Architecture Neighborhoods

New plans for Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District – how will this unfold

Courtesy of BIG

News broke that Danish architecture firm BIG unveiled its masterplan for the Lower Hill District, the site of the former Civic Arena. The new plan covers 28 acres of area and will feature sloped-roof buildings, housing units, and an extensive network of pathways that will connect the Hill District to downtown.

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BIG is working with landscape architecture firm West 8, sustainability experts Atelier Ten, and local firm La Quatra Bonci Associates.

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“The masterplan for the Lower Hill District is created by supplementing the existing street grid with a new network of parks and paths shaped to optimize the sloping hill side for human accessibility for all generations. The paths are turned and twisted to always find a gentle sloping path leading pedestrians and bicyclists comfortably up and down the hillside. The resulting urban fabric combines a green network of effortless circulation with a quirky character reminiscent of a historical downtown. Topography and accessibility merging to create a unique new part of Pittsburgh.” —Bjarke Ingels, Founding Partner, BIG.

Wylie Avenue and Townsend Street

Wylie Avenue and Townsend Street

The Hill, or “Little Harlem” as it was referred to from the ’30s thru the ’50s, was one of the elite African-American neighborhoods in America. The Hill District was once home to playwright August Wilson, the Granada Theatre, The Crawford Grill, a vibrant jazz scene and the only Black-owned baseball stadium.

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Crawford Grill, photo by Charles “Teenie” Harris

In 1956, demolitions began to clear land for the Civic Arena and dozens of streets were leveled. Some 8,000 residents lost their homes, and the arena broke the connection between the lower Hill District and downtown. The neighborhood and people became an afterthought.

Charles “Teenie” Harris with protesters holding signs outside Civic Arena, Lower Hill District, October 1961. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

Charles “Teenie” Harris with protesters holding signs outside Civic Arena, Lower Hill District, October 1961. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

Charles “Teenie” Harris, Crystal Barber Shop and Crystal Billiard Parlor, with clock reading 2:25, Wylie Avenue, Hill District, c. 1941–1946, black and white: Agfa Safety Film, Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund, © 2006 Teenie Harris Archive

Charles “Teenie” Harris, Crystal Barber Shop and Crystal Billiard Parlor. Wylie Avenue, Hill District, 1941–1946. Agfa Safety Film, Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund, © 2006 Teenie Harris Archive

Charles “Teenie” Harris, Exterior of the Loendi Club, 83 Fullerton Avenue, Hill District, July 1946, black and white: Agfa Safety Film, Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund, © 2006 Teenie Harris Archive

Charles “Teenie” Harris, Exterior of the Loendi Club, 83 Fullerton Avenue, Hill District, July 1946, black and white: Agfa Safety Film, Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund, © 2006 Teenie Harris

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Mayor Bill Peduto said: “This announcement is not just about developing. It’s about how adding on to what we have, which is already incredibly special, and building something for the next 50 years. By bringing BIG in, we’re taking that next big step on these 28 acres, and we’re looking at a way of not just building buildings there.”

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“BIG’s masterplan seeks to become a catalyst for future investment into the Hill District, moving beyond the standard sustainability solutions and reversing a tendency to vacate, and instead to refocus and reinvest into building a strong community,” said Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner at BIG.

For years there have been talks to revitalize this neighborhood. It’s slowly been happening but my hopes are they keep the community in mind as they move forward with this much development. One of my favorite architectural writers Charles Rosenblum wrote an interesting piece in the City Paper asking the question “Are new plans for the Lower Hill for building, or for show?” This is a great question. Will it be another East Liberty where we evict people that can’t afford a $2,000 a month condo? Or have we learned anything from this? I’m interested to see how things will actually unfold for this community.

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