#2 Strip District Neighborhood
Pittsburgh’s Best Neighborhoods
Strip District Neighborhood Description
I don’t know if there is a neighborhood more Yinzer than the Strip District. The Strip District is quintessential Pittsburgh with a diverse mix of warehouses, restaurants, churches, bars, and shops. It’s also party central along Penn Avenue. For newcomers to metro Pittsburgh, downtown tends to be the first destination to explore, and with good reason, but the Strip District should be placed second on the list because it’s essentially the cultural hearth of western PA. Shops spill out onto the sidewalk with Steelers gear, patchouli-centric hippy stuff, and café seating. There are those pedal-party trolley things distracting pedestrians with revelry. You can buy potpourri at Roxanne’s Dried Flowers or San Marzano canned tomatoes at Penn Mac or the best lobster roll in PA at Roland’s, among many other things. That’s called retail diversity. If you’re into party neighborhoods, the Strip District has you covered, but it’s not like walking down 6th Ave. in Austin or High St. in Columbus or Pioneer Square in Seattle or [name that party neighborhood]. The Strip District still has standards. It will get raucous but in a Pittsburgh way. Most retail closes by 5:00. Bars close when the customers dry out, and then the Strip District just becomes a normal high-density neighborhood again.
A Front Door
The 16th Street Bridge provides a hell of a gateway into the Strip District. Other access points lack for gateways.
An Identifiable Center
The linear Penn Avenue serves as the center of the Strip District. It also serves as the cultural hearth for all things Yinzer.
Boundaries for the Strip District come easy. Polish Hill is up the hill, the Allegheny River is on the other side, Lawrenceville and downtown offer the bookends. The Strip District is a well-defined neighborhood.
The Strip District sure feels dense, particularly on Penn Ave. But Penn Ave has what Allan Jacobs, who wrote a book called Great Streets, would call definition — street and sidewalk width (public space) is perfectly proportional to the two and three-story buildings that primarily line Penn Ave. Which is to say, the buildings on Penn Ave are short, the street width is narrow, so it feels like the spaces are proportionate. Such things don’t translate to density, however, despite how jam-packed Penn Ave feels. Off Penn Ave and on the east end of it, taller warehouse buildings are being converted to residential. Check out 1627 on The Strip, for instance, as a great example. Such investments into the neighborhood will dramatically help with sustainable neighborhood viability.
Detached Sidewalks and Street Trees
There are not many detached sidewalks in the Strip District, but there are plenty of detached single men and women. On the subject of street trees, it is a rare event whereby Pittsburgh Planner makes an argument against them, but this is one of them, as follows: 1) The sidewalks along Penn Ave are so congested that one could make an argument that navigating around tree wells would not help; 2) despite the beauty, color, and environmental benefits of trees, the beauty, color, and street energy of shops spilling out onto the sidewalk would be diminished by planting trees. Nevertheless, as far as streetscaping goes, the Strip District is ever so close to tipping over into a pedestrian only street, by which, if pursued, the opportunity poses all sorts of interesting design ideas.
Diverse Architecture and Buildings That Address the Street
The architecture of the Strip District feels like warehouses, as it should since it was one of the primary warehouse areas off of downtown in Pittsburgh. The neighborhood, the city, and the real estate investment market appear conscious of what makes the Strip District unique because all of those old warehouses are being rehabbed, preserved, and transitioned into different uses. The market activity in the Strip District is a sign of city that knows how to value its history. Nearly every building in the Strip District addresses the street. Several second story balconies provide drunken oversight from above, and shop keepers monitor their sidewalk inventory as it spills out of their space onto the sidewalk.
Mixed Land Uses
The Strip District is a masterclass in revitalizing an old, dying, inner-city warehouse neighborhood into something that defines a comeback city. Residential is located above commercial shops, new townhomes were constructed on old industrial/warehouse parcels. Paved trails will take you into downtown Pittsburgh or up to Lawrenceville. Perhaps the best part is the pox of perceived gentrification does not hang over the neighborhood because it’s pretty tough to gentrify a bunch of old warehouses.
There is more regular street energy in the Strip District than any other neighborhood in Pittsburgh. The North Shore neighborhood has energy on game and event days, but that’s irregular. On any given early Saturday afternoon, throngs of people crowd into the Strip District for shopping, sipping, eating, and carousing up and down Penn Ave.
Streets That Generally Connect
Just regular old transit authority buses serve the Strip District.
There are three boutique grocery stores, restaurants, bars, diverse retail options, and lots of residential throughout the neighborhood. It’s quite easy living in the Strip District without a vehicle.
Opportunities for Improvement
1) Penn Mac needs to stay open later. There are three grocery stores on The Strip — Penn Mac (Italian), Wholey’s (seafood), and Lotus Food (Chinese / East Asian) — and they all have their own niche. Taken together, they provide the necessities needed to avoid jumping in the car and driving to a traditional grocery store. Penn Mac is probably the best grocer in the metro but closing at 4:00 does not provide a service for those that live in the neighborhood (or those that live in the metro). For the record, there’s also a smaller Middle Eastern grocer, and a Polish meats grocer.
2) Let’s talk about pedestrian only streets, which were a fad in the 2000s but, because of numerous failed projects around the country, leaders and planners and people that consider such things have become increasingly gun-shy closing down streets to vehicular traffic. However, what was learned from said failed projects is the streets that local leaders closed were already dead, and they closed them in the hopes of attracting people to the area. The educational moment is don’t close down a street and make a pedestrian mall unless the pedestrians are already there in droves to begin with because a ped mall unto itself is not the attraction, it’s the street energy that attracts people to the area. The Strip District is the premier neighborhood in Pittsburgh with street energy. The challenge is Penn Ave will lose hundreds of street parking spaces if it closes down to vehicular traffic.
It’s nothing a public/private partnership can’t solve. Take all that new tax money from all the new investments taking place, tax increment it, and find a spot to build an anchor parking garage just off Penn Ave (and there are plenty of other ways to create revenue streams to build a parking structure). Simultaneously, design streetscape improvements with the intent to transition a portion of Penn Ave into a ped mall — with trees, color, delivery access, bus access (perhaps BRT), benches, landscaping, and anything and everything you can do now that there is another 50 feet of right of way to play with.
Whatever the strategy might be to make the magic happen, the point is there is a stretch of Penn Ave that’s worth considering transitioning into a ped mall, even if it’s only during high congestion hours. The Strip District is on fire. Fan the flames.