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February 9, 2018

Unique Urban Campus: An Asset and Obstacle for Master Planning Process

Kevin Petersen speaks at podium to attendees at a master plan forum.

Kevin Petersen, principal-in-charge with campus planning consultant Ayers Saint Gross, outlines predominant topics and next steps for Pitt’s comprehensive master plan at a Jan. 25 forum.


Pitt’s urban setting and dramatic topography are among its chief assets and biggest planning challenges, said Kevin Petersen, principal-in-charge with campus planning consultant Ayers Saint Gross, in announcing next steps for the campus master planning process.

Forty Pitt employees, predominantly staff members, gathered on Jan. 25 in the University Club to hear Petersen discuss general findings from a series of public meetings that began in June 2017. The planning process will continue with four area planning workshops in February through May, focused on such major areas as buildings, open spaces and biking and walkability enhancements. A draft comprehensive master plan is scheduled to be shared with the Pitt community in June and finalized for release in August.

Pitt has a “unique urban setting that everyone saw as an advantage,” Petersen reported to those at the meeting. The compact campus helps to foster a “sense of community and pride in the University that the students have, and the staff and faculty have.”

He noted that it is rare and welcome to have the University’s undergraduate and graduate facilities, its professional schools and UPMC research and hospital buildings, all within a 15-minute stroll. Many research universities have such facilities scattered across un-walkable distances, he said.

But the topography that has clustered Pitt’s campus can also be an obstacle — Petersen likened the hills here to those in Hong Kong and San Francisco. Additionally, the row of science buildings on the north side of O’Hara Street effectively creates a wall that divides the middle and upper campuses, he observed, and the master plan would seek to find better connections among campus sections — either via transportation around, or walkways through, those buildings.

Petersen outlined the campus community’s views concerning major campus issues, which will help steer the final phases of public discussion:


Increasing and improving space on campus and within buildings was “overwhelmingly” the top issue discussed during the planning process, Petersen said, including growing Pitt’s research and athletics/recreation facilities.

While, in general, humanities programs are housed together in and around the Cathedral of Learning, the health sciences dominate the upper campus and science programs are together on O’Hara, there is room for improvement in campus organization as well, he noted. Among Pitt’s 5.2 million square feet of usable space — three-quarters owned by the University, the rest leased — there is still a deficit in classroom and laboratory spaces and also a “significant” shortage of general student space compared to peer institutions. In particular, “the quality of the spaces is very low” for recreation and some athletic facilities are “in very bad shape” to serve Olympic sports, he said, when compared to the schools with which Pitt competes in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Green Spaces

Another clear Pitt asset is the network of open green spaces adjacent to the Cathedral. “It really defines the Pitt campus,” Petersen said, “even though much of it is not Pitt land.” The master plan may bring more green space to the line of buildings on O’Hara Street, he said; it will be tougher to create greener streetscapes on Forbes and Fifth avenues.

The Cathedral of Learning is visible from many parts of the campus and is an iconic symbol of Pitt, he noted, and the new campus plan may create new views, or even new landmarks to be highlighted on campus. The plan must also find a spot for a new heating and cooling plant on campus that doesn’t block current views, he added.

Parking and Pedestrian, Biking and Vehicular Safety

Parking was another large concern in master plan discussions held to date, but parking concerns are a common refrain at most universities, according to Petersen. Adding parking and improving pedestrian safety were the topics of several questions from forum attendees. Petersen noted that a parking needs study is already underway at Pitt, separate from the master planning process, and Ayers Saint Gross will be using that study’s conclusions about parking demand to inform the master plan.

Owen Cooks, assistant vice chancellor for planning and construction, told the audience that Pitt is collaborating with city officials to improve the existing crossway on Bigelow Boulevard between the Cathedral and the William Pitt Union. Several moves are under consideration, including shifting the walkway to make it equidistant from Forbes and Fifth; building a series of medians in the center of Bigelow to ensure pedestrians are crossing in the proper place; and creating pull-over spots to make pedestrian pickup and drop-off safer.

Overall, Petersen said that he expects more debate on the balance between vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians on campus. O’Hara Street, for instance, may possibly be narrowed to accommodate more walking and bicycles. Such moves are less likely for Fifth and Forbes. Enhancing intersection safety on campus will be the easiest improvement to make, he noted.

Student Facilities

“We know we need to attend to student needs” by adding more public spaces geared to students, he said. The William Pitt Union is not functioning in that way today, he said: It is seen by most students as an administrative building.

“A lot of people thought there was a big opportunity around housing” for students, he added. In fact, student housing, on and off campus, was the No.1 issue at a community forum the previous evening. “There will be a need for future beds to house students on campus,” he added.

Relations with Oakland, Other Neighborhoods

“People see there is a bigger opportunity for Oakland, for the district, to come together and coalesce in a bigger way” through the master plan, Petersen said.

The master plan should also provide a chance for Pitt to improve its connections to the rest of the city, including its closest neighbors. Petersen noted that it is easier to move east and west from campus, to get to local highways and Pittsburgh’s downtown, than it is to move north to the Hill District or south to other adjacent city neighborhoods.

“The land to the north sometimes gets forgotten,” he said. He expects improvements in athletic facilities in the upper campus will provide new connections to the Hill.

“Not every need the University has, has to be met in Oakland,” he added, pointing to Pitt facilities scattered throughout the city, and to the fact that in and around campus are many valuable facilities owned by other local institutions or the city itself.

If the master plan engenders a more active University involvement in management of retail, streetscape and cleanliness in Oakland, as a whole, “we think there could be more of a stronger University presence here,” he said.

“Pitt’s got a lot of assets, a lot of strengths here,” Petersen concluded. “We need to capitalize on adjacencies.”


Marty Levine,, 412-758-4859


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