Sean Luther is Using Pittsburgh as a Creative ‘Urban Laboratory’

Envision Downtown is experimenting with the fabric of the urban core.



photo by RENEE ROSENSTEEL
 

Last winter, after a few weeks of construction, Downtown received a surprising new addition: A bus shelter on a once-jammed stretch of Smithfield Street. A few months later, Strawberry Way evolved from a popular but bland walkway to one filled with tables and chairs and painted in a festive, confetti-style pattern. A “park in a dumpster” appeared over the summer in a Downtown parking space. In October, bold designs of local bridges replaced the boring crosswalk stripes and bike lanes at Penn Avenue and Eleventh Street.

What is interesting about the work — intended to make Pittsburgh’s urban core both more inviting and more pedestrian-friendly — is that there were zero public meetings about the projects. There were no pitched fights over parking spaces or bike lanes or what type of chairs to buy. The projects just sort of … appeared.

“We are nimble and fast and able to move in a way that a lot of other organizations can’t,” says Sean Luther, executive director of Envision Downtown, the group behind the projects. “We’re using Downtown as an urban laboratory.”

Envision Downtown was created in early 2015 as a public-private partnership between the Pittsburgh mayor’s office and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership; it is funded by foundation grants. Luther, who previously worked as a senior director of the Green Building Alliance and as CEO of Downtown Roanoke, was hired and tasked with quickly installing temporary projects that would make life better for Downtown residents and workers.

Take the Smithfield Street bus shelter, for example. The stop at the corner of Smithfield and Sixth is the busiest in the city, handling 6,500 passengers a day; at rush hour, crowds used to be so thick on the narrow band of sidewalk that walking there was nearly impossible. Envision Downtown looked at the street and realized that by slightly narrowing the three lanes previously used for traffic and parking, it could bump out the sidewalk an extra 6 feet. That was enough space not just to create more standing room but also to add “lean bars” for sitting and a shelter from rain and sun. Even the shelter was a sign of innovation — instead of going through a laborious request-for-proposals design process, Envision Downtown bought and repurposed off-the-shelf bike shelters.

“We’re flipping the usual urban-planning paradigm on its head,” Luther says. “Usually there’s a big public plan with a lot of community input. The problem is that, by-and-large, then what happens is nothing — people are so burned out [by the process].”

Envision Downtown instead is empowered to tap into the PDP’s network (stakeholders such as property and business owners), as well as that of the city (say, the department of public works) to move fast on its temporary projects. The temporary part is important — these projects are experiments. If they don’t work — if people don’t use the Strawberry Way seating — they will be removed or adjusted. Smithfield Street can be relatively easily returned to its former standing, while paint on the Penn Avenue crosswalks and on Strawberry Way is meant to last only for about a year.

Even Envision Downtown is temporary. The project’s funding runs through 2017; at that point, it may receive a short extension, fold its fast-moving DNA into a city department or the PDP or disappear entirely. The point is to simply try things — and lay groundwork for a faster-moving future.  
 

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Watch: How Will You Remember Kunitz's Overtime Winner?

Watch: How Will You Remember Kunitz's Overtime Winner?

Check out three versions of the goal that sends the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final for a sixth time. (Hint) We think we saved the best for last.
Dinosaurs Storm the Pittsburgh Zoo

Dinosaurs Storm the Pittsburgh Zoo

Eighteen life-like, animatronic dinosaurs will spend the summer in the Steel City.
He Loves the Nickname: They Call Him Dr. Yuk

He Loves the Nickname: They Call Him Dr. Yuk

In the 45 years since coming up with Mr. Yuk, Dr. Richard Moriarty, now 77, has met many grateful parents who told him he saved their kids’ lives.
Getting Started with Startups: A Peek at Alphalab Demo Day

Getting Started with Startups: A Peek at Alphalab Demo Day

Technological innovators present what could be “the next big thing” at the Carnegie Music Hall in Homewood.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

A small group of dedicated residents sees the restoration of their church in Tarentum as a window to the potential rebirth of their once-booming community in suburban Pittsburgh.
Remembering Henry Hillman

Remembering Henry Hillman

Reflecting on the impact of the businessman, civic visionary and philanthropist.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Watch: How Will You Remember Kunitz's Overtime Winner?

Watch: How Will You Remember Kunitz's Overtime Winner?

Check out three versions of the goal that sends the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final for a sixth time. (Hint) We think we saved the best for last.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Pittsburgh Bartenders Give Back By Keeping Time

Pittsburgh Bartenders Give Back By Keeping Time

The Pittsburgh chapter of the USBG partners with Campari USA to create a calendar that will benefit Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

The third outpost of local distillery Wigle, found in the Omni William Penn Hotel, is an instant destination for cocktail fans.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Frightened about Game 7? You Should Be

Frightened about Game 7? You Should Be

A win will send the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals for a second year in a row and re-write team history.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

The Strip District-based woodworker's cutting boards can be custom made with the wood of your choice.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
If Only the Baywatch Team Could've Saved Us From Jack Sparrow

If Only the Baywatch Team Could've Saved Us From Jack Sparrow

Reviews of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" and "Baywatch," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
New York Bridal Designer Shares Her Secrets

New York Bridal Designer Shares Her Secrets

Pennsylvania native Jaclyn Jordan brings her newest collection to the Blanc de Blanc Bridal Boutique in Carrick.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Get to the North Side for Home & Garden Tour, Epic Yard Sale

Get to the North Side for Home & Garden Tour, Epic Yard Sale

Explore lavish homes and gardens with the West Allegheny Historic District’s annual Tour and Tasting, or go on the hunt for hidden treasure during The Great Mexican War Streets Yard Sale.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Explore Your Future with Point Park University

Explore Your Future with Point Park University

The university will host three summer workshops for high school students from July 17-20.

Comments