(Re)making the Grade

At the University of Pittsburgh, a Complete Street caps a series of student-centered outdoor spaces.

By Timothy A. Schuler

North of the student union, a new, permeable plaza provides space for events as well as informal gatherings. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

In the mid-1950s, the fast-growing University of Pittsburgh acquired two historic properties: the Hotel Schenley, built in 1898, and the Schenley Apartments, built between 1922 and 1924. The buildings were renovated for use as dormitories—and later, in the case of the hotel, a student union—but the spaces around them were left largely untouched, updated over the years to meet local codes but otherwise given little thought.

In 2015, the parking garage beneath the former apartments, now known as the Schenley Quadrangle, began to leak, and as is so often the case, it took an infrastructure failure belowground to spark a reconsideration of what was happening on the surface.

There wasn’t a lot. Students circumnavigated the areas between the five residence halls via narrow, brick-paved porticoes that skirted wide, vehicular roundabouts with metered parking around the edges. Ad hoc accessibility measures, such as temporary ramps between the grade-separated courtyards, failed to create sufficient connectivity—or even meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A contentious midblock crossing became an opportunity to rethink the streetscape that connected the campus and neighborhood. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

The university hired the landscape architects at LaQuatra Bonci Associates (LBA) to study the outdoor spaces at Schenley Quad and develop pedestrian-focused alternatives. Although some students fretted over the loss of parking and their preferred rideshare pickup and drop-off points, a campus-wide survey conducted in 2018 had revealed that, by and large, the student body wanted more open space on campus. While LBA sketched out potential schemes for the quad, however, another piece of vehicular infrastructure near the historic center of the campus emerged as its own problem area.

The Schenley buildings are separated from Pitt’s 42-story Cathedral of Learning—arguably the front door of the campus—by Bigelow Boulevard, a roughly 100-foot-wide, four-lane city street. Over the years, students’ use of an unsignaled midblock crosswalk had emerged as a flash point between the university and the surrounding community. “Twenty-seven thousand people cross that street every day,” including approximately 10,000 students at midblock, says Ron Leibow, the university’s director of capital projects. The street design was dangerous for students and chaotic for drivers, he says. “Frankly, it’s been a little bit of a toxic space. Our kids are in college. They don’t give a shit about traffic. They cross when they want.”

The new midblock crossing establishes an axis between the Cathedral of Learning and the student union. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

Some in the community wanted the midblock crossing removed. Others suggested that the university take over the street, removing it from the city grid altogether. Dan McDowell, a senior associate at LBA and the lead designer on the project, describes the existing conditions as like a game of Frogger. University leaders knew they needed to do something. “We need[ed] to improve pedestrian safety on that street,” Leibow says. “It is incumbent on us to make a safe place to move about.”

As community tensions flared, the university asked LBA to develop a more comprehensive plan for the outdoor spaces connecting the campus’s historic core, including the crossing on Bigelow Boulevard. As they did so, the landscape architects saw an opportunity to rethink the entire sequence from Schenley Quad to the Cathedral of Learning.

The original crossing. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

The result, built in phases and completed in December 2020, is a series of interconnected, people-focused plazas and courtyards that bring cohesion to a formerly disconnected landscape at the heart of campus. Within Schenley Quad, metered parking stalls and vehicular drop-off zones have been replaced with paved pedestrian plazas, curved concrete benches, movable tables, and small islands of green space. New, prominently placed ramps—precisely sized to accommodate the enormous blue carts used on move-in day—alleviate previous accessibility issues.

North of the student union, LBA raised the entire ground plane 18 inches to incorporate new stormwater and energy infrastructure and reduce the grade change between the entrance and the landscape. Punctuated by pops of colorful plantings, a wide, oval-shaped plaza—ovals are a motif within the new spaces—has permeable pavers to manage 3,500 cubic feet of stormwater while also accommodating existing events, such as a weekly farmers’ market.

The landscape improvements enhance existing circulation routes, as seen here in an early sketch. Image courtesy LBA.

A newly created terrace adjacent to an existing Starbucks, with high-top bar seating and charging stations, overlooks the plaza and accommodates outdoor study. “The student has changed dramatically from 15 years ago,” Leibow says. “They have everything in their backpack, and when it’s nice out they want to leave a building and have nice spaces to go check their email.”

Parking stalls and impervious surfaces have been replaced by pedestrian-oriented spaces, along with prominently placed ramps to ensure accessibility. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

From the plaza, the new landscape features spill out around the front of the student union, marrying the outdoor spaces west of Bigelow with a new Complete Street along the boulevard between Forbes and Fifth Avenues. With protected bike lanes, redesigned bus stops, and rain gardens that run nearly the length of the block and handle an additional 5,150 cubic feet of stormwater runoff, the Complete Street is one of the first to be built since Pittsburgh’s city council adopted a Complete Streets Policy in 2016.

For students, the most important feature is a midblock speed table, which raises the crosswalk and, with the help of impenetrable-looking concrete planters, naturally slows traffic. LBA also relocated the midblock crossing to a new axis that extends from the front of the student union to the steps of the Cathedral of Learning, establishing a new and more prominent connection between the buildings.

Parking stalls and impervious surfaces have been replaced by pedestrian-oriented spaces, along with prominently placed ramps to ensure accessibility. Photo by Denmarsh Studios/LBA.

Jeremy Brown, a project manager at LBA, says the idea to completely take apart the street and put it back together emerged over the course of the design process, in which the team sought to address the crossing while also improving the existing bike lanes and managing stormwater. “It sort of grew and grew and grew, and at one point, somebody said, ‘We’re making a Complete Street; let’s look at this like a Complete Street and make sure we’re not missing any little corners,’” Brown says.

Built in a public–public partnership between the university and the city, the $24 million upgrade was seen as a way to improve pedestrian safety while delivering on the city’s commitment to building streets that are safe for all users.

For LBA, the success of the project is a reminder that universities in dense, urban environments can still find ways to create new spaces for students. “They’re harder to find [and] more logistically difficult to navigate,” Brown says. “But with good leadership, particularly from the university, spaces can be found and created.”

Timothy A. Schuler is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor to the magazine. He lives in Honolulu.

(Re)making the Grade