Planning Pittsburgh's Next Developments for the Long Haul
Local architect Christine Mondor is upping Pittsburgh’s design game.
photo by NATE SCHUCKERS
In March 1988, an ambitious teenager named Christine Kochinski volunteered at the Remaking Cities Conference held in Pittsburgh. Organized by Pittsburgh architect David Lewis, the event featured a keynote address by Charles, Prince of Wales, who urged the audience to support community architecture.
While the media focused on the prince’s speech, the teen left the conference with a different image burned into her brain. At a design workshop, urbanists were considering new uses for the abandoned steel mills along the Monongahela. It was a lively, optimistic conversation until an older mill worker came up to the microphone. “Please don’t tear down the mill,” he pleaded, tears streaming down his face. “The steel mill will come back.”
Nearly 30 years later, Christine Kochinski Mondor’s thoughts return to that mill worker when she’s considering a design project. “It’s not enough to build the thing,” she says.
“You have to build the community simultaneously.”
Building community is Mondor’s animating purpose in her various roles in the Pittsburgh design world: She’s the chair of the city’s Planning Commission, a professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University and the co-principal at evolveEA, a design firm she started with her husband, Marc.
While Mondor’s work at evolveEA has won plaudits for various projects — including Eco-Districts in Larimer and Millvale, stormwater planning in Heth’s Run in Highland Park and the Centre Avenue revival in the Hill District — it’s her work at the planning commission that ought to be celebrated.
That includes working with the planning department to recognize neighborhood plans and emphasizing green infrastructure and affordable housing.
“[She is] profoundly interested in the systems of our natural, infrastructure and social systems,” says Ray Gastil, the city planning director. “She’s committed to Pittsburgh and the role that planning and design have played in its past and will play in its future.”
When it comes to the future, Mondor and the planning commission’s willingness to say “no” is remarkably refreshing. For years, Pittsburgh was so desperate for development that at times it seemed eager to take almost any project that a financier tossed out.
No longer. In March 2015, a Mondor-led planning commission told U.S. Steel the design for its new headquarters in the Lower Hill District resembled a suburban office building. Although the commission approved the design, U.S. Steel pulled out of that project eight months later. “As a city, we need to ask of our legacy projects design excellence,” Mondor said at the time. “We only got to build the U.S. Steel Tower once, and we did it well. We only got to build PPG once. We only got to build the convention center once.”
In January, the commission unanimously rejected a proposal from the Penn Plaza developers to turn the former affordable housing complex in East Liberty into market-rate (read: high-end) condos and a Whole Foods (which later pulled out of the project). Mondor and her colleagues ripped the developer for the lack of a robust community process and other issues.
Mondor is cautious when speaking about her role on the planning commission, well aware of potential repercussions. But she is keen to emphasize that the community plays a crucial role. “Let’s put our best foot forward,” she says.