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Plans For Smallman Street’s Redesign: The Remix

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
People arriving to Wednesday night's public meeting by bike had to go searching for parking. Cyclists are calling for a safe, easy connection between downtown and points east via the Strip District.

Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure Wednesday night convened a public meeting on the planned renovation of Smallman Street in the Strip District, just three weeks after a similar event.

“Bike Pittsburgh didn’t feel they had adequate time to get the information out [before the last meeting],” said Karina Ricks, the department’s director, referring to Pittsburgh’s bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group. “That’s fair. We were happy to do it again.”

People crammed into the Society for Contemporary Craft to learn—some for the second time—about the plan and its potential effect on the neighborhood. The many cyclists in attendance were miffed that the $9 million repaving plan provides no clear, safe, bike-specific way to move between downtown and the eastern neighborhoods through the Strip.

At the meeting, Bike Pittsburgh’s executive director Scott Bricker presented a petition that urges city officials to build off of the Penn Avenue bike lane, which begins at Sixth Street in the Cultural District. Currently, the lane drops riders at 16th Street as they head east from downtown, a dead-end into oncoming traffic. Bike Pittsburgh’s “Extend Penn” campaign seeks to create a safe route from downtown through the Strip District and into the eastern neighborhoods. More than 2,100 people signed the petition.

Ricks said the city must provide a safe, easy connection. It’s possible it could be on Smallman, but Ricks said choosing that orientation would only solve the problem for five blocks, from 16th to 21st streets.

“What we’re hoping to do is actually get you an answer that gets you all the way to Lawrenceville, that gets you to a connected network,” she said. “That gets you not just the easiest known facility but the right facility that can help sustain us for the next 20 years of bicycle volume growth.”

While the Smallman plan was once conceived as a full reconstruction with bike lanes and broad public plazas, the city simply doesn’t have the resources to overhaul the complicated thoroughfare. Planners had to distill down the most important goals—pedestrian usage, overall safety—for that stretch of street, said the director of City Planning Ray Gastil.

“Not just the street itself but the development happening adjacent to it, as well as the overall neighborhood,” he said.

That Smallman Street exists in a larger context, and within a broader network of streets, came up over and over. The street is a small piece of a rapidly changing area, and has raised a lot of issues about commerce and mobility, said Ricks.

“How do we serve all of these different needs? How do we manage the parking resources that are here?”

To understand the challenges better, Ricks said the department issued a request for proposals for something they’re calling the Strip District mobility network and parking study.

But Catina Stamoolis noted the study isn’t expected to be completed until spring 2019, while the Smallman Street re-do is scheduled to be bid and awarded to a contractor by January or February 2019.

“It doesn’t make sense to complete that without seeing the entire picture of the area, and be able to adjust,” said Stamoolis, part of the third generation to run Stamoolis Brothers Company, a grocery on Penn Avenue. “It seems that they have a plan in place, and no matter what this other study shows, they’re not going to adjust.”

With all of the development projects slated for the Strip, and with the renovation of the historic Produce Terminal in the near future, the Stamoolis family worries about how their customers will reach them, and the future of their business. That concern was echoed by other property owners and merchants in attendance.

Final design for the Smallman Street project is slated to be completed by December 2018. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority continues work to update the street’s water, sanitary and storm sewer infrastructure.