Pittsburgh City Council to rename Penn Circle

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To understand the confusing pentagon of streets that form Penn Circle, you have to go back more than five decades.

In 1960, the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority enacted an ambitious plan to stem the attrition of businesses from the once-vibrant business district to suburban malls. Half of the neighborhood was demolished and nearly 4,000 were displaced to construct the new vehicle-friendly district -- ringed by four one-way streets that formed Penn Circle. It included swaths of parking lots to accommodate the carloads of customers who would never really materialize.

At the time, "that was the wave of the future," said Justin Miller, a senior planner with the city who covers East Liberty. "Really what it did is that it made it easier to avoid the area."

Monday, a bill was introduced before Pittsburgh City Council to rename Penn Circle by changing the names to the streets that run contiguous with Penn Circle North, South, East and West -- which bends at Baum Boulevard. Mr. Miller said the name change, which was recommended by a committee that reviews new addresses to ensure there aren't duplicates, was decided when new businesses began applying for addresses along Penn Circle South. 

The address committee decided to rename the circle primarily out of concern that it would be confusing for first responders, because many businesses might have had the same numerical addresses as other establishments along Penn Avenue.

"For us, we have to look at things first in a functional way that contributes to improving public safety," he said.

PG graphic: Penn Circle renaming proposed
(Click image for larger version)

Under the proposal, Penn Circle South and East and Collins Street would all become part of Centre Avenue, extending that street to East Liberty Boulevard. Penn Circle North will become Station Street, extending that roadway several blocks. Penn Circle West will become a part of North Euclid Street, except for the portion that runs south of Penn Avenue, which will become South Euclid Street.

Councilman Ricky Burgess said the circle, as it was conceived, was not effective in retaining businesses. One study found the nearly 300 businesses displaced by construction left the area permanently.

"That one-way traffic problem was confusing and actually prohibited businesses from thriving," he said.

Mr. Miller said the Penn Circle concept makes even less sense now as a portion of it is two ways. There are plans underway to convert other sections of it into bidirectional roads, which he believes will encourage more development.

But he said the name change, too, closes a chapter on a well-intentioned development strategy that may have accelerated the departure of businesses from the area in the mid-1960s.

"We want to close that era," he said. "It conjures these really outdated mental images of this broken neighborhood."

With developments springing up, it's no longer an accurate picture. But this time, Mr. Miller said, the city hopes to get it right with developments that are pedestrian- and public transit-friendly.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. Twitter: @MoriahBee. First Published November 25, 2013 10:51 AM

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