City Guide: Best of the 'Burbs

City-centric? Here’s a compass to lead you on a journey to some happening suburban communities — north, south, east and west.

From sidewalks to wide-open spaces, from funky to formal, there are as many varieties of suburban living as there are ways to mow your lawn. Long the preserve of young families with kids in tow, our comfortable local suburbs are evolving to meet new tastes and trends.

Whether it’s access to suburban business campuses (like Canonsburg or Cranberry), state of the art recreation centers (Upper St. Clair), walkable new street grids (hello, Newbury!) or friendly new cafes (Dormont, we’re looking at you), communities close to the city put distinctive stamps on the old lush-lawn and white-bread stereotype.

The bad news: Yes, you might have to cross the river. The good news: There are friendly towns to suit every lifestyle. Here’s a guide to a few gems.

New homes rise on the border of Treesdale Golf and Country Club.

As Cranberry Commons fills up, so does Richland. Allegheny County’s fastest-growing area and its highest ridgeline is home to Westinghouse nuclear engineers working just over the Butler County line as well as the new campus of Chatham University at Eden Hall Farm. One sign of growth: The LEED-certified Eden Hall Upper Elementary School already enrolls 1,000 fourth- to sixth-graders.

“This place has a history as a rural retreat for wealthy Pittsburghers,” says Mike Novak, a native who’s operated his restaurant, The Pines Tavern, on Bakerstown Road for 31 years. “The Babcock family, the Trees, the Muellers [an H.J. Heinz executive]—the residents were very prominent.”

Forty years ago, recalls Novak, “it was a less sophisticated place. We liked to say we were in the middle of nowhere, but on the edge of everything. Now I can be downtown [via I-79] in half an hour, but it’s semi-rural.”

Chatham University’s new School of Sustainability and the Environment takes advantage of the agrarian ethos. Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell, a Kansas City firm that was named last year’s AIA Architect of the Year, designed the new campus on the site of the former Eden Hall Farm.

The Pines Tavern offers easygoing outdoor dining and the perfect atmosphere for a summer night.Bob Berkebile, FAIA/Principal at BNIM who originated the LEED standards for the U.S. Green Building Council, has said the site (a hilltop source of two streams) inspired the design. “Our plan starts at the headwaters—two streams [that are] ephemeral on site,” he says. “Treating every drop of water that falls as a precious resource and using that as a guiding principle changes the community equation, the educational research and the whole sense of reconnecting ourselves with nature.”

The plan that BNIM developed with Andropogon,  landscape architects from Philadelphia, calls for smart buildings well beyond LEED standards, demonstration projects for hydroponics and organic agriculture, and regenerated forests and waterways—as well as restaurants, theaters and public art.

The Pine-Richland School District’s new upper-elementary school, with plenty of natural light and energy efficiencies, meets national green-building standards. Novak, a former school-board member, says that reflects local values.

“It’s more West Coast than East Coast. It’s aware of its environment,” he says. “The district has a mission—it offers something different for someone moving in to the area.” Novak also sees the Butler County border as “an economic powerhouse” for the region, with university and scientific brainpower.

Richland Township grew 20 percent in the past decade as families purchased large, secluded homes among its farms and gleaming, contemporary churches. With growth, though, come challenges: Additional commuters and school buses have created more traffic along its two-lane roads, particularly Route 910 (Wexford Road) because the area’s major shopping district sits at the merge point for I-79 in Cranberry Township.

The township has already completed a master plan with adjacent Middlesex Township that balances the preservation of green space with new development.



It’s where hipsters go to have kids,” says Frank Oreto, who recently moved Eljay’s, his classic used-book store, from South Side to West Liberty Avenue. Affordable houses and a reinvigorated Potomac Avenue shopping district, with new cafes like Sugar and the reopened Hollywood Theater, are helping to make this century-old South Hills suburb young again.

Dormont’s sturdy brick houses cluster closely on the hillsides flanking West Liberty Avenue, with many locals commuting 15 minutes to downtown via the T.  “It’s such a walking community,” says Rachel Dudley, co-owner of Dormont Dogs, a cozy new eatery on Glenmore Avenue.

Comfortable, affordable old homes are a magnet for couples like Matt and Dawn Crowe, who returned to the area after living in Boulder, Colo., and Athens, Ga. They’re now renovating a 19th century three-bedroom home on Peermont Avenue. “The house just fits us,” says Dawn, who works at the Software Engineering Institute in Oakland. “Everyone is so friendly. We instantly got to know our neighbors.”

The Dormont Pool and its bathhouse on Banksville Road (Route 19) have been a landmark since the 1920s. When budget woes threatened to close the complex five years ago, locals rallied to save it. The cause sparked a new community spirit that not only supports the pool—with annual events such as the Dormont Pub Crawl and pet-friendly Doggie Dip—but also launched a community gardening effort called DIG Dormont.

That renewed enthusiasm for this neighborhood has led to a growth of development and new business. Anne Gregory for the Bride has relocated from Mt. Lebanon to West Liberty Avenue, across the street from a new pocket park; Lachina Draperies has consolidated its manufacturing space and showroom nearby. The former South Hills Theater was demolished to make room for a new pharmacy, while the Hollywood, a landmark theater on Potomac Avenue, re-opened in May. (The Hollywood also got its own starring role when The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a new film by Summit Entertainment, used the 300-seat movie house for a recent location shoot.)

Two alumni from downtown’s Sonoma Grille opened cafes on Potomac Avenue. Captain Barnes, the former executive chef, opened Dormont Dogs with spouse Dudley three years ago, naming 14 varieties of hot dogs for local streets (the Texas Avenue is topped with chili sauce). This spring, pastry chef Kelly James opened her cheerful coffee shop, Sugar, a few doors away.

The venerable DorStop, a diner that’s been featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” pulled its loyal clientele to a new corner location, and on Potomac Avenue, a much-needed market, People’s Grocery, is open for business.

And more growth is on the way. With its selection to participate in Allegheny Together, a new assistance program for pedestrian business districts in the county, Dormont’s merchants will get help with everything from facade improvements to new residential development.

Meanwhile, Aiken Elementary, one of three grade schools in the Keystone Oaks School District, achieved a top-10 rank for its third- and fourth-grade state test scores last year. “Dormont’s in transition,” says Colleen Lehman, a real-estate agent who co-chaired this year’s Pub Crawl. “There’s more foot traffic and a nice feel. It’s really exciting.”


The striking appearance of Upper St. Clair High School matches the district’s shining reputation.

With a two-year-old $28 million recreational complex along Boyce Road, this prestigious South Hills address close to the Washington County line border continues to go big.

This community of spacious colonial homes with verdant, rolling lawns was recently ranked as the state’s No. 1 school district for the sixth straight year, based on students’ scores on the statewide PSSA exams. The high-school campus, rising like the Starship Enterprise at the corner of Washington and McLaughlin Run roads, was expanded and renovated in 2000.

The district followed that project with reconstruction of all three elementary schools and two middle schools—the latter to be completed this year. Now, community discussions center on new uses for the former Consol Energy campus on Washington Road.

When the community of 19,000-plus began to explore options for a new community center 12 years ago, its plans were equally expansive. The result is a fitness center that apes the curve of the high-school building. Even outsiders happily pay membership fees to use its indoor and outdoor water parks, track and trails, fitness centers, gyms and other amenities.

“There’s nothing like it in the state,” says Paul Besterman, USC recreation director. “We worked on it for 10 years before it opened.” The 90,000-square-foot facility, located on 475 acres in the township’s Boyce Mayview Park, pays all operating costs through the sale of memberships. Some 9,000 folks—28 percent of them from outside the township—now use the center. A family can purchase an annual pass for $82.

Ten miles of trails, winding past community sports fields, are hard-scaped for cycling or walking. Annual events include an Earth Day Extravaganza, fall festival and kids’ triathlon. “What’s really cool is that we meet all ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards,” says Besterman. “We’re working with the school district’s SNAP (special-needs adaptive program) to get everyone to participate.”


With mainstays like the Chelsea Grille, Oakmont is a regular destination for relocating ‘Burghers.

After years of waiting, this charming riverfront town finally has a new neighbor in Edgewater, a 242-home planned community along the Allegheny River. Developers EQA Landmark and the KACIN Companies pulled nearly $1 million in scrap steel from the site, the former Edgewater steel mill, before finally breaking ground earlier this year.

With walking paths that connect to the business district in Oakmont—now with a growing restaurant row—Edgewater will appeal to empty-nesters as well as young families, a good prescription for a healthy town.

“We had our first apartment in Oakmont 37 years ago. It’s nice to retire here,” says Cassie Wright, surveying construction on her new $600,000 home facing the Allegheny River.

Wright and her husband, Dan, are relocating from their home in Plum, “but we’re not downsizing,” she says. Their new residence, a traditional two-story with a broad front porch overlooking waterfront trails, will have a recreation room, two spare bedrooms and an elevator. LEED certification on models ranging from single-family homes to one-floor condos means that energy and water-saving features are built in.

The new community is built along the same tidy street grid as the existing borough, which was founded in 1889. New residents can use the boat launch at the end of California Avenue and stroll the trails to the popular mix of boutiques and restaurants along Allegheny Avenue and Allegheny River Boulevard.

Notion, the five-star eatery created by famed chef Dave Racicot, opened in the space of the former Boulevard Bistro. With institutions like the Oaks Theater, Mystery Lovers Bookshop and the beloved Oakmont Bakery, the business district bustles.

The preserved Allegheny Valley Railroad train station in the center of town may eventually welcome commuters again. The mayor’s plan to develop a “green spine” along the Allegheny—from Arnold to downtown via Lawrenceville—envisions public transit and parkland. The proposed plan recently received $1.5 million in federal planning money.

Oakmont Country Club hosted the U.S Open in 2007, and Edgewater has already welcomed out-of-town club members who will use the community as a summer home. Younger families choose the surrounding neighborhood for the small (1,080-student) Riverview School District. “It’s an excellent district,” says Wright, who should know: She recently retired from teaching elementary students in the nearby Fox Chapel School District.


The tranquility of rural Pennsylvania is a fact of life in Murrysville, less than an hour from downtown.

After years of Route 22 construction, this community has resumed its growth. Mayor Bob Brooks says the community has gained about 75 building permits within the last year in such developments as Sinan Farms, Serenity Pointe, Barrington Heights and Klifton Villa Estates. Several of these developments are in the process of going through approval or are in construction. Careful zoning, however, preserves the area’s wide-open rural feel.

At nearly 40 square miles, almost twice the size of nearby Monroeville, “we look rural,” says Brooks. Efforts by the Westmoreland Conservancy have helped maintain the rural character of Murrysville throughout the years with the addition of parkland and open space. With its location in Westmoreland County, just over the Allegheny County line, Murrysville boasts property taxes that are nearly 25 percent lower than neighboring communities in Allegheny County.

The residents also provide support for the Franklin Regional School District, a high-performing district whose science curriculum was cited by Carnegie Science Center as the region’s best in 2010. The district’s high-school fields host 15 different sports teams, and its well-regarded marching band will represent Pennsylvania in the January 2012 Rose Bowl parade.

During the past decade, Murrysville’s population has grown 6 percent to more than 20,000. One factor pushing growth is UPMC East; the health system’s new $240 million Monroeville hospital, now under construction along Mosside Boulevard. The building is a state-of-the-art, 156-bed facility slated to open in summer 2012. The LEED-certified complex will create hundreds of jobs at full capacity.

Murrysville itself has seen the beginnings of business district expansion with a new medical-office building and a regional headquarters for PNC Bank, both of which will open along William Penn Highway this year. Other additions to the area will be a standalone restaurant, strip mall and indoor hockey rink.

When it comes time for fun, Murrysville offers some significant resources. With eight community and neighborhood parks, this borough has the largest park acreage per resident in the region—some 1,300 acres. Wetlands, dog parks and other passive conservation areas attract wildlife as well as trail users.

At Murrysville Community Park, the largest of the borough’s recreation spots, something new is being added: Miracle Field. The Murrysville-Export Rotary Club has raised $1.4 million to date (sufficient funding to begin construction) of the total project cost, which is $1.8 million. The completed project will showcase a hard-surfaced area, suitable for use by athletes with disabilities, which adjoins the park’s array of soccer and baseball fields.


Parents sending their kids to South Fayette High School may find themselves jealous of the idyllic campus.

Along the growing airport corridor in the western suburbs, South Fayette is undergoing a building boom. Luxurious single-family homes dot the hills close to the Hickory Heights Golf Club, near the intersection of Route 50 and I-79.

This formerly rural area offers a commodity that’s hard to find in inner-ring communities: new residential construction. One of the region’s most ambitious new developments, Newbury Market, has broken ground along Presto-Sygan Road, reclaiming an old industrial site as a New Urbanist community that promotes walkable streets, shared open space and a variety of price points.

Newbury Market is redeveloping 300 acres of a site formerly used by the industrial-chemical firm Koppers. Planning and site remediation took more than five years, says Brett Malky, a South Fayette resident and president of EQA Landmark, the managing-partner firm for the development.

Construction and the retail and commercial businesses created within the new community are expected to bring 2,000 new jobs to the area, which combines traditional features like front porches and sidewalks with shared open space, walking and biking trails, and even a sledding hill. In the first phase of the project, 200 homes will be for sale along with 240 rentals. “We have properties from the twos ($200,000) to the one-point-twos ($1.2 million),” says Malky.

Shailesh Bokil, who purchased a home in the Forest Ridge section of the township three years ago, says young families are attracted by the reputation of the South Fayette School District.

“The schools are brand-new, and the primary and middle schools are Blue Ribbon schools,” he notes, referring to national recognition of the district’s middle school (in 2006) and its elementary school (in 2010). “There’s lots of open space, big backyards, a lot of farmland.”

Bokil, who travels worldwide as director of recruiting for Computer Enterprises International in Scott Township, appreciates the 15-minute travel time to Pittsburgh International Airport. His wife, Sangeeta, is equally close to her office in Bayer USA’s Robinson Township headquarters.

South Fayette also draws workers from Southpointe, a new headquarters hub for the region’s Marcellus Shale extraction industry, along I-79. More than 100,000 commuters pass the area daily. Those commuting to downtown Pittsburgh can take advantage of the Port Authority’s Park and Ride lot on Route 50 for a 20-minute bus commute to the city.


Christine H. O’Toole is a longtime Pittsburgh magazine contributor who lives in Mt. Lebanon, a South Hills “streetcar suburb.”