Sunday, February 17, 2008

Case Study - Pittsburgh, PA

This is the second in a series of city case studies. Previously, I profiled Baltimore, Maryland. All photography with the notable exceptions of downtown and transit maps will be our personal photography.

Between June of 1998 and December of 2007, I traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on numerous occasions (roughly 10-12), whether with my family, wife, friends, or football team. I've stayed in 8 different hotels and gotten around town via 7 different transportation methods including rollerblades. I will attempt to cover all of these bases as a guide to set up a fast paced Pittsburgh visit or two.

Getting to Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh International Airport (where you are greeted by the great Franco Harris) is the 42nd busiest in the United States and was a historic major hub for U.S. Airways until 2004. Still a focus city for U.S. Airways, Pittsburgh provides 290 non-stop flights per day to 50 destinations via 31 airlines. The airport is in Findlay Township, 20 miles West of downtown (pronounced 'dahntahn' in Pittsburgh parlance). We have only flown once to Pittsburgh and it was fully comped by ProTrade as part of a prize package. There are no non-stop flights from Rochester to Pittsburgh. We stopped in Chicago on the way out and Philadelphia on the way back.

To drive from Rochester to Pittsburgh is fairly straightforward using Interstates 90 and 79. The Pennsylvania Turnpike is the standard route from Southeast sources including Philadelphia. U.S. 22 directs Northeast traffic to I-376, the Parkway East. I-279 serves the purpose of accomodating vehicles from the North and West, connecting the center city to I-79 which passes west of the city on its way to Morgantown, WV and Erie, PA. Approximate drive times from:
  • Rochester - 4.25 hours
  • Philadelphia - 4.5 hours
  • New York - 5.5 hours
  • Cleveland - 2 hours
  • Baltimore - 3.75 hours
  • Chicago - 6.75 hours

Union Station or Pennsylvania Station, commonly called "Penn Station" by locals, is a historic train station at Grant Street and Liberty Avenue. While the office tower has been converted into condominiums, and the traditonal waiting room transformed into the condo lobby, the station still acts as the Pittsburgh Amtrak station and is a stop on the Capitol Limited and Pennsylvanian routes.

The Golden Triangle

The triangular area bounded by the Allegheny River to the North and the Monongahela River to the South is the traditional downtown of Pittsburgh. At the confluence, Point State Park preserves the oldest structure in the city, the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, dating back to 1764. Downtown is the home of major corporations such as PNC Bank, U.S. Steel, PPG, Mellon Financial, Heinz, Federated Investors and Alcoa. There are 10 major bridges in downtown alone, earning the city its nickname, the "City of Bridges." Point Park University and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh comprise the educational of downtown while the Cultural District along Penn and Liberty avenues on the Allegheny River includes Heinz Hall (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra), Byham Theater, O'Reilly Theater, Benedum Center, and Wood Street Galleries as well as restaurants and housing.

Extended Downtown Districts

Station Square is an area on the South side of the Monongahela linked to downtown by the Smithfield Street Bridge. It has been the topic of an Urban News post on the blog. Centered around the former Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Station and Freight House, Station Square is a 52 acre indoor and outdoor shopping, dining and entertainment complex. Station Square is a major parking and jumping-off point for activities and events around the city due to its location on 3 unique methods of mass-transit. Popular dining establishments include the Hard Rock Cafe, Joe's Crab Shack, and Buca di Beppo.

The Strip District, located immediately to the Northeast of the central business district on the other side of Penn Station, is a diverse, lively extended marketplace. Historical home to produce sellers and wholesalers, by day the Strip District returns to its roots at Pittsburgh landmarks such as Wholey's, but by night various restaurants, bars, and clubs such as bring additional pedestrian traffic to the area. The Strip is also home to the Senator John Heinz History Center and a local office of hard drive manufacturer Seagate.

The most recent addition to the downtown is the North Shore district. Located along the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers Northwest of the Golden Triangle, the North Shore got a big boost in 2001 when Three Rivers Stadium was replaced with the beautiful PNC Park for baseball and Heinz Field for football. Growth suurounding the ballpark has been brisk and has extended in the direction of the football stadium, necessitating an extension of the city's light rail system. These buildings house such tenants as Del Monte Foods and the studios of Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

Getting Around Pittsburgh

If flying into Pittsburgh, your most economical option to get downtown is the 28X Airport Flyer bus route which largely utilizes expressways to serve the business core and eastside universities Duquesne, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Pittsburgh. Once downtown, the Port Authority of Allegheny County operates a light rail transit system serving the southern city neighborhoods and suburbs. There is a no fare zone on the Golden Triangle which includes the Gateway Center, Wood Street, Steel Plaza, and First Avenue Stations.

The train uses the Panhandle bridge to get across the Monongahela and connect with the Monongahela Incline at Station square before disappearing into Mount Washington to service its South Hills destinations. The incline is quite possibly the most unique form of public transportation in the world. Technically designated as a funicular railway, the Mon Incline is one of two remaining of the original 77 built to ferry predominantly German immigrants from their homes on the undesirable land in the hills to their jobs in steel mills on the more desirable flatlands. When paying the 'T' fare at Station Square, a transfer to the incline can be acquired at a discount. The Mount Washington neighborhood at the top offers some of the best urban vistas in the U.S.

At the bottom of the incline in Station Square, another mode of transportation docks, literally. The Gateway Clipper Fleet offers sightseeing cruises, dinner cruises, and shuttle service to baseball and football games. While less practical on a daily basis, the Clipper makes up for it with exceptional vantage points unattainable to non-boat owners.

I wasn't kidding about rollerblading. Three of my friends and I utilized the Fort Duquesne Bridge (hope you have good brakes!) to get to the North Shore recreational trail. We even managed to skate through the outfield concourse of a Major League Baseball stadium which was open in the morning for a fantasy camp game. Finally, one mode of transportation even I haven't tried yet is rental kayak. I hopeful that I can take a trip this summer to see a ballgame and navigate the three rivers.

Accomodations in Pittsburgh

The most expensive hotel in my experience and general searches for various weekends is the Sheraton at Station Square. There are some less expensive options downtown as well as economy class motels west of downtown that I've frequented. I will include the general price range of each (for a 2/22 booking) and transport tips.

Sheraton Station Square Hotel
300 W. Station Square Drive, Pittsburgh, PA
My wife and I stayed at the Sheraton in December of 2002, our first trip to Heinz Field to see the Pittsburgh Steelers. We were aided by her boss at the time's frequent traveler points to make it possible as a 4th year college student. Room rates range from $139 to $244 per night. From the hotel you are within close walking distance of the lightrail, incline, and clipper fleet. There is no direct access to the airport except by taxicab. Special service to Penn Station is available to Penn Station on certain light rail routes. Check with the Port Authority of Allegheny County for availability.

Hilton Pittsburgh
600 Commonwealth Place, Pittsburgh, PA
The following November we were back to see NFL action and stayed at the Hilton, part of the Gateway Center redevelopment overseen by David L. Lawrence in the 1950's, one of the few urban renewal successes of that period. Room rates range from $129 to $159 per night. The 28X Airport Flyer services the hotel as well as the light rail. Point State Park is across the street from the hotel and contains the ramp for the Fort Duquense pedestrian bridge to the North Shore. Also close to Pittsburgh landmark hamburger restaurant Max and Erma's.

Motel 6 Pittsburgh - Crafton
211 Beecham Drive, Pittsburgh, PA
Actually located west of Crafton, childhood home of former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, the Motel 6 is just off I-79, no more than 10 minutes from downtown via the Fort Pitt Tunnel. A car is unfortunately a necessity to take advantage of a generally flat rate of $36 per night. Somewhat nearby is the suburban shopping center in Robinson with a Giant Eagle supermarket to go along with many chain restaurants and common fast food joints.

Omni William Penn Hotel
530 William Penn Place, Pittsburgh, PA
When I won the chance to play catch with Ben Roethlisberger, ProTrade put us up in the William Penn. Built in 1916, this hotel is a true classic fronting Mellon Square in downtown Pittsburgh. close to the cultural district, shopping, Mellon Arena, and historic Strawberry Way, the William Penn is recommended for the full immersion experience. Room rates range from $159 to $249 so I recommend winning a contest or spending months earning ProTrade dollars. Like the Westin, which is only two blocks away, the 28X and the 'T' serve the William Penn excellently.

Econo Lodge
4800 Steubenville Pike, Pittsburgh, PA
Around the corner from the Motel 6, this is where I stayed when I played football in nearby Carnegie. I honestly don't remember much about it except that it is next door to a 24 hour Kings Family Restaurant. Again, you'll pretty much need to drive there and rooms range from $55 to $60.

The Westin Convention Center
1000 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA
When I took my mom to Pittsburgh for her 50th birthday to see the Steelers, we stayed at the Westin the first night. The Westin is in close proximity to the Strip District and connected to the Lawrence Convention Center. Room rates range from $199 to $265 (must be a big convention this weekend, I sure didn't pay that much). It is within reasonable walking distance of the 28X and the Steel Plaza 'T' station.

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