What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

How will the city’s new planning director stoke Pittsburgh’s next generation of developments?



Don’t follow the planning director,” Ray Gastil warns, shouting over his shoulder, “because he’s a reckless bicyclist!”

We’re barreling down Grant Street past the City-County Building, bicycles rattling on the brick pavers. We swing onto Sixth Avenue, headed toward Mellon Square. Confronted with a city bus straddling both lanes, we split; Gastil darts to the right, trying to beat the bus to the next intersection. The bus driver, who hasn’t seen him, keeps moving to the right. From my angle, it looks as if the city planner of Pittsburgh has just been crushed against the curb.

We’re not even a half-mile into our planned bike ride across the city, a 25-mile ramble Gastil charted to explore neighborhoods both established and in transition, to look at bike lanes and the riverfront, bridges and buildings, and developments both in-progress and just on paper. The goal: to see Pittsburgh through the eyes of its planning director, the person charged with mapping out the future of the city. “For what I do, biking is a great way to see a city,” says Gastil, who has been at the helm of the Planning Department for a little more than a year. “Walking is great, but if you want to cover some territory, biking is the only way to go.”

Walking is beginning to appear the better option when Gastil finally emerges from behind the bus, intact and laughing nervously at the near miss. We pause for a breath, and he begins praising the newly overhauled Mellon Square (“an amazing entity”) before moving down the street past the Smithfield United Church of Christ (home, he points out, to “the first structural aluminum steeple in the world”).

It’s here that he turns — bus forgotten, eyes sparkling.

“Have you ever ridden under the convention center?” he asks. “No? OK, we’re doing it. It’s so fun!” He turns back to the street, and he’s off.
 


PHOTOS BY RENEE ROSENSTEEL
 

Forty minutes later, Gastil is perched high above downtown on a Mount Washington overlook after a ride on the Monongahela Incline. Gastil, a trim 56-year-old with curly graying hair, surveys the city — his canvas — below. “What do you see?” he asks. “What do you see?”

He exudes a professorial air, speaking not so much in sentences or even paragraphs but in entire graduate seminars — a holdover from his days in academia. As when he is on two wheels, once he gets going, he’s difficult to stop.

The planner points to the building at 700 Grant St. that houses the U.S. District Court and the downtown post office. “We have some great early-20th-century Beaux Arts buildings that have a very high standard, are well-made and preserved and brilliant,” he says. “We also have some ’20s stuff, [such as] that beautiful one with the green Huntington [bank] sign. The PNC [Firstside Center] building: I wish it didn’t block Ross Street at the end. It’s a little frustrating urbanistically, but it’s a serious building. PNC has consistently built quality architecture again and again and again, even the new one that it’s building today.

“Then we have this charming historic stuff, in that funny leftover space, I believe in the ’50s [and] ’60s legacy of the Gateway Renaissance,” he adds. With admiration, he looks at the towering glass spires of PPG Place. “And of course, there’s Philip Johnson in the middle of it all.”

He moves on, pointing out areas of the city that he’s most excited about helping to shape — expanding trails along the river; putting together the Mon Wharf switchback bike ramp below the Smithfield Street Bridge; building on parking lots east of Station Square on the South Side; getting the Almono development in Hazelwood up and running; and working on redevelopment in the Hill District and Uptown.

He notes the Bakery Square complex, off in the distance in East Liberty/Larimer. “It’s good-looking architecture,” he says. “It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s good-looking. What I admire most about it is that it’s about the relationship between where you work, where you live, where you shop. There’s actually a big planning idea there that I appreciate.”
 


Gastil arrived in Pittsburgh in April 2014 from Seattle — his resume plucked out of The Pittsburgh Foundation’s “Talent City” application pool for work in Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration — with a loose understanding of the challenges that awaited him here. In the time that he’s been here, however, he says he’s begun clarifying his vision. He’s beginning to consider tweaks to the city’s zoning plan — as appropriate — in order to streamline both commercial and residential developments by dialing back rules that seem to require a variance for just about everything. In the planning department, he’s filled vacant neighborhood-level positions so that communities now have a point person with the city.
Most of all, though, he’s working on making stronger connections between neighborhoods and the riverfronts, increasing development around transit-oriented hubs and increasing both the bike- and pedestrian-friendliness of the city. He’s intricately involved with a pair of initiatives that Peduto announced in March — the $32 million “complete streets” Envision Downtown program and The Heinz Endowments-funded p4, for “People, Planet, Place, Performance,” program for sustainable urban growth.

All of these steps are meant to keep the city’s economy revved. “We need new businesses in Pittsburgh,” Gastil says. “Planning can help retain and bring new jobs to the city.”
Peduto hired Gastil largely based on his proven ability to nurture not only big planning ideas but also to work with various neighborhoods to make them happen. Gastil previously served as the planning director for Seattle, where he worked on waterfront development and transit-oriented design, and Manhattan, where he oversaw a tricky rezoning of both the Upper West Side and historic 125th Street in Harlem; while working as the executive director of a think tank, he helped to conceive a plan for the reconstruction of lower Manhattan following the 9/11 attacks.

“I was really impressed with his belief in the community-development process,” says Peduto, citing Gastil’s past tenures in navigating high-stakes planning scenes. “He knows how to break down planning to the neighborhood level and then build it back up with people in those areas.”

“The planning directors are the futurists of the city,” says former Mayor Tom Murphy, who during his tenure from 1994 to 2006 oversaw the development of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and the city’s riverfront stadiums. “They need to have a big picture. They need to be the ones in the room with the mayors and other people pushing for smart quality long-term direction,” says Murphy, now a senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. “Cities need to have a strong vision about what you want.”

Gastil brings to Pittsburgh “the rare combination” of imagination and vision but also remarkable pragmatism, says Thaisa Way, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington who has worked with him. “You usually get pragmatic people who have no vision or imaginative people who have no pragmatism.”

That combination is what Pittsburgh needs at this point, those observers note — in many ways, a bewildering moment when the economy is picking up and the population is starting to grow for the first time in decades while portions of the working and middle classes struggle, wages dwindling. An effective city planner doesn’t just approve zoning laws and building setbacks — he or she can either prevent or induce inequality.
 


Having viewed the city from on high, we point our bikes down Mount Washington, skirting past Grandview Park and into Allentown before emerging on the South Side. Gastil is eager to see the steps at 18th Street that lead up to the Slopes, and after marveling at the infrastructure, we make our way to 21st Street and the Brew House, an old Duquesne Brewing Company building being converted into apartments.

In April 2014, a local environmental nonprofit named 3 Rivers Wet Weather held a three-day design event focused on turning 21st Street into a “green street,” with pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, bike lanes and stormwater runoff down a planted median. Gastil says he loves the idea: “Everything is so tight [in the city]. When you see a street like this, you think, ‘Maybe we can use this one!’”

Still, he couches his excitement, adding that the resulting loss of a bit of street parking will upset some in the neighborhood. “If the community doesn’t buy it,” he says, “it’s dead on arrival.”

Urban planning has changed remarkably since the middle of the 20th century, when leaders didn’t care about the opinions of a neighborhood’s residents — especially if the area housed immigrants, the poor or poor immigrants. Those neighborhoods were prime targets for “urban renewal,” a term that for some often became code for “wholesale destruction.” For example, Boston leaders demolished 46 acres of that city’s West End neighborhood in the 1950s to make way for residential high-rises and a new City Hall. In mid-century New York, Robert Moses — known as the “master builder” for his iron-gripped control of the city’s bridges, roads and public housing — displaced a stunning 250,000 people in order to build highways to speed workers to and from the suburbs.

In Pittsburgh, Mayor David L. Lawrence through the 1950s oversaw the construction of a wide array of prominent buildings — including the steel Gateway Center complex near the Point — but he also approved a plan to raze the Lower Hill District to make way for the former Civic Arena and a never-completed cultural district. That “redevelopment” severed the diverse and once thriving Hill District from downtown, plunging the neighborhood into a cycle of poverty and crime that it’s been struggling to escape for the past 50 years.
“It wasn’t just that we demolished it, but it’s the way [Crosstown Boulevard] moved through the neighborhood,” Gastil says. “The natural relationship between the Hill and downtown along Centre Avenue was broken. Whether or not everyone is happy with the way [redevelopment today] is happening, we’re trying to rebuild it.”

Given that history, many of today’s Hill District residents understandably are concerned about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ plan to turn the 28-acre site of the former Civic Arena into a mixed-use development. The neighborhood has been so concerned, in fact, that many of its residents prevailed upon the Penguins and the city to sign a community collaboration agreement that, among other items, outlined levels of affordable housing and jobs to accompany the new development.

While the major layers of the preliminary development plan — street layout, scale — preceded Gastil’s arrival in the planning department, he helped steward revisions through the process before the planning commission OK’d the plan in January. Many in the Hill District community weren’t pleased with the Penguins, though; in their view the team’s leaders seemed to be skirting initial promises, prompting a return to the negotiation table. Eventually, in mid-January, Peduto’s chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, negotiated an agreement — an independent consultant would be brought in to monitor the Penguins’ adherence to the community agreement. That cleared the way for City Council to approve the plan in early February.

Also under Gastil’s watch in January, U.S. Steel announced that it would be placing its new headquarters at the site; Gastil, the Penguins and U.S. Steel all were ripped by critics for the “suburban” design of the five-floor building. Gastil defends the decision, pointing out that the design was improved through the process. Furthermore, he says, “I think that a forward-looking city needs to be able to accommodate contemporary building types, including ones that we are more familiar with in suburban locations.”

It’s in the middle of such battles that Gastil finds himself serving as an intermediary. A modern city planner, in many ways, is the person who creates the rules for the game — zoning certain neighborhoods for industry or residential; setting building heights; helping to create tax advantages to stoke development in a downtrodden area — but generally, he or she only has so much power in the actual game. The best they can do is guide the negotiations and make sure everyone is following the rules.

Gastil recognizes that developers have a right to build on their property, but neighborhoods and the city have a vested interest in what that development will look like and how it will interact with the larger fabric of the area. The best projects find a way for as many people as possible to receive some type of “win” — jobs, affordable housing, an increase in neighborhood home values for property owners or an investment in the community. In the Lower Hill, the wins look like this: the Penguins get to develop, the city sees its urban fabric restitched, and the community gets much-needed jobs and economic investment. In the Almono development in Hazelwood, Gastil hopes to apply the same type of recipe.
Finding a win for everyone isn’t always possible.
 


“But it’s almost possible for everyone to get something,” Gastil says. “For example, if buildings are going away, the people who own those buildings can get something out of it. If there are renters in those buildings, there can be something done to find new places for them to live. What we’re talking about today on the Lower Hill doesn’t involve any direct displacement — it’s a parking lot — but it it has larger questions about the future of the Hill. [Generally] ‘everybody wins’ in that there are new stores. But [do they win] if all the new stores are [national chains]? If there are new jobs and new taxes?

“Everybody wins’ if there is a big, successful project and it brings new tax revenues to the city because the city is fiscally stronger and everything is better — schools, buses, whatever,” he says.

“Trying to make things where everybody wins is a very tough deal.”

Whether that affable, academic compromising nature can work in Pittsburgh, a city long fragmented by powerful and competing neighborhoods and interest groups, remains to be seen. Observers of local government acknowledge his intellect and track record but note the challenge of applying his intellectual capabilities to Pittsburgh’s unique neighborhoods and communities. Gastil says he is well aware of those difficulties and is working on incorporating plans for various city neighborhoods into one master vision.
 

Navigating a new city can be tricky for any transplant, but few have it harder than a planning director. John Rahaim, who worked in the Pittsburgh planning department for 15 years before becoming the city planner for Seattle and now San Francisco, puts it this way: “The challenge is not learning the codes and process. It’s learning the people and history, the layers of bureaucracy and the layers of social and professional connections.”

“It takes a lot of finesse and politicking,” says Way, the landscape architect at the University of Washington. “The advantage [of being new] is that you can see it with a fresh set of eyes. And you’re not already stuck, you haven’t made your allegiances. The other advantage of being a new person is that you can step on a few toes and get away with it for a while because you’re new.”
 

“It’s one thing to kind of make cool places where you have old buildings and stuff. It’s another to try to make an interesting place in a brand new territory.”

In many ways, Pittsburgh is an odd place for Gastil to end up. He spent his early years in Briarcliff Manor, a well-to-do suburb of New York, which he remembers fondly for having the freedom to bike everywhere. Even then, he was fascinated by how buildings and cities were put together, and he found his sensibilities offended by the jangled signs and shops of Manhattan.

“There was an aesthetic inside this little kid that did not like crazy storefronts and wanted to organize them to make them nicer,” he says. As a fifth-grader, he made the precocious decision to undertake a class project on James Oglethorpe’s plan for the city of Savannah, Ga. — a forward-looking design that combined a modern street grid with parks, housing and commercial spaces. In high school, Gastil’s interest in cities was further stoked when his family moved to Seattle. The city then was in the midst of an urban revitalization, and its Pike Place Market had just been saved from demolition.

Despite his early predilections, Gastil took a roundabout journey to urban planning. He studied comparative literature at Yale before returning to Seattle and working as a journalist, writing about theater and urban design for Seattle weeklies; in New York, he wrote about the mountains for Skiing magazine. He eventually found a job working with prominent architect Robert A.M. Stern on “Pride of Place: Building the American Dream,” an eight-hour PBS documentary about the history of American architecture.

At age 29, he enrolled in the graduate school of architecture at Princeton, parlaying his degree into a job with the Regional Plan Association, a prestigious New York organization that pioneered the idea of a multistate region working together on transit and development. After the RPA, he served as the executive director of the Van Alen Institute in New York, a planning think tank, and after 9/11 served on boards to help guide the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan. He went on to teach as a visiting professor or lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, Berkeley and Penn State University, and to serve as planning director of both Manhattan and Seattle. In late 2013, when the Peduto administration announced that it was looking for a new city planner, Gastil says he jumped at the opportunity to apply.

“The thing about Seattle that was less interesting was that things were already decided — everything has been in the zoning code forever. Pittsburgh is going through a much more dramatic change,” says Gastil, who is single and lives in Lawrenceville. “It’s had more heroic transformations, and it will continue to do so. To me, it’s more exciting to be in Pittsburgh.”
 


Gastil is hoping to guide a heroic transformation in Hazelwood, so we leave the South Side and cross the Hot Metal Bridge. We’re on a bike path for a bit, then on the shoulder of Route 885, pedaling into a headwind as cars scream by. Arriving in Hazelwood, we stand just off the train tracks and gaze at the enormous brownfield of Pittsburgh’s last steel mill, operated by Jones & Laughlin Steel and later LTV. All around it are homes, many of them now rundown, where the millworkers once lived. “It’s not literally at the end of the world,” he says, noting the neighborhood’s distance from downtown, “but it feels like it.”

In 2013, the city planning commission approved a master plan for developing the 178 acres by Almono, a consortium of local foundations led by the Regional Industrial Development Corporation. The plan is to turn it into a $900 million mixed-use community of housing, offices, retail and light industry, as well as 26 acres of open space. Gastil paints a vivid picture of what he’d like to see — streets aligned so that the sun hits them in the morning; a lush tree canopy to keep the area cool during the summer; an entire community that is not just bikeable and walkable but connected to downtown and Oakland.

“What is it that you’re going to do here to make it a brand-new territory?” he asks. “It’s one thing to kind of make cool places where you have old buildings and stuff, like Lawrenceville. It’s another to try to make an interesting place in a brand new territory, and have these neighbors not freaked out and have something in it for them. It’s a big story. In development terms, it’s one of the biggest stories in Pittsburgh.”

It’s the same story, really, everywhere — how can Pittsburgh develop in such a way that welcomes young tech and health workers without leaving behind the struggling working classes that made the city what it is today? How can the produce terminal in the Strip District be developed so that its owners can make money but still honor its past? How can East Liberty not be swallowed whole by the moneyed tech community? How can the North Side, the South Side and Lawrenceville not destroy themselves through gentrification? And how can struggling communities such as Larimer and Beltzhoover get in on the city’s recent successes?

Gastil’s vision includes increasing development around transit, as well as carefully planned decisions that will help attract modern businesses. But to him, the most vital job is updating uses for the city’s riverfronts. “I want to contribute to the next generation of riverfront planning,” he says. “There has to be a better connection between the waterfront trails and the communities we’re building next to them, whether it’s housing, mixed-use, jobs, [and making sure] that they’re integrated into the grid of the city, that they’re not isolated, not enclaves.

“It should be a natural thing to go to the waterfront if you live in Lawrenceville or Hazelwood or wherever. [In Hazelwood,] they’re all convinced they’re never going to [have a reason to visit] their waterfront, that there is going to be this big fancy development and they’re not going to be able to go. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, that’s not what anyone is planning. I think we just have to prove it.”

After leaving Hazelwood, Gastil wants to duck into Caliban Books in Oakland to find a couple of plays by August Wilson. After he exits, copies in hand, discussion turns to the next stop — the Hill District. He is hopeful, but tempered.

“You can’t do planning without being aware of the many pitfalls,” Gastil says, “and the many things that were declared The Most Important Thing in History turned out not to work.” Such as, for example, Boston tearing down the West End or Pittsburgh destroying the Lower Hill. “If you’re not humbled by the history of urban renewal, you don’t know jacks--t about it. Because it is a tough story.” 
 


 

The Big 3

The trifecta of projects that will shape the future of the city.

Almono
•Neighborhood: Hazelwood
•Site: 178 acres of a former LTV steel mill
•Owner/Developer: Regional Industrial Development Corp. and four area foundations, including The Heinz Endowments and the Benedum Foundation
• Plan: A mixed-use development featuring as many as 2,600 housing units, light industry, office and retail
• Victories: $80 million in tax increment financing from the city, its school district and the county
• Complications: Having to build infrastructure — roads, water, electrical — from scratch.
• Community Investments: Indirectly, Almono will bring jobs and hopefully a grocery store to the area. Since 2011, the Heinz Endowments has granted more than $14 million to Hazelwood neighborhood projects
• Current status: In February, plans were updated to set a higher bar for sustainable urban living.
• Timeline: First buildings to open in 2016

 

Former Civic Arena site
• Neighborhood: Lower Hill District
• Site: 28 acres bordering downtown
• Developer: Pittsburgh Penguins
• Plan: A mixed-use development of approximately 1,100 residential units as well as office and retail space
• Victories: U.S. Steel committed to building a new headquarters at the site, serving as a commercial anchor for the development
• Complications: Community buy-in
• Community Investments: Plans call for 20 percent of housing to be affordable; 50 percent of new tax revenue from the site to go to the Greater Hill Community Reinvestment Fund
• Current Status: Having received approval from City Council in early 2015, the plan is moving forward.
• Timeline: Groundbreaking on the U.S. Steel building is expected to occur in fall 2015.
 


photo via flickr creative commons

 

Produce Terminal
• Neighborhood: Strip District
• Site: 1,553-foot building and 55 riverfront acres
• Owner: Urban Redevelopment Authority
• Plan: URA is negotiating with two developers, McCaffery Interests Inc. and Rubino Partners, about the final vision, but it likely will include residential and retail, and possibly office space and a public market.
• Victories: Both plans would reuse the Produce Terminal, as opposed to tearing it down.
• Complications: Linking the Strip to the Allegheny River; balancing needs of nearby shops.
• Community Investments: Too early to know.
• Current Status: Negotiations
• Timeline: Too early to tell
 

Freelance writer and frequent contributor Patrick Doyle is a former editor at Boston Magazine and 5280, Denver’s city magazine. He has written for Outside, MIT Tech Review, Real Simple, Men’s Journal and other national and regional publications.
 

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