More than 20 years ago, my design professor shared a story from Frank Lloyd Wright's trips to Pittsburgh. When asked for suggestions to improve Pittsburgh, Wright answered, "Abandon it!" As young, soon-to-be architects determined to design (or redesign) the world, we chuckled in agreement with Wright's suggestion.
Now, as a Pittsburgh resident and business owner, I am no longer laughing when I think of this quote. Daily, I discover and learn about this amazing American city, a place with a story that is captivating and complete with bold and resourceful individuals who transformed challenges into magnificent opportunities.
In the 19th and early 20th century, the Pittsburgh region was at the heart of a revolution that changed the entire world and, at the same time, generated unparalleled amounts of wealth. With great wealth came great innovation in technology, engineering, culture and architecture. The result of this prosperity was a region blessed with a treasure trove of some of the finest examples of architecture and infrastructure that that period had to offer.
One such example is the 1,500-foot-long facade of The Pennsylvania Fruit Auction and Sales building. This building, also known as the Produce Terminal, is one of the most character-defining structures in Pittsburgh's beloved Strip District. Built in the late 1920s, it served as the heart of the city's growing wholesale produce business that eventually replaced the industrial buildings that had preceded it.
Although in recent years the Produce Terminal has been underutilized, the neighborhood as a whole has retained its character as an eclectic, industrious and engaging market district. The Strip District could not have been designed or even planned. It could only be realized by allowing the neighborhood to grow over time, accumulating bits of its own history along the way. The environment found in the Strip today exemplifies what we believe to be one of Pittsburgh's greatest qualities -- it is authentic.
This authenticity is attractive to many. Did Google's managers choose a new, high-tech office building when it opened in Pittsburgh? No. They decided their creative culture would be better served in the vast open spaces of the 100-year-old former Nabisco plant. Downtown, we are witnessing a migration into the city by empty-nesters, young professionals and others who want to live in lofts that were once office buildings, warehouses or churches. Even the SouthSide Works, though a new development, was conceived in such a way as to integrate seamlessly into the historic fabric of the neighborhood.
Instead of thinking of these old structures as obstacles in the way of progress, we might instead consider our good fortune that our history provided us with an abundant offering of unique architectural resources. This type of thinking not only contradicts the notion that historic structures are in the way of supporting successful developments, but rather that they are the secret ingredient that helps produce developments that are successful and sustainable.
To introduce a 50-acre-plus development into a neighborhood, especially the Strip neighborhood, as proposed by the Buncher Co., is a delicate matter that should be resolved with considerable community input. This is why the directors of Preservation Pittsburgh were appalled to learn that, without informing the public or actually owning the building, the Buncher Co. had begun the formal process to demolish one-third of the Produce Terminal. This application process occurred despite the misgivings of city council members Patrick Dowd and Bill Peduto, several organizations and many concerned individuals, who urged Buncher Co. to engage in a transparent process that was open to community input.
As an advocacy organization, we at Preservation Pittsburgh felt duty-bound to assist in the nomination of the Produce Terminal as a city historic structure. As the developer and the URA were unwilling to be open and collaborative, our only option was to file for the designation, which won preliminary approval from the Historic Review Commission last month and which would make it much harder for Buncher to follow through on its plans. This process will provide the forum necessary for a productive discourse about the Produce Terminal and the future of the Strip District.
We at Preservation Pittsburgh offer no design solutions nor do we presume that we know what is best for the Strip District. On the contrary, we believe that the most creative solutions come from broad participation of all stakeholders and the creation of a collective vision. Because the future of the Strip District is at stake, we sincerely hope that this important step will allow for a much-needed open discussion and that all those Pittsburghers who value this neighborhood as much as we do will feel empowered to participate.
There are still wonderful solutions yet to be discovered. All that is needed are open minds and a willingness to work together.
Peter Margittai is president of Preservation Pittsburgh and principal at Peter Margittai Architects (email@example.com). First Published August 25, 2013 4:00 AM