The June 29, 2009, post in Hyde Park Progress took a look at Ann Arbor, Michigan with regard to the retail/commercial scene that serves the University of Michigan and neighboring area, and compared it with the University of Chicago/Hyde Park situation. Another place to look is the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. There’s an east-west strip of Forbes Ave. between Murray and Shady Ave., and an abutting strip of Murray Ave., south of Forbes. The area is a few blocks east of the Carnegie-Mellon/University of Pittsburgh complex. In what follows, I look at Forbes/Murray in relation to Hyde Park’s 53rd Street. I base this solely on visits to Pittsburgh over the past few weeks.
There are differences in the two settings. Forbes/Murray is wholly commercial, while 53rd is primarily commercial, with some residential property and a park. Forbes/Murray has several city bus routes, while 53rd has none. Package alcohol sales in Pittsburgh are restricted to “official” wine & spirits stores, while Chicago has no such restriction; and Squirrel Hill appears to be less diverse than Hyde Park.
However, there is enough similarity between Forbes/Murray and 53rd Street to draw some comparisons. Both are roughly the same distance from campus; both commercial strips are about a half mile long; both are in the middle of large old cities; both have wide sidewalks, two driving lanes, two metered parking lanes, and a shortage of parking; buildings are predominantly older two/three story structures.
The most striking difference is the level of store occupancy and activity. Even during the summer school break, Forbes/Murray bursts with life. I noticed no vacant storefronts. During good weather, the wide sidewalks on Forbes are dotted with outdoor café seating and store merchandise. Forbes/Murray is a magnet, drawing people of all ages from other areas, while 53rd is just there. It is almost impossible to imagine the Pittsburgh neighborhood tolerating the kind of interference and obstructionism that has stifled commercial life on 53rd Street. [Yeah, yeah, I know many people will take issue with my use of “interference and obstructionism.” I don’t care; that’s what it has been.]
At this point, there is no alternative but to proceed with the planning efforts regarding 53rd Street, including Harper Court. But look how long they are taking, with years yet to go before any construction will be completed. I don’t disagree with planning, but 53rd Street is wallowing in it. Some of it has been a delaying tactic by locals. While 53rd Street languishes -- to the delight of those who have stifled things in the name of preventing “congestion” or “density” or whatever -- Forbes/Murray thrives and is a true asset to the neighborhood, the universities, and the city of Pittsburgh.
Speaking of “congestion,” most the arguments bemoaning it on commercial streets are baloney. There can’t be stores and restaurants without people, and there won’t be people without good auto access. That’s just the way it is. Forbes/Murray has some congestion, and it is good. The streets aren’t choked with traffic, but they are full of cars and buses. Traffic doesn’t make the streets any more dangerous than, say, the present 53rd or 57th Streets. Yes, traffic moves a bit more slowly if there’s a lot of it, but that’s safer for pedestrians crossing the street. With signals and stop signs, people readily make the crossings.
On Forbes, there are mid-block pedestrian crossings, marked and signed. Further, traffic signal cycles have three phases: (1) north-south vehicles (no pedestrians), (2) east-west vehicles (no pedestrians), (3) pedestrians only. Phases 1 and 2 eliminate pedestrian-caused delays to turning vehicles. Phase 3 enables pedestrians to cross diagonally, allowing cater-corner crossings in a single move. It really works, and drivers in Pittsburgh are no more polite than those in Chicago. So Forbes/Murray attracts people, while we have 57th Street that you can’t get to, and 53rd that has insufficient reason to get to.
Sure, the slow economy contributes to 53rd Street’s lethargy, but it’s not the cause. Maybe I’m being a bit simplistic and bombastic in this essay, but dontcha' get tired of other places having nice stuff, while we Hyde Park slog through molasses? When all the planning and fiddling is done, the result won’t be materially better than a more streamlined process founded on good zoning instead of micromanagement would have already produced.