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Development & Transportation

New Report Aims To Position Downtown Pittsburgh For The Future

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Margaret J. Krauss
/
90.5 WESA
Pre-pandemic, more than 110,000 workers commuted Downtown each day.

For the first time in more than 20 years, there’s a strategic plan for getting around the city’s central business district. Supporters of the plan say Downtown must continue to appeal to more than daily commuters, given the pandemic’s dramatic effect on how and where people work.

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, or PDP, is releasing the Downtown Mobility Plan on Tuesday as part of its annual State of Downtown event. Created in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh, the Port Authority and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the plan identifies challenges and opportunities to make the neighborhood welcoming and accessible.

The point of the plan was to create priorities and guidelines to help inform decisions about what investments to make as funds become available, said Chris Watts, vice president of mobility for PDP.

“Downtown needs to build on what’s working and … address things that aren’t,” said Watts.

Throughout an 18-month engagement process, PDP learned that people found Downtown could be congested, chaotic and unsafe. In a survey, respondents cited a lack of street amenities such as benches, slow bus or car travel, dangerous street crossings, and a lack of streetlights.

The report says that during public engagement, it became clear that not everyone feels welcome at all times, “especially people of color.”

Karina Ricks, director of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, said that for a long time the design of Downtown mostly prioritized business commuters.

“The way that we use our streets, the way that we move around, it’s different for different people,” she said, adding that it’s important to understand all of a place’s stakeholders, from high school students to visitors. Then it’s important to “design with intention” and show people “they are valued members of our city … and need to be accommodated.”

Right now, the plan is a broad look at how best to move forward, Watts said. There will be engagement processes with any specific projects that come along. However, he said, the pandemic lent a sense of urgency to better positioning Downtown, as how people work has shifted so dramatically. PDP tracks office occupancy Downtown, and currently just 10 percent of available office space is being used.

There have to be other reasons for people to come Downtown, Watts said, and making it easier and more enjoyable to do so will help.

“We now know Downtown’s competing not with other places around the region and around the country, but really at home,” he said.

Watts said understanding the needs of different users is foundational to the plan.

“People love our Downtown,” he said, but “there’s some fundamental things — small things, frankly — that could be improved and make a big difference.”

Most people said that improving the pedestrian experience is the top priority, with wider sidewalks, safer crosswalks and better lighting. A close second was reducing traffic congestion.

Over the last couple decades, Downtown has evolved beyond simply being a business and transit hub. With more people has come more congestion, said Ricks.

If we’re going to grow and continue to add residences and destinations and jobs,” she said, “we have to move them through those more space-efficient modes,” such as on buses, bicycles and by walking.

Before the pandemic, some 13 million people a year visited Downtown, while 110,000 people commuted daily to the area. Downtown is also home to more than 15,000 people and provides a critical connection point for Pittsburgh Public School and university students.

“Downtown is the economic and cultural center of the region,” said Andy Waple, director of transportation planning for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a federally-mandated planning body for the 10-county region. He noted that pre-pandemic some 75 percent of daily commuters came from the surrounding counties. “The more that we can invite people Downtown and the more welcoming it is, the better.”