "Sutherland Hall, in my opinion, is the best example of a successful project. When the kids live in nice rooms, they tend to take care of the place. So, that was part of the argument: to build nice apartment-style housing [as part of the two-block area] with a courtyard and make it an attractive edge to the campus."

In August 1996, Pitt unveiled the draft of its 10-year facilities plan at a meeting of the Oakland Community Council, a coalition of 10 neighborhood groups, which gave preliminary approval to the plan.

Internally, Provost James Maher, who chaired the facilities planning committee, had won support for the 10-year plan from the University Planning and Budget Committee, a group of faculty, staff and students who advise senior administration on budget and long-range planing issues.

Other University Senate committees subsequently reviewed the plan and made recommendations.

The final approved 10-year facilities plan was issued in April 1997. The two-block area figured prominently in the facilities plan, which concluded that the most appropriate site for on-campus undergraduate student housing was the area bounded by South Bouquet, Oakland Avenue and Sennott Street. "This site, in combination with the MPAC building to be constructed along Forbes Avenue, would serve as a defining edge to the campus and provide an attractive gateway to the University," the plan stated.

At the time the plan was released in 1997, the housing project was given a mid-range, or 5-7 year priority, while the MPAC was a short-term priority. The plan recommended upgrading current on-campus housing in the short term.

In January 1998, Gov. Tom Ridge announced that the state would target $138 million over five years for Pitt's capital projects.

Of that amount, $100 million, to be provided at $20 million per year, would support Pitt facility projects identified as priorities in the University's 10-year facilities plan, including the MPAC building.

Earlier in the decade, Operation Jump Start state funding — nearly $23 million — was earmarked for the MPAC building, but it was not known when the state would release the money.

Operation Jump Start was then-Gov. Robert Casey's plan to stimulate Pennsylvania's economy by creating construction jobs through selected public works projects such as road repairs and the renovation or construction of buildings.

In 1993, Chancellor O'Con-nor, seeking to fast-track the MPAC project, signed an agreement with the Casey administration to accept a smaller amount — $13 million — if the state would release the funding in fiscal year 1994.

Renouncing the 1993 agreement between Casey and O'Connor, Ridge said: "At one point in time, there was an old agreement between this University and a previous [state] administration. Now, there's a new University with new leadership, and there's a new administration. And so we decided to scrap that old agreement and enter into a new one."

Reacting to the promised state funding, Mark Nordenberg, then interim chancellor, moved the housing need from a mid- to a short-term priority. "At the very top" of Pitt's capital priority list, along with the convocation center and MPAC, "is the development of additional on-campus student housing in Oakland," Nordenberg said. It is "a matter of great importance both to the University and to our neighbors. On these and other projects, we will be working appropriately with others, particularly in city government, to do what is good for the community, as well as for the University," he said.

At the time of the Ridge announcement, Oakland Community Council president Marshall Goodwin said the MPAC and convocation center projects entail "a lot of positives for the community," including an infusion of state funds, creation of an estimated 400 jobs and the planned inclusion of retail space on the first floor of MPAC.

"But we still have a very big concern about how student housing is going to be addressed, and when it's going to be addressed," Goodwin said. "I was glad to hear the chancellor make mention of it, but I look forward to seeing the [University's student housing] plan."

A series of public forums were held to introduce the proposed Bouquet Gardens housing project to the community in 1998. Some community resistance was registered, including protests at 1998 City Zoning Board and Planning Commission hearings, but the housing project eventually gained community and city approval. Pitt agreed to help relocate the community organizations still renting space from the University on the proposed housing site.

Roling credits the current Pitt administration with finally righting Pitt's course.

"Chancellor Nordenberg, Provost Maher and Dr. [Robert] Pack put in a system where decisions about the academic mission and priorities precede planning decisions," Roling said. "In the past, we were sometimes flying blind in these processes. Once the administration identified upgrades in student life as a high priority, instead of a mid-range priority, a housing plan in that corner of Oakland, which was supported for the most part by the community, just made sense."

DeAngelis added, "I have a small problem with the design of Bouquet Gardens: It does not lend itself to a community pedestrian flow either up to the [proposed] convocation center or south to the Oakland community. It's not quite the gateway it should have been. These ideas were in the planning process and documented. But don't get me wrong. I'm delighted that Bouquet Gardens iswhere it is and that the MPAC building is going up. It's what the PUP committee said should happen all along."

More than 40 years after the University first set its sights on the two-block area for expansion, a new edge of the Pittsburgh campus will be completed in 2001. The Oakland community, while never unanimous in its support for Pitt's plans, did have a say in the final decisions, and buildings that once stood as barriers will be replaced with buildings that represent a model of University/community cooperation.

–Peter Hart

Leave a Reply