Allegheny Center: a long history of redevelopment


Over coffee at The Victory the other day, Sam Cammarata and I were talking about the various thoughts and reactions Northside folks had concerning the construction of the Allegheny Center complex.

Sam, one of the team of bricklayers who worked on the project, remembered well the owner of firm for whom he worked telling his crew, "all I want to see is elbows and asses" no heads bobbing up in conversation. Sam commented that they laid massive loads of brick in record time to keep pace with the building schedule.

It was an aggressive plan to construct an entire new community of shops, offices, banks and a multitude of residential units on the 79 acre site that had once been the heart of "Old Allegheny." Sam and I, with our 2010 eyes, look back at those heady days of urban demolition and reconstruction and wonder what became of the hopes and dreams of what Allegheny Center was to be.

Were the urban planners, the architects, the politicos, and the average Northside citizens so far off base in their beliefs that the new Allegheny Center would, indeed, be a giant step into the future for a rapidly deteriorating part of town that seemed to be in a freefall toward a "ghost town" status?
            Writing in the April 1964 edition of “Building Construction,” Carl Detwiler and R. W. Meier, both architects in the firm of Deeter and Richey, provided a succinct and glowing description of the plan for Allegheny Center. It was to be "a new village within a city."

Detwiler, a native Northsider and committed urbanist, saw the creation of Allegheny Center as the culmination of surveys and studies trying to deal with issues of urban blight, substandard living conditions, badly deteriorating buildings and the fact that in 1960 there were 10,000 fewer residents on the Northside than in 1950.
            In September 1961 the purchasing of properties in what was to become the Allegheny Center Mall and a 2,000+ space indoor parking garage commenced. Eventually all buildings in the 79 acre site save the Buhl Planetarium and Allegheny Post Office were demolished to make room for an indoor shopping mall, an office building complex and a variety of housing options.

ALCOA was the leading partner of the Allegheny Associates that undertook this transformation of the heart of Old Allegheny. In January 1968 an article in The Pittsburgh Press stated "the reception Pittsburgh has given this unique 79 acre community has exceeded the fondest expectations, maybe that’s because the combination of suburban surroundings and in town convenience is a first for Pittsburgh."

At the heart of the Allegheny Center site was a public square dating back to the first survey for Allegheny Town in the late 18th century. The square had gone through several major transformations in its day: Hay Market Square, Diamond Square, Ober Park and Buhl Park. By the summer of 1965, following a nationwide competition to redesign the square, the URA selected the design of a team of architects associated with the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for installation at the park site.
            It was the opening of the Allegheny Center Mall that showcased the highest hopes of reviving the commercial core of the Northside. The anchor tenants were Sears Roebucks and the Ames Department Store. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the 40 some shops located within the mall advertized the mall’s features of indoor climate controlled environment, some free parking (one hour) and a wide variety of shops including an A & P, Woolworths, shoe shops, clothing establishments, candy and card shops and several restaurants.

Mayor Pete Flaherty even moved the location of the Pittsburgh’s annual Fall Flower Show to the Allegheny Center Mall in 1973. These were the "glory days" that the urban planners had hoped for as a solution to the collapse of the area’s central business district. But, those days were short-lived. 
            The ownership of the entire Allegheny Center complex was sold by ALCOA Properties and its partners in May 1981 to Penn-Cal, a family trust headquartered in Los Angeles. The new owners attempted to reinvigorate the mall with a massive face lift.

However, the opening of newer suburban indoor shopping malls drew potential patrons away with promises of easy traffic access and unlimited free parking. The announcement of Sears opening a new site in the Ross Park Mall in 1986 spelled doom for Allegheny Center’s Sears store. The Northside Sears had been as much of a fixture for area shoppers as had Boggs and Buhls. Sears announced plans to close its Allegheny Center location at the end of February of 1992. Ames closed in 1990. With the loss of the anchor tenants the Allegheny Center Mall gradually emptied of all commercial establishments.

By 1994 the Penn-Cal group began the conversion of the retail shopping mall into an office complex. In the process the new owners acquired complete ownership of the parking lot, which, until the early 1990s, was a quasi public-private operation. With new anchor tenants of Allegheny General Hospital, National City Bank and Equitable Gas Company the Allegheny Center as a business proposition took on new life.

However, that was not the case for the proposed housing developments in the original plans for Allegheny Center. The first apartment buildings adjacent to the mall area remained a success story as to market rentals. The ALCOA Properties cooperative townhouse development west of the Allegheny Center (Foster Square, 1970), also remained viable.

Four acres on the east side of the Center had been sold to a non-profit developer for lower income housing in 1969. Other parcels had been transferred to: the Board of Education for the site of the Martin Luther King Jr. School, the Diocese of Pittsburgh for the site of the Cardinal Wright elementary school, the Bell Telephone Company for a surface parking lot next to their operation on Montgomery Avenue and the Christian Missionary Alliance congregation for the site of a new church building.

The initial plans for more townhouses adjacent to the Allegheny Commons were never built. In the mid-1990s a significant number of apartment units in the two 11-story buildings on the north side of Allegheny Center were rented to students attending post-high school institutes and colleges located in downtown Pittsburgh.

Tensions arising from the interaction of students and non-student tenants emerged with this change in occupants. At present one of the buildings seems completely empty of residents and the other about half full.

Northside folks wonder about the dreams and hopes of the plans for a new town center. Sam and I wonder if the entire process was based on unfounded premises.

Can massive demolition and rebuilding lead to a better community?

Answering that question is not as simple as posing it.

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