Creative uses key to Market Square's appeal

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This project will require one year, at minimum, and maybe more. It will require proposals and counter-proposals, destruction and rebuilding. But the city's plan to transform Market Square into an attraction began last week with a foot-by-foot inspection of its light posts, its cobblestones and even the pigeon droppings that discolor both.

In recent years, Market Square has owed its legacy mostly to what hasn't happened: That proposed cineplex from 1998, for instance. Or that 2003 suggestion to limit traffic flow to one down-the-center path.

Until this past spring, talk did not give way to action. The square's charm was undercut by negligence -- cappuccino inside, but panhandlers outside; a farmer's market by day, but a ghost town by dark.

"In some ways it feels kind of creepy and unsafe," said Mike Edwards, president of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

So one afternoon last week, 75 citizen volunteers wandered through the square, inspecting its attributes, and attended a workshop aimed to revitalize Market Square.

The Fifth and Market District Strategic Development Plan -- a 30-page document, drafted by the Urban Design Associates group -- suggested months earlier that a new Market Square "concept" should be developed. In other words: Plan a public space that's better for people, worse for pigeons.

The notion formed a pillar in late Mayor Bob O'Connor's plan to reenergize the city. His death Sept. 1 left his hopes for Market Square in the hands of others. But those like Mr. Edwards agree with the former mayor's assessment -- that the square has an "old, tired" look.

The Tuesday night workshop was led by representatives from the Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit group specializing in the science of city areas. Before the volunteers walking into Market Square to analyze the space, they watched a slide show prepared by Kathy Madden, Project for Public Spaces senior vice president.

What did they learn? For one thing, civic squares have grown into a national trend -- even Detroit has one. A good civic area ought to have at least 10 attractions within. But they allow for creative uses; some of the best have children's play areas or mini-amphitheaters or kiosks. Copenhagen's features a spot for outdoor ballroom dancing. In general, they should provide space for special events, but they shouldn't host so many that folks walking through on an off-day feel a sense of emptiness.

"We've worked in places worse than this," Project for Public Spaces President Fred Kent told the chuckling crowd. "So you're already up a bit. But boy, could you go higher."

Market Square could become, Mr. Kent said, "the city's major destination."

Mr. Kent and his colleagues divided the volunteers into groups of five or six, then dispatched each group to 12 separate areas of Market Square. Each group was asked to analyze its area, brainstorming ideas for improvement.

Group 4 headed to the forlorn quadrant facing both the Original Oyster House and the vacant G.C. Murphy Co. building. A bus huffed by; two men sat on a ledge, shaded by trees.

"Look where we're standing," said Robert Rubenstein, the Urban Redevelopment Authority's director of economic development.

His point: He and the others were standing on a sea of cigarette butts, within eye shot of a discarded Coke can and right next to a trash receptacle caked at the top with gunk.

Someone commented that the trees made for a nice feature.

Another argued that they walled off the restaurants, including the Market Street Ale House, from the rest of the square.

"Where you say these trees are nice for shade," said Lorna Lyons, president of the May Building Council, "to me they're just a dark area where little ladies can get mugged at night. ... Until they do something about the homeless situation, it doesn't matter what you put here."

The group, like the others, returned to Mr. Kent with a notebook of suggestions: Better lighting, perhaps white, rather than yellow-tinted. Some outdoor seating. Maybe pitch to allow performing arts students to use the stage.

By Oct. 1, the Project for Public Spaces will compile the ideas into a recommendation for change. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and other involved groups will then sponsor a design competition.

Some early ideas, among the batch, were to create a traffic circle in place of the current windowpane street design, extend sidewalks to create more space for alfresco dining, or tailor the area more to potential residents, as the city aims to attract more Downtown dwellers.

"If we're looking at investing resources and dollars and time, Market Square is the best area," Mr. Edwards said. "It's a grand civic space that touches a lot of property. If we had a healthy civic space -- if you had a bustling Market Square with twinkling lights in the trees -- it would add value to the properties and sort of radiate out from there."


Chico Harlan can be reached at aharlan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1227.


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