Squirrel Hill gets parking lots
HistoryMajor traffic changes throughout Squirrel Hill in the 1950s

Squirrel Hill gets parking lots

In the second of a three-part series, the city negotiates the construction of the first parking lots in Squirrel Hill. Giant Eagle works on building a third.

Workers painting a storefront in the 2100 block of Murray Avenue, just up from the corner of Murray and Douglas, June 25, 1951   (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh Archives & Special Collections)
Workers painting a storefront in the 2100 block of Murray Avenue, just up from the corner of Murray and Douglas, June 25, 1951 (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh Archives & Special Collections)

Squirrel Hill lost a few people and gained a lot of cars in the 1950s.

The population of the neighborhood declined by nearly 1,200 over the decade, or about 3.5%. Car ownership across the entire city increased by more than 30%.

By the end of the 1950s, two-thirds of Pittsburgh families owned a car, up from half at the start of the decade. Even though Pittsburgh was still near the bottom of major metropolitan areas when it came to car ownership — only New York was lower — the rate of growth here was almost 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

I was unable to find neighborhood specific figures, but the rate of car ownership has historically always been higher in wealthier neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill.

The opening of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and the Parkway East in 1953 created major traffic changes throughout Squirrel Hill. Murray Avenue now fed into an interstate.

To accommodate all those cars, there was curbside parking outside homes, metered parking throughout the business district, and a few small private lots, garages and driveways. The Pittsburgh Parking Authority had been formed in 1946, and yet, by the mid-1950s, there were still no city-owned off-street parking lots in Squirrel Hill.

Meanwhile, the new Miracle Mile in Monroeville had rows upon rows of free parking.

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority surveyed Squirrel Hill in the late 1950s and concluded the neighborhood needed 235 additional off-street parking spaces to meet demand.

It initially looked for a location near the intersection of Murray Avenue and Beacon Street. It bought two houses with adjoining backyards just west of Murray Avenue — one on Beacon, one on Bartlett. It would be enough space for a paved lot with 72 spaces. The Squirrel Hill Board of Trade supported the proposal, calling it “urgently needed.”

Both properties had to be rezoned. At a December 1958 hearing, a property owner on Bartlett Street fretted about the impact on neighborhood zoning. Why, he asked, couldn’t the authority have acquired the larger vacant lot on the other side of Murray Avenue?

In the meeting minutes, this lot is called “the Reichbaum property.” It previously had been home to the Block Building, anchored by a Perl-Reichbaum Co. grocery store.

The Block Building was an important commercial development, filled with shops and offices, including the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. The building was destroyed in a major fire in 1956. After it was demolished, it was used as a commercial parking lot.

An authority staffer explained that the Reichbaum property was “under study by the owner for a building which will have its own parking but will not remain a parking lot.”

The proposed building was Giant Eagle. The Squirrel Hill branch was located at that time on the other side of Murray Avenue, but the company was planning to build a small, standalone store at the corner of Murray and Bartlett with a 40-car parking lot behind it.

It’s fascinating to read through the minutes of the February 1959 hearing, knowing how things turned out. So many questions raised at the meeting eventually came to pass.

Was the parking lot too small? Would Giant Engle eventually need additional properties to expand?

The answer at the time was no. Ultimately, though, Giant Eagle purchased the former Chofetz Chaim synagogue and expanded the lot all the way to Beacon Street.

Would the lot be available to everyone? No, just Giant Eagle customers — like today.

Even so, the Squirrel Hill Board of Trade favored the plan. They argued it would ease parking throughout the business district. It was common for shoppers to circle the block in search of parking, sometimes finding it blocks away, always in front of other businesses. And this was still the day when clerks regularly carried groceries to the car.

Would the lot create traffic issues on Bartlett Street? We’ll save that’s for next time.

As with the parking meters in the 1940s, the business community largely favored these two parking lots. At the hearing, Giant Eagle presented a petition with signatures from 700 supportive shoppers. Opposition came mostly from the residential community.

Both lots were ultimately constructed. Giant Eagle got permission to build a new store with an adjoining parking lot. The city built the parking lot between Beacon and Bartlett.

The Squirrel Hill Board of Trade helped finance the Beacon Street lot. Local business owners covered a third of the $150,000 cost by purchasing bonds at 4% interest.

Even with these two new lots, Squirrel Hill still needed between 83 and 123 spaces to reach the Pittsburgh Parking Authority goal — depending on whether you counted the Giant Eagle lot among the total. And so the Pittsburgh Parking Authority was already developing another parking lot in Squirrel Hill, this time at Forbes and Shady avenues.

The northwest corner of Forbes and Shady at that time was an Atlantic Refining Co. service station. Behind it was a large single-story building, previously a used car lot.

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority approved a plan in late 1962 to raze the single story building, freeing up space behind Forbes Avenue for a parking lot with 65 spaces.

Financing came from another bond sale among local businesses and from $120,000 in meter revenue. And so, in a way, residents, shoppers, and businesses all footed the bill.

Now the city needed another 18 to 58 spaces to reach its goal. It pursued much more. 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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