Public merits a cozy spot among private properties

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A cherished leafy oasis in the Golden Triangle, Mellon Green, has been fenced off all summer. It's on the disabled list after damage from the Occupy Pittsburgh protests last winter.

Jerry Kennedy, owner-operator of Red Hot Pittsburgh, the Grant Street hot dog stand at the curb, said he'd like to send the bill for the park's restoration to whatever lawyer defended the Occupy protesters.


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Brian O'Neill's book, "The Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the Twenty-first Century," is available in the PG store.

It's hard to sell hot dogs when people don't have a place to sit down, and right now Mellon Green ain't. Green, I mean. Flower beds bloom at its edges, but they're a tease, bordering the sloped, grassless expanse within cyclone fencing. Restoration work is supposed to begin later this month, but this will be a lost summer for one of the city's finest outdoor rooms.

If great cities are a collection of small jewels, and enjoyable days are a collection of small moments, we need to make sure we don't lose places that ease the stress of workaday life. The Occupy protesters damaged the park, and BNY Mellon says it will spend close to $500,000 on the restoration.

That seems awfully high for grass seed, but engineers were called in to repair the irrigation system and architects spawned a new, city-approved design that includes gates and chains to take the "occupy'' out of any future protests.

Don Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, spends a lot of his time worrying about places like Mellon Green. He's been seeing partial take-backs in privately owned public spaces, known in his architectural trade as "POPS.'' He pointed me to a national group that is trying to catalog and nurture these places.

I can't brown-bag in Boston or nosh in New York, so I'm concerned only about Pittsburgh POPS. We have some great ones, such as PPG Plaza and its seasonal fountain/skating rink centerpiece that lures so many laughing young faces. The flip side of that addition a decade ago was a more recent fencing in Gateway Plaza by a now-defunct restaurant, an amputation that blocks a Liberty Avenue entrance and interrupts traditional pedestrian flow.

It's those sorts of moves that irk Mr. Carter, but this is tricky ground. As signage so often reminds us, it's private property. The city requires that a percentage of large developments be open to "relieve pedestrian congestion'' and "provide passive recreation space,'' but that doesn't cover Mellon Green.

"Mellon Green was a gift to the city,'' Mr. Carter acknowledges, as the open space requirements for the BNY Mellon building were fulfilled by the plaza on its southern, courthouse side.

It will be nice to see this gift unwrapped again. Flanked by the city's tallest skyscrapers, it sits far enough away to let in plenty of sunlight. For people taking a break from work, it works.

Mr. Carter keeps an eye out for other takings, and he noticed that gates have been put up outside EQT Plaza. Formerly known as CNG Tower and then Dominion Tower, this building changes names as often as Sean "Puff Daddy/P. Diddy" Combs, but its plaza remains an urban refuge. The gates were wide open Thursday afternoon and dozens of diners and readers found places on the chairs and benches, enjoying the sun. So no harm, no foul, there.

More than 30 years ago, the anthropologist William H. Whyte wrote "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,'' which debunked the myth that cities are crowded. They're crowded at choke points like subway entrances and bus stops, sure, but squares and plazas give us enough space to mingle, to play well with others, to share in the buzz of a city without it feeling like a buzz-saw.

On the other side of the Omni William Penn from Mellon Green is Mellon Square, given to the city by Richard King Mellon in the '50s. Much of it is also fenced off, with a sign attached that carries the lie that the first phase of reconstruction should be complete by the spring of 2012. Oops.

It seems to be an off season for Mellons.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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