(Re)pass the note | Landscape Architecture Magazine


At the University of Pittsburgh, a full street crowns a series of student-centric outdoor spaces.

By Timothy A. Schuler

North of the student union, a new permeable plaza provides space for events as well as informal gatherings. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

In the mid-1950s, the burgeoning University of Pittsburgh acquired two historic properties: the Schenley Hotel, built in 1898, and the Schenley Apartments, built between 1922 and 1924. The buildings were renovated to serve as dormitories, and later, in the hotel’s case, a student union, but the spaces around them have been left largely untouched, updated over the years to meet local codes, but otherwise little thought out.

In 2015, the parking lot under the old apartments, now known as Schenley Quadrilateral, began to leak and, as is so often the case, it took a failure of underground infrastructure to trigger a re-examination of what was happening on the surface.

There weren’t many. Students circled the areas between the five residence halls via narrow brick-paved porticoes that ran alongside wide vehicle roundabouts with paid parking around the edges. Ad hoc accessibility measures, such as temporary ramps between grade-separated courtyards, have failed to create sufficient connectivity, or even meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

A contentious intersection in the middle of a block became an opportunity to redesign the streetscape that connected the campus and the neighborhood. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

The university hired landscape architects from LaQuatra Bonci Associates (LBA) to study the exterior spaces of Schenley Quad and develop pedestrian-oriented alternatives. Although some students were concerned about the loss of parking and their preferred rideshare pickup and drop-off points, a 2018 campus-wide survey found that overall the student body wanted more. of open space on campus. As LBA sketched out potential schemes for the quad, however, another piece of vehicular infrastructure near the historic center of campus emerged as its own problem.

The Schenley buildings are separated from the 42 floors of Pitt Cathedral of learning– arguably the gateway to campus – by Bigelow Boulevard, a four-lane urban street about 100 feet wide. Over the years, the students’ use of an unsignaled crosswalk in the middle of a block had become a flashpoint between the university and the surrounding community. “Twenty-seven thousand people cross this street every day,” including about 10,000 students in the middle of the block, says Ron Leibow, director of capital projects at the university. The street design was dangerous for students and chaotic for drivers, he says. “Frankly, it’s been a bit of a toxic space. Our children are in college. They don’t care about traffic. They cross whenever they want.

The new intermediate level crossing establishes an axis between the cathedral of learning and the student union. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

Some community members wanted the mid-level crossing removed. Others have suggested that the university take over the street, removing it from the city’s network altogether. Dan McDowell, senior partner at LBA and lead designer on the project, describes the existing conditions as a game of Frogger. University leaders knew they had to do something. “We need[ed] to improve pedestrian safety on this street,” says Leibow. “It is our responsibility to create a safe place to move around.”

As community tensions erupted, the university asked LBA to develop a more comprehensive plan for outdoor spaces connecting the historic core of campus, including the passage on Bigelow Boulevard. In doing so, the landscape architects saw an opportunity to redesign the entire sequence from Schenley Quad to the Cathedral of Learning.

The original crossing. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

The result, built in phases and completed in December 2020, is a series of interconnected, people-focused plazas and courtyards that bring cohesion to a once disconnected landscape at the heart of campus. In Schenley Quad, metered parking bays and vehicle drop-off areas have been replaced with paved pedestrian plazas, curved concrete benches, movable tables and small islands of green space. Prominently placed new ramps – precisely sized to accommodate the huge blue carts used on move-in day – alleviate previous accessibility issues.

North of the student union, LBA raised the entire ground plane 18 inches to incorporate new stormwater and energy infrastructure and reduce the grade change between the entrance and the landscape. Punctuated by pops of colorful planting, a wide oval-shaped plaza — ovals are a motif in the new spaces — has permeable pavers to handle 3,500 cubic feet of stormwater while hosting existing events, like a farmer’s market weekly.

Landscaping improvements enhance existing traffic lanes, as seen here in an early sketch. Image courtesy LBA.

A newly created terrace adjacent to an existing Starbucks, with high bar seating and charging stations, overlooks the plaza and allows for outdoor study. “The student has changed dramatically in 15 years,” says Leibow. “They have everything in their backpack, and when the weather is nice, they want to leave a building and have nice spaces to check their emails.”

Parking spaces and impermeable surfaces have been replaced with spaces for pedestrians, as well as prominent ramps to ensure accessibility. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

From the plaza, the new landscape features spill out around the Student Union facade, marrying outdoor spaces west of Bigelow with a complete new street along the boulevard between Forbes and Fifth Avenues. With protected bike lanes, redesigned bus stops, and rain gardens that span nearly the entire length of the block and manage an additional 5,150 cubic feet of stormwater runoff, the complete street is one of the first to be built since the Pittsburgh City Council passed a Complete Streets Policy in 2016.

For students, the most important feature is a speed table in the middle of the block, which raises the crosswalk and, with the help of impenetrable-looking concrete planters, naturally slows traffic. LBA also moved the crossing from the central block to a new axis that runs from the front of the Student Union to the steps of the Cathedral of Learning, establishing a new, more prominent connection between the buildings.

Parking spaces and impermeable surfaces have been replaced with spaces for pedestrians, as well as prominent ramps to ensure accessibility. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

Jeremy Brown, project manager at LBA, explains that the idea of ​​completely dismantling the street and putting it back together came about during the design process, during which the team sought to address the crossing while improving the existing cycle paths and by managing rainwater. “It kind of grew and grew and grew, and at one point someone said, ‘We’re doing a full street; let’s look at it as a complete street and make sure we don’t miss any little corners,” Brown says.

Built through a public-public partnership between the university and the city, the $24 million upgrade was seen as a way to improve pedestrian safety while delivering on the city’s commitment to build safe streets for all users.

For LBA, the success of the project is a reminder that universities located in dense urban environments can still find ways to create new spaces for students. “They are harder to find [and] harder to navigate logistically,” says Brown. “But with good leadership, especially from the university, spaces can be found and created.”

Timothy A. Schuler is an award-winning journalist and magazine editor. He lives in Honolulu.


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