Pittsburgh kicks off Market Square reconstruction

City decides to close whole square so project can be completed by next summer

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Barriers went up. Trees came down. Lunchtime in Market Square won't be the same for quite some time.

A $5 million reconstruction of the city's oldest public square kicked into gear yesterday, forcing outdoor diners to converse over the din of construction equipment and testing the patience of merchants worried about the impact on their businesses.

The long-awaited renovation began with a last-minute change, as the city scrapped plans to redo each of the square's four quadrants one at a time for an all-at-once approach with a goal to "work as hard and as fast as we can to make the square an even better destination for residents, visitors and families," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said.

With the start of construction, Forbes Avenue through the square closed, as did the streets on the south side near Primanti Bros. and Starbucks Coffee. Streets on the north side remained open, allowing traffic to get around the square and back onto Forbes.

Fences blocked off the square's quadrants where construction started yesterday.

While pedestrians and diners were pinched for space in some places, all sidewalks and businesses were open and will remain so throughout the project.

"Access to the businesses will not be jeopardized," said Megan Stearman, spokeswoman for the city Urban Redevelopment Authority, which is spearheading the construction.

The revised plan should help "speed up the process" to get the work done by next summer, said Hollie Geitner, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

But the plan already has forced one change: The Thursday Farmer's Market will move from Market Square to Gateway Plaza between Gateway Two and the Hilton Pittsburgh this week and will remain there through December.

Nick Nicholas, owner of Nicholas Coffee, said the intent of the revised plan is to cause the least amount of disruption for merchants over the shortest period. Still, he knows it won't be easy.

"It's going to be painful, but anything we do is going to be painful," he said.

He has seen business at Primanti's, which he co-owns, double over the past few years but expects that momentum "to be stopped in its tracks" with the work.

"Overall, we're optimistic. Unfortunately, to get from here to there you have to go through this construction," he said.

Sergio Muto, owner of La Gondola Pizzeria and Restaurant, said his lunchtime business yesterday already was slower than usual.

"I'm pretty sure we're going to be slow for a long time. Every time there's construction, it's going to keep people away. But maybe the end result will be positive. We'll just have to wait and see," he said.

However, Mike Geiger, co-owner of Moe's Southwest Grill, one of the square's newer restaurants, said his business was "just as good as any other summer Monday."

While he expects some impact from the construction, he does not think it will be huge. He likes the idea of doing the square all at once.

"From my perspective, it seemed to be the wiser of the alternatives to take the hit at one time and be ready to go next summer," he said.

To lessen the impact, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership is looking at creating specials and coupons to help businesses during the work. It also plans to provide construction updates in places like Facebook.

The square's trees, which will be replaced in the makeover, were the first thing to go yesterday. Scott Reeves of Bellevue didn't like it.

"They're ruining shade trees that give this place a lot of character," he said. "They're just running roughshod over the whole place."

But another visitor, Wilder Bancroft of the West End, liked the idea of change.

"I think new stuff is always cool," he said. "In Pittsburgh, we fall into the old way is best mentality. For younger people, new stuff is cool."

As part of the renovations, the square will be leveled to give it more of a European piazza feel and to make it more pedestrian friendly. There will be expanded outdoor cafe seating, new landscaping and trees, and new lighting.

Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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