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A Decade of Schenley Plaza: Ten Design Takeaways

On a bright day in June of 2006, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC) celebrated the opening of Schenley Plaza. The five-acre green space is now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, and during the summer of this major milestone, I was lucky to be able to revisit the project that has played a key role for the City of Pittsburgh, and for me personally. When I first came to Sasaki in July of 2003, fresh out of grad school, my very first assignment as a landscape architect was to work on the transformation of the plaza. Thirteen years later I have managed numerous other complex, transformational urban landscape projects, but as the first one I saw from concept through to construction, Schenley Plaza will always hold a special, formative place in my heart and my career.

Situated in the heart of Oakland, between the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Phipps Conservatory, and the Carnegie Museums and Library, the plaza project was intended to restore the space to its historical function as the gateway to the larger Schenley Park to the south. In doing so it would replace a large surface lot that provided 280 parking spaces for area businesses, institutions, and the wider community. Naturally there were some grumbles over the loss of parking, but the City of Pittsburgh, the PPC, and the other institutions had a bold vision: “The goal…was nothing less than the transformation of this gritty, drab slab of asphalt into the green heart of Oakland.” Visiting the space 10 years later during its anniversary season, it’s clear that that mission has been accomplished. We found that many people had either forgotten or never knew that the area used to be a parking lot. My colleague Gina Ford summed it up well by saying, “before, this was just a ‘nothing’ space, nestled between these major anchor institutions. Schenley Plaza took that nothing and turned it into a bona fide place.”

I’ve been thinking about the project this year, its 10th year of operation, and the success that the plaza has enjoyed. What makes the space work so well, and what are the lessons we can share with the rest of our clients looking to build cherished community gathering spaces? How did a former parking lot embed itself into the imagination and identity of so many Pittsburgh residents and visitors? The reasons are many, for sure, but I’ve compiled a few of my observations on Schenley Plaza into a short list of 10—one for each of its years.

In no particular order, here are 10 key observations on the plaza’s continued success:

Details Matter: The plaza makes use of generously sized pavers and granite curbs throughout. And the payoff on the investment shows—they look pristine 10 years later. The pavers only require occasional power-washing to keep them in tip-top shape. Originally the lawn curbs were specified as concrete, but a last-minute donation from the Howard Heinz Foundation made the upgrade to granite possible—a great example of a donor understanding that a subtle investment in the bones of a place can be the most valuable contribution of all.

The Grass is Always Greener: The Emerald Lawn for which Schenley Plaza is known requires careful TLC, including its well-designed soil profile, regular nurturing (irrigation during dry periods and annual soil testing and amendment), and protection (it is closed off to pedestrians from November to April). It functions as more than just a carpet for concert viewers, sunbathers, and frisbee—the carefully designed soil profile has become a model for other lawns in the PPC system. Phil Gruszka, Director of Landscape & Facility Maintenance, says “We’re holding a three-inch rain event in that lawn—it functions as a rain garden.”

A Plaza Thrives on Its Stomach: As a whole the plaza is known for—and draws people with—its multiple food offerings. The smaller kiosks in the park seem to have benefited from what is now the anchoring restaurant, The Porch. Until that full-service restaurant launched in 2010, there was high turnover and a string of different tenants. Now, all four kiosks are doing well and no one wants to give up their lease. According to Gruszka, “Once that restaurant came online, this site just took off.”

A Space for People, Not Cars: As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette speculated in its Munch column back in 2006, you really can reverse Joni Mitchell’s old song lyrics: at Schenley Plaza, we planted a parking lot and put up a paradise. People got over losing their parking spots; many can’t believe the space was ever not there. It was not an instant success though; according to Kenny Slaughter, Facilities Manager: “it grew on people.” And grew big—when asked to describe the plaza in three words last month, regular plaza visitor Steve Sortino said, “It is AWESOME. I hope they give you guys raises!”

Staff Matter: The dedication, friendliness, and personal touch of the full-time staff—including Kenny Slaughter, the “Mayor of Schenley Plaza” (see page 7 of this article)—help make it the safe, welcoming space that it is. According to Shawn Fertitta, Senior Manager of Visitor Experience, “No other park space in the city gets this level of care. People see that. They see the same staff, they’ll see the same security guards, so that’s why I think they come back, because of the consistency there. They see that things are being tended to.”

Shade is a Magnet: Due to budget constraints, Sasaki was not able to design a permanent shade structure on the plaza. Though it was not part of Sasaki’s original design, the plaza would not succeed without the substantial amount of cover provided by the now iconic tent. It is a central gathering spot at all times of day, when the sun is hot or the rain is falling. Trees along the edges of the lawn are also like magnets for people during peak daylight hours.

Program + Design = Success: Although the program and space allotment was precisely and deftly prescribed by Biederman Redevelopment Ventures—based on the enormous success of another of their projects, New York’s Bryant Park—the space equally owes its success to the physical layout of these elements. The design stitches the space seamlessly to its surroundings, adding to that sense that it’s always been there. Pedestrians can move through in a continuous axis from Bigelow Boulevard to the greater Schenley Park to the southeast, allowing the plaza to fulfill its original mission as the gateway to Schenley Park. The trees planted on the edges frame the space, tying it to the much older Carnegie Library bosque and keeping open sightlines between the iconic Cathedral of Learning and Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain.

Stand Out: Park systems as a whole benefit from having a diversity of spaces. Schenley Plaza is a one-of-a-kind space in the landscape of Pittsburgh parks. It might have been expected to spawn other parks hoping to replicate its success, but it seems to have served Pittsburgh and Oakland well to celebrate and concentrate the plaza’s unique energy in one, well-positioned space. In doing so, they’ve focused their resources and efforts to create a standout destination for great programming, rather than trying to spread limited resources throughout the system.

Architecture Embedded in the Landscape: The size of the footprint held open in 2006 for a future restaurant was carefully thought through, but still required a careful hand in design of the restaurant. The effort and expense the owners of The Porch went to, in order to integrate the restaurant into the small footprint, interlaced between rows of London Planetrees, has more than paid off in terms of the sublime experience of sitting on their porch in the shade soaking in the life of the plaza. The owners embraced, rather than resisted, the challenges posed by the small site. According to General Manager Mike Damas, their business has grown each year—right along with the landscape around it. That said, the exciting, beautifully executed menu of fresh locally-sourced ingredients (which I sampled no less than five times over the course of the three-day visit!) are proof that the restaurateur is not relying only upon the space’s intimate connection to the plaza to keep people coming back.

Equity and Diversity: People want to see a diverse group of users in their parks. In an informal survey of some of the thousands of plaza visitors present for the WYEP Summer Music Festival 2016, the most cited reasons for coming to the park were that it was welcoming to all people, and that it makes for excellent people-watching. According to Dawn Weleski, co-director of the hugely popular Conflict Kitchen, “The way people utilize the park… You have this window into Pittsburgh with this little green patch that you don’t get anywhere else…you get a little cross section of the city.”

Click here to learn more about Schenley Plaza

2016 Photos are courtesy of Sahar Coston-Hardy.

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