Changes already taking shape near new Children's Hospital
April 5, 2009 4:45 AM
The new Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville is nearly ready to open next month.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On many of Bloomfield's side streets near the new Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, curbs and sidewalks are crumbling. Narrow homes seem to hunker, united by cable wires and pallid paint. In contrast, the new $625 million,10-acre feast of color-giddy geometry looms in every direction.
Leaving its Oakland location, Children's Hospital opens May 2 on several blocks where Lawrenceville looks across Penn Avenue at Bloomfield -- the former site of St. Francis Hospital.
The new Children's, which will hold a reservation-only community preview at 11 a.m. today, is also the latest and largest project in an explosion of development that has brought Garfield and Friendship stakeholders into a larger East End collaboration to prepare for it.
In the past two years, they've welcomed the new Children's Home of Pittsburgh, the Penn-Fairmount Apartments and the Glass Lofts, which combine condos, artists studios and office space. Construction is soon to begin on a multi-use development, including housing, on the site of the former East Mall high-rise, East Liberty's gateway on Penn Avenue.
Children's Hospital is more than a new neighbor, though. It is a transformative presence that has made some people excited, others apprehensive.
One merchant likened its impact to dropping Godzilla down in the middle of three dense neighborhoods.
The full sense of Children's 1.3 million-square-foot sweep is apparent from an overlook on Webster Avenue in the Hill District. The buildings lined up in its shadow look like a toy village.
The impact, however, is at street level.
That's a great thing to Brian Peltz, not so great for Heather Cunningham.
In January, Mr. Peltz opened the Lunchbox of Pittsburgh in a single-family home his family owns on 44th Street. The convenience store offers soups, sandwiches and prepared salads to go -- 16 feet from the emergency room entrance.
His family used to rent to residential tenants, Mr. Peltz said. But with Children's across the street, he saw a more profitable use for the house.
Sue Mazzotta, a pharmacy technician, has patronized the Lunchbox enough in her first four weeks of working at the new hospital that Mr. Peltz "already knows what I get on Fridays," she said.
Just two blocks away, Ms. Cunningham has been living with the nonstop drone of the hospital's exhaust fans since October.
One of her neighbors, Mark Lewandowski, called the constant soundtrack "white noise." He said he did not remember similar noise when St. Francis Hospital operated in the community.
"It's like you're living next to a mill," said Ms. Cunningham, who has complained about it to City Councilman Patrick Dowd and Lawrenceville stakeholder groups.
"I can hear them through my bedroom window, in my front yard, in my back yard," she said. "Of course we're all worried about traffic and ambulances at night, but that's a reasonable expectation when you live near a hospital. That hum is constant."
Mr. Lewandowski said he anticipates more traffic accidents and less chance for residents to park on the street unless they pay to obtain permit parking. The benefits will be "an increase in foot traffic along Penn," he said, "maybe some cool eateries and quaint smoke/lottery shops.
"I do hope we can all get along," he said. "The residents, new and old school, have made such great strides in the past 10-15 years."
He said Eric Hess, the hospital's vice president and project executive, "has been wonderful, a great liaison and always available for our block watch. He has tried to answer our questions and concerns."
Mr. Hess, who published his phone number in a neighborhood newspaper to encourage feedback, said he knows "pretty much when things are an issue."
He has held numerous community meetings and visited neighborhood councils and block watch groups.
To address the drone of the exhaust fans, he said he has had acoustical consultants and engineers study the problem. He said he is encouraged that sound attenuators installed on bypass air inlets may resolve the problem.
During construction, he said some people criticized the hospital for wasting energy when construction lights were on.
"One or two people said we shouldn't have so many lights on," he said. "We had headlights from one of our garages shine into the second floor of somebody's house. We did work on that to make sure it did not happen.
"We have no intention of being a nuisance. There might be things we can't control," he said.
Among those things: the pounding throb of helicopters that transport critically ill patients to the hospital's roof, he said.
"But the primary flight path goes away from the community and over [Allegheny] cemetery," he said. "A second thing is, we invested in a parking pad on the roof," so one helicopter doesn't have to be moved if the second one comes in.
One of the biggest concerns of residents is parking.
Hospital employees who work weekdays cannot park on the hospital's campus. The hospital has provided a 1,500-car lot near the Allegheny River between 55th and 57th streets and a shuttle for employees, but residents said they expect many employees instead will try to park on streets closer to the hospital.
Neighborhood stakeholder groups said their members believe Children's will be a mostly positive presence. Ms. Cunningham said she is "happy to see new businesses open."
So far, though, the Penn-Main district is not bustling with new business. A prime corner property at Penn and Main is vacant, as are a former smoke shop down the street and several former retail spaces.
"It seems like a lot of people are waiting to see what will happen before making a leap," said Maya Haptas, business district manager for the nonprofit Lawrenceville Corp., which manages the Penn-Main Business District Association. "Parking is a problem right around in there."
Real estate developer Phil Spano is the Penn-Main association's chair.
"Businesses may be waiting to see what will happen rather than step out there with a speculative investment," he said. "But it's going to be a very exciting and fast-paced time over the next few months."
One longtime business owner is delighted to be in the mix. At the Penn-Main intersection, Wilson's Pharmacy has been in business for almost 70 years.
Third-generation owner Jeff Wilson said his family's business has "hung in there" as chains have doomed one mom-and-pop pharmacy after another. The neighborhood has supported him, "pretty much the same since St. Francis left," he said. The pharmacy sells typical items, from greeting cards to heat wraps, eyeglasses and candy. It also sells milk and a few groceries, but Mr. Wilson plans to expand his inventory further.
He remembers from his boyhood days that the pharmacy sold children's books.
"We're going to carry them again," he said, "and we want to carry some toys and magnetic games kids can play in bed, and toys you don't find in gift shops, where toys tend to be expensive."
Other merchants also are thinking a lot about children these days, and about parents and siblings who wait and get tired of waiting in the hospital.
"We're telling our businesses to cater to these people, such as making a quick lunch menu," said Karla Owens, Bloomfield's Main Streets manager. Some businesses are considering providing shuttles to the hospital to attract customers, she said.
Mr. Spano said Children's is "the first development I can remember where you take a very large entity and put it in a very densely populated inner-city area. There's a lot of anxiety and apprehension, and rightfully so."
"Residents have gotten a chance to express their concerns," said Mr. Spano, "but I call this a work in progress. You're not going to know until the helicopter comes in what the noise level will be.
"Thriving areas don't come without headaches," he said. "I would rather deal with them than have blight and no development."