It’s the classic story of industry moving on to greener pastures at the same time that suburban flight takes off. Pittsburgh politicians and notables tried everything they could think of to keep the loss of jobs and residents from increasing. Despite their efforts, the city’s population plummeted over the next several decades.
Today, planners and officials often cringe at the mention of the “Urban Renewal” of the 1950s and ’60s. The “bad” judgement applied by their earlier counterparts in efforts to keep the city attractive is an easy scapegoat for the problems of the intervening decades. The people in charge today are doing “good” work by erasing the “mistakes” of the past: tearing down the crime-ridden high rises and replacing them with newly constructed mid-rises and townhomes, returning one-way ring roads to two-way traffic, rebuilding a neighborhood torn down for the sake of a grand civic project only partially deployed, etc.
This rhetoric is seductive. “Urban renewal was evil” is a catchy phrase. It is easy to point the finger and blame what is visible for the effects caused by complicated invisible factors. Yet underneath all this rhetoric and finger pointing there are examples of Urban Renewal success stories in Pittsburgh.
ALCOA is one of Pittsburgh’s highly successful homegrown industrial companies. When it threatened to move its headquarters to New York City in the 1950s, Richard King Mellon and the Mellon Foundation instigated the creation of a package that kept ALCOA in town. ALCOA finally moved its “headquarters” to NYC in 2006, but 11 years later it returned to Pittsburgh. In fact, this was only the executive headquarters with less than 100 staff. ALCOA still continued to have operational headquarters in Pittsburgh throughout that time.
The 1950s package deal that induced ALCOA to stay was a new office building, garage, and public plaza known as Mellon Square. Not only did this succeed in persuading the company to stay, thereby retaining jobs in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, but the plaza recently underwent a $10 million refresh.
Today, Mellon Square is a gem as an outdoor lunchtime retreat downtown. Unlike Market Square and Mellon Park, it is usually possible even during peak lunchtime to find a seat in Mellon Square, either in the shade of trees or buildings or basking in the sun. Seats near the centerpiece fountain may be wet, especially if it’s a particularly windy day, but there are also seats in more hidden away areas. On different days of the week, there might be a Farmers Market, yoga or other outdoor exercise, or live music to enjoy as well.
When enjoying the ambiance on top, it is easy to forget that there is a parking garage underneath. This garage continues to serve downtown visitors and workers. As the parking levels go down below ground instead of stacking up into the air, it brings less blight to the urban landscape than most other downtown garages. During the 1950s when the idea of car as king was being imprinted in the city’s design through its new ring roads and new Zoning Code, it is amazing to me that Mellon’s team had the insight to say let’s hide the cars out of the way, underground.