Bob Pease: The Man Who Helped Remake Postwar Pittsburgh
Robert B. Pease was born in Nebraska in 1925. He served during World War II as an Air Force navigator before coming to Pittsburgh to study engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). Upon graduating, he got a job at the university, working with a group that focused on postwar development of the campus. In 1953, he joined the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) and by 1958 became its executive director. During his tenure at the URA Pease worked on more than 40 projects in the city, including the neighborhoods of the Lower Hill and East Liberty. Pease subsequently became the executive director of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD) in the late 1960s. Under his leadership, the organization secured grants for public schools and the expansion of the Pittsburgh International Airport.
After leaving the Allegheny Conference in 1991, Pease became the senior vice president of the National Development Corporation, a private real estate development and construction firm. He also served as a consultant for urban redevelopment projects around the world, including in Japan, India, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. He has won several awards for his work, including being named an honorary member by the American Society of Civic Engineers in 1994.
What were your impressions of Pittsburgh when you first arrived?
I came to Pittsburgh in August of 1946. Sometimes I’d get up in the morning—I lived at the corner of Forbes and Morewood—and
I couldn’t see across the campus because of the smoke. My upper lip would be grey just from breathing the air. So Pittsburgh was a thriving city, industrially, but as a place to live, I didn’t think much of it. I came from the Midwest with clean air and had no plans to stay here. I thought I would leave because the city was a pretty lousy place then, smoky and dirty, but it never happened. Of course the winter of ’48 was the last smoky winter and the change was dramatic. I’ve often told people that was one of the reasons Pittsburgh began to have successes in terms of its rejuvenation; people had the feeling “well we got rid of the smoke, now let’s do some more.” At the same time, the flood control dams were being built, which meant that the flood of ‘36 would never happen again, and the mills and industries were going crazy, employment was strong. It was a great city to be in economically.
So it was almost happenstance that you stayed here.
I worked at [Carnegie] Tech for four years after I graduated. A fun job. I tell my kids and grandkids: “Your life happens, you can’t even try to make plans. Take advantage of the messiness.”
What drew you to work at the URA?
An accident. I was working on the campus and Web Jones, who was the dean in Engineering, called me to his office one day, and he said, “You know, there’s a friend of mine who’s head of the Redevelopment Authority, and he’s looking for an engineer.” So he called this fellow, Jack Robin, and said, “I’m talking to a man named Bob Pease. Here’s his record…he has a distinguished flying cross and five air medals…” He had read my war record, not my school grades! My grades were okay but not great. I went downtown and I met with Jack, and after 15 minutes he offered me a job. The URA was just starting, Jack Robin was the first executive director, a man named Ted Hayes was the attorney, and I was the engineer. We were a staff of three, plus clerks. And it just gradually began to grow to what it is today.
Was there a sense early on that you were doing something unprecedented?
Personally, no. I didn’t appreciate that. As I grew in the job and became head of the URA, I began to have an appreciation because I was able to travel with Mayor Lawrence to different cities, and I realized we were becoming an example for other cities to follow. I didn’t have this personal feeling that I was doing these great things, but I felt that Pittsburgh was special and was becoming a good place to live in.
What are some of your proudest achievements at the URA?
Well, I think one was to collect and manage a good staff. In terms of projects, the Lower Hill was underway when I got involved.
Allegheny Center, East Liberty, the North Side, were other projects we started ourselves. The Allegheny Center was the best-designed project we had done.
CHANGE AND THE LOWER HILL
Was there support for the Lower Hill redevelopment initially, even from the Hill community?
There was really no opposition during the early public hearings. Now that may have been a sign of the times because that was a “you can’t fight City Hall” period, but there was a general consensus that the Hill was in need of change.
There’s one story I like to tell about a landlord who owned two buildings in the Hill District. He asked me if we would leave those two houses for him. Four families were living there and each had three rooms: basement, first floor, second floor. There was no plumbing, just an outhouse. The only heating was through open grates. It was bitter, bitter cold the day I went up there, and the air quality, the carbon monoxide levels, was just awful. The saving grace was that the walls were full of cracks, so they got some fresh air. There were a lot of buildings like that in the Hill District. It always interests me that historians talk about this beautiful neighborhood that was torn down. If you walked through there in the summertime, you could smell the outhouses. I think it was a slum, by almost any definition. [Urban critic and historian] Lewis Mumford visited Pittsburgh, and I took him for a walk through the Lower Hill one hot summer afternoon. He told me that he would like to see old brick houses, to see what could be saved. At the end of the day, Mumford said, “You know, I really don’t see any redeeming grace; I don’t see anything that is worth saving.” That’s not published, but that’s what he told me. And being in his company was kind of a thrill for me.
We were excited by the Pittsburgh Art Center development at the east end of the project. [Gordon] Bunshaft was the lead architect. There was a theater, underground parking, a sculpture garden and an art museum. Several foundations put almost $2,000,000 into the planning and guaranteed that the land would be bought for that purpose. The land had to be guaranteed in order to have a development approved for federal funding.
Why wasn’t a project for a cultural acropolis capable of accepting and incorporating the culture that was already there, which included a phenomenal jazz scene?
It’s a hard question and it deserves a hard answer, but I would surmise that racial segregation was an issue. The population to the east was pretty black and there was growing sensitivity or fright to that. People would gather from the Hill at the church up at the corner of Center and Bedford, and then march Downtown to Mellon Square; and the head of Mellon Bank would call me and say, “We got all these blacks out here in the square, what should we do?” I said, “Nothing, just keep on doing your business.” They meant no harm, they were just demonstrating and they were developing strength through the demonstrations. But that, I think, did a lot to cool off the desire to build this great art center in that area.
REMAKING EAST LIBERTY
Was the process different in East Liberty? What lessons did you learn from the Hill experience?
East Liberty was so big—250 acres—and we were trying to do so much rehabilitating old structures, tearing down others and building new, it was almost too big to handle. In retrospect, it wasn’t a great success. Yes, there was some new housing; yes, we shrank the commercial area, from three million square feet of commercial space to about a million-nine, and maybe sometimes inhumanely to some of the small businesses, which is a small regret. But I don’t know what the answer might have been to save those either.
I think the concept was good; it tried to organize traffic, to divert the 80% of traffic that was through-traffic, and in doing so create a viable pedestrian realm. But people complained about the traffic pattern. They didn’t know how to get from Point A to Point B by going around the circle. Pedestrian malls seemed like a good idea at the time, but they didn’t work because people didn’t use them that much. In the end, we couldn’t get the store owners to beautify their buildings or build back entrances [for access from the new parking lots]. It just didn’t come off as well as we thought it might.
Three of the most frequent critiques leveled at the urban renewal era are the wholesale removal of existing fabric, the automobile-centric planning, and the lack of public participation, yet in East Liberty, the URA engaged in preservation, pedestrian-oriented open spaces, and a serious public engagement process. Is it true that there were 296 community meetings during the planning phase?
Something like that, yes.
And the project was initiated at the behest of the merchants?
The businesses, merchants, right, right.
And it was largely pedestrian. It didn’t fit the villainous profile of urban renewal—there’s preservation, there’s public engagement, there’s public realm—and yet it’s seen as this…
Colossal failure, as some people say.
Would you agree that its failure was part of something larger, chiefly the suburbanization of America and the building of malls outside of the city? Those who could were leaving in large numbers, choosing to live and shop elsewhere. It was a problem larger than city planning could solve.
I think that’s exactly what happened. People wanted something new; they wanted either a new house or a new road or a new playground or a new school, and that was all available in the suburbs. It was also affordable; through FHA you could borrow money and buy a house. People moved to the suburbs for those things, but the lack of knowledge as to the implications of living there and working in the city, I don’t think were foremost in anybody’s thought. East Liberty is now coming back because of the rise in commercial activity rather than people just saying “I want to live in East Liberty.” Now there’s a real reason to live in East Liberty, with what’s happening economically. You have companies like Google coming to East Liberty, stores and restaurants opening, lots of apartments occupied and more being built. Today, it has become a hot center and convenient to a lot of things. Though I don’t know if anybody can take any credit for it, it just happens.
PLANNING ALLEGHENY CENTER
How would you characterize the planning process that led to Allegheny Center?
A study by the regional planning commission proposed a huge cut through Monument Hill to get the expressway north, which would’ve wrecked the neighborhood. We fought and successfully stopped it. Allegheny looked like an opportunity for development because of its location, history, and because it was surrounded with the Commons. The redevelopment was an opportunity to select a smaller area and try to build something that was really attractive.
There was a lot of racial tension following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and other events occurred that made it difficult to finish the project. Gradually there were apartments added. It’s a pretty good place to live, especially for those who work in the North Side, work in the hospital, or even Downtown. I still think the plans for that project were among the best the URA produced.
Could speak about some of your contemporaries outside of Pittsburgh with whom you were in dialogue?
Boston’s Ed Logue and I were very close, and shared a similar history. He was a bombardier in World War II and I was a navigator. Charlie Farris ran the program in St. Louis and he had all kinds of problems. He had built a lot of new stuff—high rise, slab building apartments, highly touted at the beginning but later denigrated as a mistake. Lawrence Cox from Norfolk, Virginia, had the first publicly financed renewal project in the country, which was a small housing project. The way they charted out the row houses was fascinating because they’d back a truck up to the front of the house, put blocks behind the wheels, put a cable around the house, and tighten a winch and tear the house down in five minutes. It was wild. In San Francisco, the head of planning, Al Jacobs, came from Pittsburgh. San Francisco was more complicated, the mayor was more influential on the planning commission than Al thought it should be. Al fought like mad against that triangular shaped [Transamerica] building, but it was built in spite of him.
For a while the Ford Foundation supported an organization of about 12 people who worked in cities in regional ways. We used to meet a couple of times a year and just talk about the issues of urban renewal. There are some who argue that it was not the right thing to do. I could make a case either way. Given the lack of building during World War II, the lack of maintaining what was built before the war, the recovery was important and urban renewal was part of that excitement.
ON PITTSBURGH EXCEPTIONALISM
What distinguished Pittsburgh in that era from other cities?
Steel. We were producing for the war effort, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, just going gangbusters. Fortunes were made. Pittsburgh became the arsenal of the world; well that’s an overstatement, but it was.
How would you say the dynamics of working here differed from Boston or St. Louis?
I think one of the keys here was that we had a mayor, David Lawrence, who was smart enough to know where politics belonged and where politics didn’t belong. For example, during the time I was at the URA, he never once required me to hire anybody. He kept that separate from his political life, and he recognized that was important. The other issue that I think was important was the complete devotion to the city by the business leadership. The Allegheny Conference is a good example where the executive committee was made up of chief executives of major corporations. Under their own rules they had to serve personally, they couldn’t send any substitute to a meeting. You get those 18 guys in a room and a decision is made, the decision sticks. Then the staff knew they had the backing of that kind of group. Whether it meant raising money, or policies or action, all that came together to make Pittsburgh a special city during that period. It was an interesting time.
I don’t think it’s a Camelot, but you could get dang close.
What is your favorite building from this era?
I always liked Alcoa and I liked the US Steel Building, that external structure was fantastic. I worked there for 10 years when Allegheny Conference was there. It was a great place to be, a beautiful building, first rate. I’ve always liked Gateway Center because of the open space; the open space is important, maybe more so than the buildings themselves. The buildings aren’t great, but they were designed at a time when material was short.
Do you have any regrets?
Any regrets I have would not be about a huge project but about some little thing that we might’ve done better, usually with
regard to the small businesses or relocation of some people. I don’t have huge regrets. Sometimes I wish things would’ve gone
faster but they never did. Rebuilding an area is very difficult, it always takes more time than we think. Gateway Center took over
20 years from beginning to end.
I think Pittsburgh has a lot to be proud of. I always thought Mellon Square was a great addition to Downtown Pittsburgh. Living here is fairly easy compared to other cities. Commuting is not that difficult; you sometimes have traffic jams but it’s not horrible. Mass transit is good, could be better, could be used more. I use it all the time since I’ve moved to Oakland. My car sits for days without being touched. It’s a good system.
Any advice to those who are planning and designing today?
Just keep on keeping on, do your best and keep trying. Since I first got involved, the involvement of people has become much stronger than it used to be and that’s for the better. In the beginning, it was “here’s a plan and here’s a hearing for city council and here’s what we’re going to do and it’s all approved and let’s start buying property.” That’s all been changed. Some folks say, “Well now it takes longer.” Yes it does, but it’s a better process. I sometimes think that the urban renewal process encouraged citizen involvement and changed a lot, including highway development. Maybe that’s too simple a statement, but I think there’s some truth to it.
One of the things we’re struck by about this era is the willingness to think big, really big, for better and for worse. Afterward, the pendulum swung towards a timidity on the part of planners and designers and politicians because they didn’t want to get their fingers burned again.
I think you’re right. Citizen participation, particularly if they were against something, made it difficult for planners. I remember we had developed big plans for Oakland, because the schools and health centers were expanding. I remember a huge public meeting one night, and I was on the stage, and some guy way in the back of the room stood up and raised his hand.“I have a question: how can we stop this thing?” So I said, “You all get organized, all decide what you want and what you don’t want, and let it be known to the public you’ll stop this particular project.” And they did.
In those days there was a federal regulation that if a university or hospital spent money to develop something, we would get credit for that money against a future project. So we saw this as a gold mine. In this case, I think we were greedy and we failed. But I’m not sorry we failed, it was a great experience.
Image (top): Vintage postcard of Downtown Pittsburgh depicting unrealized plans for Gateway Center that featured eight buildings instead of three (Image via The Postcard Gallery).
This interview with Robert Pease was conducted on December 10, 2015 by Rami el Samahy with Matthew Newton and Shamus Fatzinger. The issues discussed in this interview are further explored in the exhibition HACLab Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern, on view in the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art from September 12, 2015 to May 2, 2016. In a series of ongoing salons, the public is invited to engage in discussions concerning the highs and lows of Pittsburgh’s postwar redevelopment as well as its current renaissance.
This essay was a finalist for a 2017 Golden Quill Award recognizing excellence in regional journalism.
To learn more about this period of sweeping change in the city’s history, visit the Pittsburgh Modern story archive.