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April 11, 1996

Hearing on Bigelow block closing draws those on both sides of issue

A cheering and jeering, standing-room- only crowd jammed the auditorium of the Frick International Studies Academy on April 2 to air their views on the proposed test closing of Bigelow Boulevard between the Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Union.

Dozens of Pittsburgh residents, local business owners, University administrators, faculty, staff and students lined up at the Pittsburgh City Council hearing to both praise and condemn the proposed closing.

Convened by Council President Jim Ferlo, a vocal opponent of the closing who several times during the evening made his feelings known with snide remarks, the hearing carried a hostile tone both toward the test closing and the University. However, the impression of hostility may have been skewed.

The list of speakers opposed to the test outnumbered those who favored it by more than 2 – 1. But many of the individuals listed as opposed did not appear, several others only submitted letters, four were listed twice and a few said they were concerned, but not necessarily against a test. Also on the opposition list too were several employees from the same businesses, as well as husbands and wives of opponents.

Supporters of the test sought to tilt the balance in their favor with big guns such as Interim Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, Pitt head football coach John Majors, City Planning Director Eloise Hirsh, Parking Authority Director Guy Costa, the city's Director of Engineering and Construction Fred Reginella, and more than 50 chanting and sign-carrying students who gathered at the entrance to Frick Academy.

Despite all of the noise and the four hours of testimony there was little said that was new. Those who oppose the closing cited concerns about a loss of parking spaces and a possible resulting loss of business, loss of parking revenue, congestion on side streets and delays for emergency vehicles.

Others complained that the test closing would be the first step in a land grab by the University and that the city was practicing corporate welfare if it gave Bigelow Boulevard to Pitt without being paid for the property.

Proponents of the closing said it would make the area between the Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Union safer for students and other pedestrians, create green space that would make Oakland more attractive, and give the city a new park that would be maintained by the University.

Supporters of the test also maintained that parking revenue and parking spaces lost by the closing could be replaced, that engineering studies have shown it is possible to re-route traffic onto neighboring streets without major problems, and that the access of emergency vehicles to Oakland hospitals would not be adversely effected.

Safety issues David McMullen, director of Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, told Council he was worried about delays the closing could create for ambulances called to the hall. He also said closing Bigelow Boulevard would inconvenience individuals attending events at Soldiers and Sailors.

Hank Hunziker, owner of Oakland Typewriter Service, and Larry Dashefsky, of Leonard's Men's Shop, were among business owners concerned about the loss of on-street parking for customers who only need to spend a short time in Oakland and do not want to pay higher rates in garages. Dashefsky said the University should turn the former Pitt Tavern site into a parking lot (plans call for it to be temporarily made into a park). Hunziker suggested making Bigelow safer by installing rails along it to force pedestrians to stop jaywalking and cross at specific points.

Several Pitt alumni voiced opposition to the closing by noting that they regularly crossed Bigelow without being struck by cars when they were students. They said current students should be able to do the same. A few speakers were worried that if the street is closed for a test it will never be re-opened, while others pointed to the former Syria Mosque site, currently a parking lot, and argued that if Pitt wants more green space it should turn that site into a park.

Radio traffic reporter Carol Finelli and Pitt medical school professor Jack Paradise were among those who said closing Bigelow would increase traffic on Oakland's side streets. Retired firefighter Robert Friel from Lawrenceville said that fire safety in the Cathedral of Learning would suffer.

If the closing is approved, traffic that now uses Bigelow Boulevard will be re-routed onto Bellefield Avenue and Bouquet Street between Forbes and Fifth. Parking would be removed on those streets, and along small portions of Fifth and Forbes.

Bus traffic Although he was listed in the opposition column, Port Authority Transit (PAT) Director William Millar told Council he neither favors nor opposes the test plan. He said he had been asked by Council to explain how the test might impact bus riders and bus service.

If Bigelow Boulevard is closed, according to Millar, PAT would have to reroute some buses and its service could be slowed. PAT makes 137 bus trips on Bigelow every week day.

"Certainly, closing Bigelow Boulevard would add walking time and travel time for bus users and it would also add some travel time and some associated cost to the Port Authority budget," Millar said. "However, the bigger impact is the increased traffic congestion that may occur on neighboring streets." Millar told Council that traffic could block the Fifth Avenue bus lane at times if Bigelow is closed. He said priority should be given to transit vehicles in any closing plan. Millar also suggested that if a permanent closing is approved, the city should consider creating a pedestrian mall on Bigelow with a lane for buses.

Facts and figures Supporters of the test closing addressed the concerns of opponents with facts, surveys and examples of the University working with the community and being a good neighbor.

Parking Authority Director Costa said that the 91 parking spaces and approximately $91,000 in parking revenue that will be lost if Bigelow is closed can be made up by placing meters at other locations in Oakland and by getting more parkers to use the city garage at Forbes and Semple Street. According to Costa, the Forbes and Semple garage is operating at only 70 percent of capacity in the middle of the day. To encourage people to use the central business district garage, the Parking Authority recently lowered the rates in the garage.

Congestion on side streets caused by drivers searching for a parking space should be eased by a planned way-finders system, according to Costa. He said the sign system will point drivers toward parking lots and garages at Forbes and Semple, Schenley Plaza, the Carnegie Museum and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"Within the next couple of months you should see the way-finder signs going up," Costa said. "We're here to work together. If Council approves this test for a 60-day trial period, we're willing to cooperate." Interim Chancellor Nordenberg pointed out that Pitt has been working increasingly with the city to benefit both the community and the University. Nordenberg noted that Pitt recently agreed to pay half the cost of a housing inspector for Oakland; has sought to construct a 1,000-car parking garage under Schenley Plaza; has agreed to share its police station at Forbes and Bouquet Street with city officers free of charge; has moved a large number of staff and faculty into the Iroquois Building, who are now customers for central Oakland businesses, and has hired a technology transfer director to speed up the commercialization of research and spur job growth.

"We seek the opportunity to show that we can make our campus a more attractive, safer, more user-friendly location and, in the process, also improve the part of the city in which we live," Nordenberg said. "We want to do so without unduly burdening others." As a resident of the Schenley Farms area, football coach Majors said that the closing of Bigelow would inconvenience him, but that he supported the closing because it would add to the quality of campus life for students. Majors added that Pitt has less green space than any school he has ever visited as a coach.

Parking and congestion One frequently voiced complaint at the hearing was that Pitt does not really care about pedestrian safety on Bigelow Boulevard, but only wants the street closed to enlarge its campus. Opponents claimed that if the University was interested in safety, it would pay to paint new crosswalks, erect signs and flashing lights to warn motorists that they are entering a pedestrian zone, construct a traffic island in the middle of the street, and build a pedestrian bridge or a pedestrian underpass.

Pitt's Director of Parking and Transportation Bob Harkins told Council that he has discussed all of those items with the city and that signs, lights and crosswalks are planned for several areas around campus. He added that urban planners have said a pedestrian bridge or underpass would not be cost-effective because neither would receive sufficient use.

In response to complaints about traffic congestion, Harkins pointed out that since 1993 the University has enrolled approximately 1,000 new participants in its car pool program, 1,250 in its van pool program and 700 in its Transit Check program that deducts the price of PAT bus passes from an employee's paycheck. According to Harkins, Pitt also has about 1,000 staff, faculty and students who ride buses outside of Zone 1, approximately 2,000 people who ride PAT buses in the Pitt Zone that covers Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, and 5,000 who ride Pitt shuttle buses.

"All of those programs have driven cars out of Oakland," Harkins said. "I have surveys that show we have reduced cars in Oakland by 400 to 500 vehicles. We can safely say that we have about one-third of the University community that does not travel by single occupancy vehicle into Oakland. That was not true three years ago." Responding to complaints that Pitt has ruined the local business community by acquiring so much land in Oakland, Harkins noted that of 1,209 people surveyed outside Oakland businesses, only 79 of them had specifically come to Oakland to shop. The remaining 1,130 individuals were in some way associated with the University.

Historical support One of the more interesting encounters of the evening came when Lisa Cavalier read a statement from Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, opposing the closing of Bigelow Boulevard.

In his statement, Ziegler contended that Bigelow Boulevard was designed around the turn of the century as one of two primary boulevards in the city that would link important sites, institutions and vistas, and should not be closed for that reason.

Bob Firth, designer of the city's way-finders system, contradicted Ziegler's statement.

Producing Frederick Law Olmsted's original 1910 plans for Bigelow Boulevard (or, as it was then known, Grant Boulevard), Firth called the section of street outside the Cathedral of Learning an afterthought. He said that Olmsted's preferred plan called for Bigelow to run up to the entrance of the Carnegie Institute, approximately where Bellefield Avenue now lies.

According to Firth, Olmsted's original design also separates pedestrian and vehicular traffic. He said that improving Oakland with more green space and pedestrian ways would be in the spirit of Olmsted's plan.

Such comments in support of the test closing generally were dismissed by Council President Ferlo with snickers and snide remarks.

When Nordenberg walked up to the lectern to speak, Ferlo asked the interim chancellor if he had a $5 million check with him to purchase Bigelow Boulevard.

After Director of Engineering and Construction Reginella, spoke in favor of the test by noting that studies had been done showing that 15,000 vehicles a day use the street, versus 30,000 pedestrians a day, Ferlo said: "If you can provide us with any reports you have, bogus or otherwise, we'd be interested in having those."

–Mike Sajna

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