Top 50: Visions for development haven't always turned out as planned

Allegheny Conference's focus continues to evolve

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It seemed like a good idea at the time.

"It" is whatever was being considered: the redevelopment of East Liberty, the Pittsburgh Downtown Heliport, Skybus.

There have been as many plans in the works as there have been years that Pittsburgh has been around. Some, such as the nearly complete demolition of the Fifth and Forbes corridor Downtown to be replaced by Nordstrom's and the House of Blues, did not come to pass.

Others, such as the redevelopment of the Beaver Avenue area in Manchester, did. The area, which had shops and housing that were deteriorating, was demolished. Route 65 was built up but the area never really took off.

"There was a small shopping center built and that didn't work out too well," said Robert Pease, who was executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority from the late 1950s up until 1968 when he moved to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

In those jobs, Mr. Pease was right in the thick of power and planning for the future of the region.

He still defends the redevelopment plan that lead to the construction of the four one-way streets that outlined Penn Center in East Liberty.

"It was a good plan given the time such plans were developed," he said of the 254 acres that were included in the redevelopment area. "It really didn't work out the way we thought it would."

He said what the URA did do for the area was get rid of some really bad buildings. The project started in 1957.

"If we didn't do what we did, what's going on now would not be going on now," he said. Then he added, "That's probably coming from a bit of sinful pride."

Now, with so many clear properties, he noted the whole Eastside development has taken off next to Whole Foods and the Bakery Square project is being built into the old Nabisco bakery.

The Allegheny Conference on Community Development archives are located in the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania Archives on the sixth floor of the Senator John Heinz History Center. There, in 377 boxes that take up 188 linear feet of shelf space, is the collection of every plan proposed for the region for 50 years.

The Allegheny Conference on Community Development started in 1943 as the Allegheny Conference on Post-War Community Planning. In 1944 it was incorporated and gained its current name.

The conference retains its influence because of its membership. From the very beginning it was made up of the leaders of business, industry and politics. And under the bylaws, the members could not send surrogates.

Back in the beginning, Mr. Pease said, there were just 21 members of the conference board and the items at the top of the agenda were flood control and smoke control.

When Mr. Pease, who is now 82, first came to Pittsburgh, he was a student at Carnegie Tech. It was 1946.

"I remember the winter of '47 or '48 being the last black, smoky winter," he said.

He said industry made a deal with the city that they would institute their own smoke controls if the city would also force homeowners to move away from coal burning furnaces to efficient coal furnaces or natural gas.

The difference was apparent right away, he said.

From the very beginning the conference was active in all levels of civic affairs. Early working committees included: economic problems; employment; health; housing, neighborhood development, land use and zoning; legislation; highways, mass transit and parking; refuse disposal and smoke and stream pollution abatement; research coordination; and cultural development.

The conference was involved in the redevelopments that led to Point State Park, Gateway Center, the Lower Hill District, Three Rivers Stadium, the USX Tower, Oxford Center and PPG Place.

The conference also was behind the Allegheny Center redevelopment.

"I still think Allegheny Center is one of the finest redevelopment projects in the country. I still think it's a great design," Mr. Pease said. "Something is going to happen with that mall."

And, though the mall is essentially empty, he said the offices and housing are all in use. The problem with building Allegheny Center was that the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., struck right in the middle of the project, leading middle class people to shy away from the townhouses that were being built there.

Despite all the building projects, Mr. Pease said what he is most proud of is the educational projects that were championed by the conference. Those, he said, were underway when the riots started.

"I was always proud of the business community for being out in front. Where other people were following, we were leading," he said.

Some plans for the city, such as the heliport that was championed by the planning department under Mayor Richard Caliguri and Skybus that Mayor Pete Flaherty wanted to see, were never implemented.

Another idea the conference encouraged was some sort of light rail between Oakland and Downtown. A 1973 report estimated the cost of the 2.5-mile line to be $142.6 million. Mr. Pease said he thinks that is still a good idea that probably will happen when there is the political will to make it work.

While there were just 21 members of the board when Mr. Pease was the executive director of the conference, today there are 300 chief executive officers of companies around the region involved.

Michael Langley, the current chief executive officer, said the consolidation of the conference with the Pennsylvania Economy League and the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce has changed the focus of the conference over the past eight years.

Currently the conference is involved in the planning of Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary celebration. It also is working to help bring down the cost of government, in part by trying to combine some of the region's multiple income tax collection systems into one and working to consolidate some of the 850 water and sewer management agencies that the region has in the 10 counties of the area.

As far as development is concerned, he said when we look back at the early part of this century we will see that "we are probably engaging now in what is the third renaissance of Pittsburgh."

And key to the region, he said, is the development of the area around the airport, which is being done in a cohesive way.

And, Mr. Langley added, the conference still supports a light rail system between Oakland and Downtown and would like that to run all the way to the airport.

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Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699.


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