People connector: A park over Crosstown Blvd. is worth a look

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If you build it, they will come — but it would be better if they could come on foot. That’s the idea behind a proposed pedestrian-only deck that would go over Crosstown Boulevard and improve access between Downtown and the lower Hill District.

The Sports & Exhibition Authority decided last week to spend $1.1 million on preliminary design work, with most of it coming from a federal grant. The proposed span, which the SEA hopes would eventually be a park with pedestrian walkways, would run from just below Washington Place to Chatham Street, behind the building that contains the DoubleTree hotel. An early cost estimate of $27 million for the project is only an educated guess at this point; the first step is figuring out how to engineer and construct it, which will determine the price tag.

The proposed deck is part of a larger plan to rebuild a grid of streets on land formerly occupied by the Civic Arena. The construction of that facility, which opened in 1961, eliminated a city neighborhood and, along with Crosstown Boulevard’s portion of Interstate 579, became a barrier between the city’s business core and the Hill. Re-establishing that connection is important, but the deck project isn’t a priority yet.

The priority now is advancing the residential, office and commercial complex that the Pittsburgh Penguins are to develop on the 28-acre arena site. The SEA has a big role to play; it previously agreed to pay for infrastructure improvements, but it hasn’t yet secured all of the funding necessary. It has $15 million in state dollars and it hopes to win another $18 million in the form of a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant.

The SEA failed to win the so-called TIGER funding in the last round, but it will file a new application later this month.

If it is successful, some of the money could be used for the park-over-a-deck, but that is secondary. The SEA has taken a prudent step in authorizing the preliminary design work, but it must be cautious in deciding when, or whether, to pursue the project and how much to spend on it.

First, start building on the arena site; then give them a better way to come.

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