Pittsburgh's new planning director Ray Gastil brings New York and Seattle experience to town

Ray Gastil was a kid when his parents moved to Seattle from its suburbs. It was the ’70s, before Seattle was happening, and city leaders were considering demolishing the Pike Place Market.

His parents weren’t urban pioneers. They chose a leafy neighborhood with tennis courts. But they lived near a bus line, and Mr. Gastil, Pittsburgh’s new planning director, recalls riding the bus and his bike with a level of independence unknown to most suburban kids.

His appreciation for urban amenities informed his career choices, and he still gets around on his bike. The acting planning director since April 4, Mr. Gastil, 55, pedals to work Downtown from temporary digs on the South Side, and anticipates moving to Lawrenceville this month.

City Council confirmed his appointment unanimously Tuesday. His salary is $100,889.

Pittsburgh piqued Mr. Gastil’s interest during a two-year professorship at Penn State University a few years ago. One student’s project, a proposed reuse of the Iron City Brewery, inspired him to make the trip to see it.

“What I learned in Pittsburgh was that it has this stock of historic buildings and that it was attractive to my most ambitious students,” he said. “There was stuff going on that made them excited about Pittsburgh.”

Having been the planning director in Seattle and Manhattan, Mr. Gastil, who is single, completed a brief teaching turn at the University of California at Berkeley last fall and applied to be Pittsburgh’s planning director.

Susan Jones, an architect in Seattle, remembers when Mr. Gastil was hired in 2008 to be that city’s planning director. She had read his book, “Beyond the Edge: New York’s New Waterfront,” she said, “and I was thrilled.”

She later worked with Mr. Gastil and they shared offices when he left the director’s post to start his own consultancy firm.

“I visited Pittsburgh for the first time last month,” she said. “We did a two-day tour. He already had a grasp of the neighborhoods. I see a powerful future in Pittsburgh, and it’s fortunate Ray has that amazing city to work with.”

Mr. Gastil has aesthetic design, waterfronts, bike infrastructure, preservation and parks to consider, but nitty-gritty issues go with the job, too. One target will be to integrate zoning, planning and historic review processes when possible to lessen the public’s frustration in maneuvering the system. 

”We’re going to improve the customer experience and make sure the zoning process fits into this century,“ he said.

Like most cities on an arcing trajectory, Pittsburgh is planning and implementing transit and bicycle infrastructure to connect with development. But the full measure of the city’s portion of bicycle commuters needs more analysis, he said.  

“We have 1.4 percent overall, but I want to find out what it is in summer. We are working now on plans for protected lanes Downtown and through Schenley Park. There has to be continuing education“ about bicycles as part of the traffic mix. ”What will change the culture is a critical mass of riders.“

After graduating from Yale University with a degree in literature, Mr. Gastil wrote for weekly newspapers in Seattle before accepting a position with architect Robert A. M. Stern’s ”Pride of Place“ project -- a book and a television documentary. Afterward, he went to Princeton University for his master’s in architecture.

He said he learned to be a planner while working for the Regional Plan Association of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, ”an incredible experience“ that included international travel.

He went on to be the founding executive director of the Van Alen Institute in New York, an architectural inquiry and educational think tank that, he said, ”worked internationally, using New York as the tool for raising the bar architecturally.“ 

After Sept. 11, 2001, he chaired the Memorials Committee for the New York New Visions project, a group of architects, design professionals and civic leaders who worked pro bono to plan the rebuilding of lower Manhattan.

From 2005 to 2008, Mr. Gastil directed the Manhattan section of the New York City Planning Department.

Richard Barth, executive director of that department, said among Mr. Gastil’s successes was oversight of an entire rezoning of 125th Street in Harlem, ”a major accomplishment and incredibly challenging given the expanse of the corridor and the number of interests. It helped retain the character of the place with a particular sensitivity,“ connecting retail and affordable housing to a transit hub.

”Ray has the authority to articulate ideas, to think creatively and listen carefully to what people have to say,“ he said. 

Pittsburgh lured Mr. Gastil in part because of its planning legacy through several revitalization periods.

Like Seattle, Pittsburgh is learning the economic value of what makes it unique. Pike Place Market was not torn down. Ten million people visit it every year. Seattle’s Pioneer Square went from being a don’t-go-there target of urban renewal to an historic district of art galleries, restaurants, cafes and book stores.

”Seattle started happening when adaptive reuse was a new idea,“ he said. In Pittsburgh, Station Square was an early adaptive reuse of a railroad hub. ”Think of how innovative that was, that after a place stopped being one thing it could be something else.“

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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