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November 22, 2000

Planning for Oakland's future

The Oakland civic district, a hub of cultural and institutional activity in Pittsburgh, is under scrutiny by community leaders, task forces, city planners and residents.

In a series of community forums begun last month, leaders from Oakland groups and concerned individuals — so-called "stakeholders" — have been meeting to discuss improvements for Oakland, including parking, land development, urban design, transportation and access.

The Nov. 15 forum, third in a series of six, was sponsored by the Oakland Task Force, a group of residents and real estate owners and representatives from institutions and businesses, in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Department of City Planning.

"I would call this a collaborative effort," said city planner Maureen Hogan. "The Oakland Task Force asked for city planning help from us and we're here to provide that."

The Oakland Civic District Loop, which the task force is examining, is defined as the area bounded by Fifth Avenue, South Craig Street, Schenley Drive, Joncaire Street and South Bouquet Street. (See map on page 3.)

In justifying the study of the location, Oakland Task Force representative Kathy Boykowycz said, "The loop is the center of Oakland. It's the part most people know. It's most impacted by traffic, institutional demands, expansion. We know there are problems in Oakland [outside the loop] and there are real concerns of residents: no supermarket, no elementary school, can't park on residential streets [without a permit]. But the loop is what this group right now is concerned with."

She added that the Oakland Civic District Loop might be considered a substitute town square within greater Oakland.

Hogan said that in the first meeting, held Oct. 4, the group reviewed prior recent studies of the area.

At the second meeting (Oct. 25), representatives of more than 20 of Oakland's major players were surveyed for general improvement suggestions.

According to city planner Wanda Wilson, the representatives filled out questionnaires divided into four general categories: amenities/identity; urban design; open space, and access issues. Access was subdivided into pedestrian, parking, transit, vehicular access, bicycles and miscellaneous. Questionnaire results helped the task force identify common ground for discussion and narrow the focus on differences of opinion, she said.

The surveyed groups included the Bellefield Area Citizens Association, Carnegie Library, Carnegie Mellon University (and CMU's Heinz School of Public Policy students), Carnegie museums, office of City Councilman Dan Cohen, city planning department, Department of Engineering and Construction, Oakland Community Council, Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, Phipps Conservancy and Botanical Gardens, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Port Authority of Allegheny County, Schenley Farms neighborhood, Pittsburgh School District, South Craig Street Association, South Craig Street adjacent residential area, and Pitt.

(For a summary of Pitt's recommendations, see story on this page.) "Our goal right now is the identification of issues in order to develop a specific work program, which will include site plans and guidelines," Hogan said at the Nov. 15 forum. "It will show a path, if you will, a road map, taking into account long-term residents, students who come and go, the needs of the stakeholders in Oakland and those abutting it."

Ron Porter of RDP Consulting Services added that "nothing will be decided at this meeting. This is for your input to see if anything we learned from the survey should be supported, added to or omitted. All ideas are welcome to the table." Porter, a professional mediator and consultant, has been hired by the task force to lead the meetings.

At future meetings, Hogan said, a draft will be developed from a collection of the suggestions of the first three meetings. "We're a long way from doing anything specific," she cautioned. "Right now we want to hear what you have to say."

The biggest bone of contention at the meeting was short-term parking. Some participants suggested that more parking merely increases the number of cars in the area, which one resident called, "the single biggest problem in Oakland."

However, others countered that additional parking was necessary to handle the daily traffic of employees and residents and to encourage visitors to the area.

One participant added, "It used to be that people walked most places. Now people don't like to walk, they drive everywhere. If we cut down on parking, we'd better get serious about mass transit."

Other issues debated at the forum included the role of bicycles, which some would like to increase and others decrease. "I don't like bicycles," one resident said. "In the park, yes. But on the sidewalks? On Forbes Avenue? No!"

On the contrary, a resident responded, what was needed were clearly marked bike lanes and other safety features that would encourage more bicycling.

Regarding the amount and use of green space in the district, one forum participant said, "We have as much green space in Oakland as any neighborhood in the city, except the parks. I think we don't need any more green space. Besides, where would you put it? Tear down buildings or close streets? We need to make existing green space better, with planting and adding better seating," and other amenities.

Another forum participant echoed that opinion, saying much of Oakland's green space was "tacky" and in need of upkeeping.

But forum attendees agreed that the city would be studying the feasibility of converting the Schenley Plaza parking lot into a parkland gateway from institutional Oakland to Schenley Park.

According to city planners, the city's study is expected to take more than a year. Part of the study will examine the need to replace Schenley Plaza's 238 long-term parking spaces.

Other issues and suggestions included:

* "We need to start thinking of the civic district as a destination for visitors, not just a place where people live or work. And that means providing transportation," a participant said. He said the cultural trust district Downtown has a free shuttle service for that area. "We need something like that in Oakland."

* One participant decried the lack of consideration in the Oct. 25 questionnaire for "human behavior issues: safety, drugs, alcohol abuse, homelessness. This is not just bricks and mortar we're talking about."

But forum facilitator Porter replied, "I think there is an awareness and sensitivity to those issues underlying this project and this discussion."

* Another participant remarked there was no mention of adding affordable housing, which was needed to stem the tide of population loss.

* Another said, "We need to be promoting our historic districts to attract more visitors," including from outside western Pennsylvania.

* "We need to develop the [unused] space in Oakland," especially between The Carnegie and the western end of Carnegie Mellon, a resident said. Part of that development might include more walking and bike trails from Oakland to the Monongahela River, he added.

In summarizing the forum, Porter said, "One of the things that signifies the health in this planning process is some level of contention. If you've got everyone in the room of the same mind, then chances are the program and the process is moving along ineffectively."

Diversity, energy, passion and articulation are the foundations for a substantive and effective planning process, he said.

"The most important thing in this whole process is inclusion: making sure each of you remains a participant and that each of you is engaged and that you have input. We want everyone to feel that the process will be open, inclusive and responsive," Porter said.

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 7

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