Squirrel Hill gets parking garages
HistorySituation complicated by intense emotions

Squirrel Hill gets parking garages

In the third of a three-part series, the city tries to accommodate a huge influx of traffic without upsetting the delicate balance between residents and businesses.

The 2000 block of Murray, showing Pinsker’s, M. Fogel Meats, Murray News Stand, Stern’s Café, and Kablin’s Market— Nov. 3, 1965. (Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives)
The 2000 block of Murray, showing Pinsker’s, M. Fogel Meats, Murray News Stand, Stern’s Café, and Kablin’s Market— Nov. 3, 1965. (Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives)

Squirrel Hill was a leading commercial district in the 1960s.

A city survey from 1965 counted 280 commercial properties in the Murray-Forbes business corridor. Only 12 were vacant. The commercial district reported some $18 million in annual sales. Adjusted for inflation, that would exceed $180 million today.

The problem was traffic.

Even though Squirrel Hill lost about 2,000 people in the 1960s, it was increasingly choked with cars. Its popular shopping district sat between an important freeway interchange and one of the most densely populated sections of the city. Squirrel Hill couldn’t handle local traffic as well as pass-through traffic. “Traffic congestion and parking space deficiencies are growing to major proportions which will eventually strangle commercial activity,” the city predicted in a 1967 survey of the neighborhood.

The survey marked Bartlett Street as “perhaps the most congested location on Murray Avenue.” The Giant Eagle parking lot connected directly with Murray Avenue at the time, cutting through a sidewalk. It created a persistent bottleneck during peak hours.

For three days in June 1967—coincidentally, during the Six-Day War—a city technician stood at Murray and Bartlett, counting cars and people. In a given 30-minute period, about 114 people crossed the driveway and between 60-70 cars crossed the sidewalk.

Traffic lights at that intersection already cut drive time on Murray in half. The light was red for 30 minutes each hour. The two lanes of cars waiting to enter the parking lot cut drive time in half again, down to 15 minutes each hour. Some 12,000 cars passed through the intersection daily. There was extreme congestion and a high risk of collisions.

The city recommended moving the entrance of the Giant Eagle parking lot onto Bartlett Street, and moving the exit onto Murray Avenue. To accommodate the change, Bartlett Street and Darlington Street would become one way from Shady to Wightman.

Giant Eagle rejected the plan. It preferred a new left-turn lane on Murray Avenue.

The city agreed but forgot to cancel the work orders for reversing Bartlett and Darlington between Murray and Shady. For days dozens of people unknowingly parked illegally.

It took a campaign by business and civic leaders to get the turn lane removed, the meters reinstalled, all the streets returned to normal, and all the parking tickets waived.

Eventually, the city and Giant Eagle agreed to the current solution: Darlington heading one-way toward Shady, and Bartlett heading one-way toward Murray, and a quarter block of two-way traffic on Bartlett to allow shoppers on Murray to enter the parking lot.

The Bureau of Traffic Planning report had additional ideas for improving traffic.

It proposed left-turn lanes on Murray, Shady, and Beacon. (Beacon got one.) It proposed installing more than 100 meters on residential side streets within 200 feet of Murray Avenue. (Bartlett and Darlington got a few.) It wanted to extend all meters to 9 p.m., create 30-minute parking zones in front of the Post Office and the Baskin-Robbins. It wanted to add loading zones to allow service vehicles to park along Murray Avenue.

As this traffic study was underway, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority was completing a long review of downtown and Oakland and turning its attention to the neighborhoods.

It launched a $1.632 million plan in 1969 to build eight parking lots in Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, the North Side, Brookline, and East Liberty. Squirrel Hill got two. (East Liberty got three, a desperate attempt to self-correct from the failures of redevelopment.)

The first parking lot was connected with a new Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branch.

In the early 1960s, the library launched the largest expansion in its history. It planned to modernize several existing branches and build new branches in Woods Run, Knoxville, Beechview, East Liberty, and Squirrel Hill. The Squirrel Hill branch would be an experimental “joint development concept,” intended to be replicated. It would have a 76-space parking garage, an open plaza, and commercial facilities with a new library.

Although it was approved by 1969, the complex wasn’t built until 1972. The Flaherty Administration tried to cancel the project in early 1970, and then came the usual delays.

In addition to the new library, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority purchased five properties on Douglas Street and Phillips Avenue for the new 48-space Mid-Murray parking lot. It was again funded partly through a bond sale to merchants. It opened in July 1970.

The Flaherty administration made no major changes to Squirrel Hill parking. Early in the Caliguiri administration, in 1978, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority conducted a new parking survey. It found that the streets off the business district were 90 percent occupied.

The city found a lot at the northwest corner of Murray and Darlington. It planned a two-story garage with 73 spaces. Years of deliberation ensued with residents on Darlington, who felt that the post office loading dock and the drive-through bank across the street already made traffic so tight that emergency vehicles couldn’t easily get down the street.

As these negotiations were underway, the Jewish Community Center was planning a major expansion in Squirrel Hill. It first considered Wightman Playground. In the face of neighborhood opposition, it next considered an open section of the Smithfield United Church cemetery at S. Dallas and Aylesboro. Again, there was local opposition.

And so in 1985 the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and the Jewish Community Center worked out a deal. The Jewish Community Center would build a new 95,000-square foot facility at its existing location, and it would lease part of the basement to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority—for 75 years without charge—for a 70-space metered parking lot.

That was the last big expansion of public parking facilities in Squirrel Hill.

Like most residents of Squirrel Hill, I often have small and large moments of frustration arising from neighborhood traffic. The history put things in perspective.

Accommodating the growing demand for parking while retaining the character of the neighborhood is a complicated. It’s made more complicated by intense emotions: business owners worried about their livelihoods, residents worried about their property.

The city didn’t always get the parking situation right in Squirrel Hill, but it didn’t get it catastrophically wrong either. The car could have killed Squirrel Hill. It didn’t. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at rjarchives@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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