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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
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A Park for the People

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Somewhere, Mary Schenley is smiling.

Nestled in the heart of central Oakland, a 4.5-acre green oasis bears the name of the 19th-century Pittsburgh heiress who shocked the world and stoked the ire of Queen Victoria by eloping at the age of 15 with a British army captain nearly 30 years her senior. But on a recent, late-summer afternoon, the newly transformed Schenley Plaza — for decades a barren 240-space parking lot — provided the perfect calming antidote to the bustling commotion of one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods. A stunning transformation, for certain. Mary would be pleased.

Almost literally in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning, pre-school youngsters laugh as they ride lions, horses and even an eagle round and round on an old-fashioned carousel. Under a towering inverted-funnel-shaped tent, a singer entertains a lunchtime crowd with pop standards by Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. On the sprawling lawn, sunbathers soak up the rays and toss Frisbees. Across from the Hillman Library, hungry office workers order sushi, bubble tea, pizza, bagels and other delectables at a quartet of food kiosks. And among the tall grasses, black-eye Susans, cannas and elephant ears in the “urban living rooms” along Forbes Avenue, college students flip the lids of their laptops to go online thanks to a free wireless Internet connection. Since opening this past June, Schenley Plaza   immediately established itself as Oakland’s village green. You could say it’s the people’s park.

A park that works

“The plaza has really succeeded in transforming how Oakland looks and the way that people react to the space,” says Meg Cheever, president of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which oversees the space. “In the planning process, one of the things we heard time and again is that if the plaza was done properly, it would become the melting pot of Oakland. People seemed to understand that from the minute it opened.”

Indeed, during its four-day inaugural weekend, more than 50,000 curious visitors strolled through the plaza to enjoy the antics of the Zany Umbrella Circus, music from marching bands, a book or two during the Carnegie Library’s Summer Reading Extravaganza and other attractions. Since its debut, the plaza has hosted a regularly scheduled National Geographic film series, puppet shows, docent-led walks and other activities. Despite the steady flow of people into the space, the main goal of the $10-million makeover was to restore the plaza as the grand entrance to Schenley Park.

“The plaza was and always has been the gateway to the broader expanse of the park,” says Alistair McIntosh, a principal in Sasaki Associates, the Boston firm that designed the plaza. “We wanted to re-establish it as the crucial link in the emerald necklace of green spaces in Oakland.”

Certainly a treasured jewel, the plaza, according to McIntosh, enhances the quality of life in the neighborhood by providing students, workers, visitors and residents with an outdoor living room. In addition, he says that open public spaces such as the plaza can help keep graduating college students in the region and attract new businesses and employees to the area.

While the park’s simplicity initially raised some eyebrows among the planning committee, the less-is-more approach allows the plaza to evolve as more people use it.

The next step

“What I find most intriguing,” says McIntosh, “is not what we’ve done, but what comes next. Now that the plaza is finished, it’s time to work on other renovations in the park, such as the Schenley Fountain in front of the Frick Fine Arts Building and the Magee Memorial Fountain near the library. The best thing we did was to provide the motivation for all other things to happen in the future.”

Among the coming attractions is a full-service Atria’s Restaurant, which will add a Tavern-on-the-Green flavor to the plaza’s food offerings. This fall, the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater, which stages plays in the Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre across the street, will hold post-production receptions in the park. Whatever purposes the plaza serves in years to come, adds McIntosh, is up to the people who use it.

For now, says Cheever, people don’t need any help on how to enjoy themselves in the plaza. “It amazing how comfortable people of all ages are when they visit the plaza,” she says. “We didn’t need to tell anyone that this park was here for them. They understand the space offers something for everyone — families, workers, residents, students and visitors.”

That shared awareness also pleases Sasaki landscape architect Susanna Ross. “For me it’s so exciting to see the idea that there was a desire and a need for the plaza,” says Ross. “It was filled with people from the start. It wasn’t a place that anyone imposed on the site. It was a place that was meant to be.”

Just ask Mary Schenley.


John Altdorfer is a freelance writer enjoying life in Pittsburgh.


Photos:

 A carousel giraffe

The "urban living rooms"

The food kiosks

The funnel tent

Student reading in garden

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene
except Student
© Tracy Certo

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