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Strip District Merchants Worried Major PWSA Project On Smallman Will Hurt Business

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Smallman Street in the Strip District widens as it runs toward downtown past the eastern end of the Produce Terminal. Starting in April, traffic will be restricted to one lane in each direction, and eliminate parking from 16th to 21st Streets.

Ah, the harbingers of spring: daylight savings time, the insistent, early morning song of robins and large construction projects. 

In April, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority will restrict Smallman Street in the city’s busy Strip District neighborhood in order to tear out infrastructure that’s long since celebrated its centennial.

The work will run from 16th to 21st streets and eliminate parking in that area.

Business owners worry the project will make it harder for people to come down to the Strip and shop. That could endanger legacy businesses and their employees, said Jim Patrinos, who owns property in the neighborhood.

“The Strip District is one of the last few working markets, not just in the city but in the country,” he said. “And at the end of the day you have to make sure we’re still here.”

Eydie Hall said the loss of parking is particularly worrisome.

“If people can’t find a place to park, they’re not coming,” said Hall. She and her partner, Brian Coyne, own Backstage Alpaca Pittsburgh. “I would like to see some sort of provisions made for the people who want to spend time in the Strip.”

For weekend visitors, PWSA worked with the Buncher Group and ALCO to open a pay-to-park lot on 15th Street, currently open just on weekdays. People who attended a public meeting Wednesday night said they would like to see more concessions made. Some suggested temporary signage, free parking on Penn Avenue, a free shuttle to run from the lot to the heart of the district or a different staging pattern that would allow the gradual return of parking along the street during the project.

But parking is just one concern; Smallman Street is also the main artery for loading and unloading. A number of businesses wondered how the 53-foot trucks their livelihoods depend on would reach their docks. PWSA officials and a representative of the contractor, Independence Excavating, said they would work diligently to accommodate individual needs.

“We do not want to have any negative impact on your operations. To the extent that we can prevent it we will definitely work with you,” said Barry King, PWSA’s interim director of engineering and construction. “There’s going to be obviously some situations that are going to be unavoidable ... but we’ll do everything in our power to work with you guys.”

The Smallman Street project will replace 1,650 feet of 36-inch water line, 2,000 feet of 12-inch water line and 2,200 feet of sanitary sewer line. PWSA will also install 1,800 feet of storm sewer. The current infrastructure is a combined sewer. King said the change will allow PWSA to reduce combined sewer overflows and come into compliance with the Department of Environmental Protection.

While the work will be a disruption for businesses and shoppers, Mike Lee with local nonprofit Strip District Neighbors said it has to be done. The pipes are already causing disruptions because of breaks and leaks.

“It’s like surgery,” he said. “It’s not something you want to do, but it’s something you know you have to do."

Crews will work 24 hours per day and seven days a week in order to complete the project by late November or early December. King said they don’t want to interfere with the holiday season shopping.

All businesses will remain open during the duration.

After PWSA’s work is done the city will begin street improvements. The Department of Mobility and Infrastructure is still finishing its planning process, but expects to hold a public meeting in May.