ome, famously, wasn’t built in a day. In fact, it took more than 1,200 years. With that in mind, the two years it has taken to get Uptown Mt. Lebanon to its substantial completion point seems, well, less bad. Truthfully, for those who work, shop and visit on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon’s Central Business District, the $4 million Vibrant Uptown project was a difficult thing to endure. But now, the first stage of the project is ripe for enjoyment and utility, even as punchlist items are still being completed as of this September writing.
Let’s back it up a bit.
Uptown, which is both a Nationally Accredited Main Street and an important part of Mt. Lebanon’s National Historic District, was most recently updated in 1993, with a $600,000 streetscape program that added new furniture, sidewalks, streetlights and plantings. In the decades since then, manufacture of the streetlights we had was discontinued, so parts to complete repairs were no longer available. The lights themselves did not provide enough illumination or coverage to ensure a well-lit nighttime walk.
The electrical system was inadequate to run a simple food truck generator. And we did not have enough seating to create inviting places to rest with an ice cream cone or laptop computer, nor was our seating configuration good for those with difficulty hearing, since the seats faced the street and not each other.
The planters were pretty but did not have irrigation, so buckets of water were required to keep greenery alive. They were too low to sit on and too high to walk over. And we did not have enough trash and recycling containers or bike racks.
The municipality studied the district extensively four times, using consultants in the 2013 Comprehensive Plan and a strategic plan (both by Environmental Planning and Design), a public space improvement plan (evolveEA) and a placemaking plan (Design Island).
In 2019, the municipality appointed a leadership committee (Andrew Flynn and Mindy Ranney from the Commission, Municipal Manager Keith McGill, Assistant Manager/Planner Ian McMeans, Commercial Districts Manager Eric Milliron, representatives from Gateway Engineers, members of the Economic Development Council and the Mt. Lebanon Partnership Design Committee).
Along the way, groups of people with a vested interest in the project gave input at workshops, including Washington Road business owners, members of the Economic Development Council, Environmental Sustainability Board, Historic Preservation Board, Equal Opportunity Board, Parks Advisory Board and the school district. Penny Reddy, a subject expert on disability design planning, ensured the project employed the best urban planning practices.
Project design ultimately came from our consultants at Gateway Engineers and landscape/urban design experts at LaQuatra Bonci Associates.
In the middle of the planning phase, Mt. Lebanon was forced to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but still got the project out to bid in 2021. Plavchak Construction received the contract and work began in September 2021.
Over the next two years, the plans were revised to make the most of supply chain issues. Instead of doing small sections and completing them before moving on to the next area, plans shifted the staging to allow specific topics to be completed. Access to businesses, while cumbersome and requiring walking detours much of the time, allowed the businesses to stay open. Thanks to this planning, we retained our historically low vacancy rate throughout the project.
To thank the residents and businesses for their patience and to help celebrate the substantial completion of the project, Mt. Lebanon threw a street party on Saturday, August 5, with assistance from the Mt. Lebanon Partnership.
The party, called Uptown Unveiled, included a ribbon cutting from our local and regional elected officials who helped secure grants for the project, including State Rep. Dan Miller and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Commissioners and local shop owners took part in the celebration as well. We had amazing weather and the shops and restaurants were packed, many of them providing samples on the street.
Phase 2 will include the placemaking plan. This phase will not be as disruptive as the last. Where the last phase focused on infrastructure, this stage will look at how we use the spaces.
One of the often-discussed areas is Parse Way, the street parallel to Washington Road that runs from the light rail station to Alfred Street. Long known as a bus cut-through and pigeon discotheque, plans call for this space to be made useful, attractive and accessible. Other areas to receive a look are Cleaview Common, perhaps with better seating for concerts and other activities. The Alfred Street parking area will also get a review and the municipality is looking to install public art within the district.
As climate change makes our temperatures warmer, shade structures could be part of the plan to help keep our greenery thriving.
If you haven’t visited Uptown lately, please go. Bring friends for a meal, peruse the stores and the markets and remind yourself of how fortunate we are to have such a beautiful and flexible public space within walking distance of so many of our homes. As the Romans used to say, “Carpe Diem.”