An Acre of Possibilities

An Acre of Possibilities, 841 Feet in the Sky

The Next Page: Sunday, January 24, 2010

By David Bear / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For the last 40 years, Pittsburgh has had bragging rights to a site that is singular in the entire world. Unfortunately, nobody realized it.

Rising 841 feet above Grant Street, the U.S. Steel Tower has been the city’s tallest building since it opened in August 1970. Built by U.S. Steel as its corporate headquarters and designed by the firm of Harrison, Abramovitz & Abbe, the building attained stature in architectural circles for its distinctive triangular footprint and its innovative, external girdering system that pioneered the use of Cor-ten steel.

Also noteworthy is the unique floor plan, with each of its 64 stories measuring an acre in area, a rarity in tall buildings that invariably get smaller horizontally the more vertical they’re built.

And the U.S. Steel Tower’s rooftop, intended originally as a heliport but unused for that purpose in 18 years, stands high over Mount Washington and is the high center point in a circumference of southwestern Pennsylvania that extends to the horizon in all directions. It’s a truly spectacular view.

But as I discovered relatively recently, this remarkable roof also holds a singular international distinction. Because while the U.S. Steel Tower doesn’t make the world’s 100 tallest buildings in terms of height or number of floors, it stands out in terms of roof area. In fact, nowhere else even comes close.

Emporis, a leading international building data firm, has certified that the U.S. Steel Tower has the “largest roof in the world at its height or above.”

Simply stated, the peak of Pittsburgh is the largest, highest space on top of any building on earth!

How I happened on this bit of knowledge involves a bit of background.

Post-Gazette readers may recall a column I wrote in August 2001, when I was the paper’s travel editor. The “Top of the Triangle,” the restaurant that had occupied the entire 62nd and highest occupied floor since the building opened, was being closed. Less chagrined at the loss of what had become a mediocre dining venue than the unmatched view of the Golden Triangle it offered, I raised the possibility of preserving some form of public access to that floor for a “Pittsburgh Promenade.”

After all, many cities have a pinnacle of perspective where people go to see the view, a signature landmark like the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building. Yet, while Pittsburgh is blessed with dramatic places from which to behold what USA Today has labeled America’s second most beautiful urban landscape, all of them look in at Downtown, and usually across a river. The restaurant’s closing left us with no place Downtown to look out from the city.

That column received more reader response than any I wrote in my 10-year tenure, all of it positive. Yet the idea went dormant just three weeks later on Sept. 11, 2001, when our national sentiment about being up in tall buildings was tragically changed. The restaurant closed, and for more than five years, the top floor of the U.S. Steel Tower stayed empty.

The announcement in April 2007 that UPMC had leased that prime space and several other floors in the tower for its corporate headquarters revived the notion, indicating to me that perhaps our collective uneasiness about being in tall buildings had subsided. I wrote a follow-up column proposing the “UPMC Promenade” on the 62nd floor. And I discovered readers’ interest in the idea remained strong. An online poll drew more than 3,000 responses, and I received many dozen enthusiastic e-mail messages.

But when UPMC said that although the idea was interesting, it had other plans for the space on the 62nd floor, that was as far as the idea went.

Or not.

Several weeks later, I happened to be on my computer, Googling satellite images of Downtown. Zooming in on the building, I was struck at how the triangular footprint of the U.S. Steel Tower closely mimics Pittsburgh’s Point in both outline and orientation, and that it is flat, empty and very large. Using the Google Map measuring tool, I learned that the roof’s square footage amounted to an acre. I wondered what better use could be made of that space.

That question was the start of a process which led me to STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, a center for experimental enterprises across academic disciplines at Carnegie Mellon University. After presenting my idea, I was invited to conduct an investigation to explore realistic options for making best sustainable use of this most singular rooftop platform and the unprecedented civic opportunity it presents.

In the ideal, the vision that has evolved is to create a high-visibility, publicly accessible, sustainable facility we call High Point Park. Initial analysis indicates such as facility could become an important civic asset, a unique, Downtown first-day attraction that could earn a regional, national, even international reputation for the Pittsburgh area as a leader in green innovation and foster a re-evaluation of the uses of high rooftops everywhere. The Investigation has already won endorsements from area organizations such as VisitPittsburgh.com and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

We believe that by employing the latest green design and construction techniques, by using suitable plantings and irrigation systems to mitigate rainwater runoff, High Point Park could be a world-unique, environmentally self-sustaining facility and showplace of solar sensibilities, a welcome center to both educate people about Pittsburgh and refer them to the area’s other tourism assets and cultural institutions.

Finally, by incorporating cutting-edge photovoltaics and wind-powered systems, this facility might actually generate electricity, a “Downtown dynamo” that could reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

Unique in all the world, Pittsburgh’s amazing “Park in the Sky” could become a showpiece of southwestern Pennsylvania civic pride, an attraction for visitors from near and far, a magnet for the world’s attention that would enhance Pittsburgh’s reputation as a leading green and solar city, and ultimately a signature architectural icon on the order of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

One current aspect of our Investigation has been the High Point Park sketch design/case competition, a pair of academic exercises that have taken place across the CMU campus during the last two weeks.

Very briefly, these two “flash” competitions, one in the School of Architecture and a second at the Institute for Social Innovation at Heinz College, challenged more than 300 CMU students, both graduate and undergraduate, to creatively consider how this auspicious but presently unused acre 64 stories in the sky might be used for the betterment of the city and the region.

Thirty-two architectural design teams had four days to produce conceptual project “sketches” imagining how that rooftop space might be used to create that self-sustaining showcase.

Five sketches were selected by the architecture faculty to become the models in the business case competition that followed. Five teams of graduate student teams from Heinz College and Tepper School of Business were given five days to analyze these sketches financially and develop business plans for them based on a “three bottom line” basis: the project must be economically self-sustaining, feature green technologies and/or energy efficiency and also provide benefits to society and the region. This interdisciplinary undertaking was itself somewhat innovative, even on as entrepreneurial a campus as CMU.

Last Tuesday, our panel of five distinguished, off-campus professionals evaluated the five case presentations and picked first place and a runner-up. The sketch on this page represents the first-place finisher, a design conceived as a “Vertical Gallery Crawl.” It envisions transforming the rooftop into an extension of an increasingly popular Downtown activity and includes some very dramatic external elevators. Far out, perhaps — but according to these quick studies, also entirely feasible.

I can report that making final choices was no easy decision. Myriad excellent ideas were generated, both design concepts and business calculations. That’s what happens when creative, committed, talented young minds are energized. Judging by their collective enthusiasm, not to mention the reactions of almost everyone who hears about this idea, High Point Park could be an enormous asset for Pittsburgh.

This is not to suggest that our judges’ selection or any of the other designs will become more than visions of what might be. In real life, in addition to any findings from our ongoing investigation, actualizing any such innovative initiative will require changing a lot of perspectives, especially in these tight economic times. And the building’s present owner — a New York-based investment group — has expressed no interest in any of these ideas.

But who knows? Stranger things have happened.

Perhaps they may be interested in how much they have to gain. Even the business plans for the non-profit proposals project considerable incremental income and image will accrue to their asset as a result of High Point Park. And remember, ownership is also a transient factor.

One thing is certain: This remarkable building will be around for many more decades, and eventually that magnificent acre on top will be used for some better purpose. In the meantime, there’s no harm in dreaming, and never underestimate the power of focused civic will, especially when it comes to transforming a city.

As our branding slogan says: “Pittsburgh: Imagine What You Can Do Here.”


 

The Winning Design: “Vertical Gallery Crawl”

“The Vertical Crawl Gallery is a response to Pittsburgh’s history of progress through innovation. When first constructed, the U.S. Steel Tower showcased a new technology: Cor-ten Steel. The Vertical Crawl also showcases new innovation: Vertically moving gallery spaces.

Participants

School of Architecture students: Charles Helmstetter, Ellen Garrett, Amanda Cole, Ryan Ralston, Sarah Harkins, Kamo Widjaja, SuYun Ko, Kyle Witkoski.

Faculty: Steve Lee.

ISI Students: Steven Meersman of The Tepper School and Jessica Martin, Lavanya Shaji, Daniel Brackley and Abhay Doshi of Heinz College.

For more information

All 32 architectural sketches, PowerPoint presentations of the five case competitions and other elements about the Investigation are available at www.highpointpark.org.

You can also follow progress and participate in the conversation via Facebook at “High Point Park Investigation.”

David Bear, former Post-Gazette travel editor, is a fellow for the High Point Pittsburgh Investigation at CMU’s STUDIO for Creative Inquiry ( high-point-pittsburgh@andrew.cmu.edu ).