Monday, August 27, 2012

Walkabout: Stepping right up to celebrate the city's ascenders - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

When Bob Regan heard that Fineview and the South Side Slopes are celebrating their hillside steps events on the same day this year, he got an idea: "Let's make it a 'celebrate the steps' weekend."

Some people thought he was a little peculiar when, in 1999, he suggested an event called Step Trek to bring awareness to what might be Pittsburgh's quirkiest but most endearing public asset. That event has become an annual swarm of people climbing up and down the flights on the Slopes, which has the most of any neighborhood with 67.

Fineview's Step-a-thon has also become an annual fun-fest. Both events are on Oct. 6. Sign-up information will be available on these two sites closer to the date -- and

It's fun to imagine every neighborhood with enough steps to draw a crowd -- which include Beechview, Mount Washington and Perry South -- would do it on the same weekend and start building ranks of steps fanatics.

Mr. Regan, a consultant and educator on geographical information systems, became one when he started seeing them on morning bike rides after a move here from Boston in the 1990s. As he became more fascinated, he climbed them. When he got home, he mapped their location and made spreadsheets with details such as tread count and condition.

He delivered to the city its most complete and detailed information, plotted on GIS. He had counted 712. Of that total, 360 are actual streets with street signs and on street maps. Another 149 sets of steps were previously uncharted by the city.

Mr. Regan, who teaches GIS at the University of Pittsburgh one day a week in his retirement, teamed up with photographer Tim Fabian to write "The Steps of Pittsburgh" in 2004. Then he used GIS to locate and write about Pittsburgh's bridges. "I proved we have 446 bridges, more than any city in the world," he said. Then he became interested in street and neighborhood names and, after researching them, wrote "The Names of Pittsburgh."

He has recently updated the number of city steps to 716, thanks to Charlotte Watenpool, a Cranberry native who lives in Florida. She read "The Steps of Pittsburgh" and became a steps fanatic who walks them on trips back to see family. She mapped four more than Mr. Regan had found.

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Chuck Half, innovation and performance manager for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, is a steps fanatic as it applies to his job, he said. But it's pretty obvious talking to him that he kind of likes them a lot.

"The steps need an escrow fund and sponsors," he said. "We lack the ability to maintain all the steps and the streets, but maybe there's a public-private solution. Maybe if everybody gave a penny a set in their own neighborhoods. The Cathedral of Learning was built with donations of pennies from school children."

He suggested foundations with a focus on public art and the environment get involved to fund sustainable lighting and designs to encourage use of the steps again as fundamental transportation between neighborhoods.

One lighting project designed by Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects is under way on the 18th Street Steps on the South Side. It includes colored lighting, steel and signage structures and LED lights on each tread. Because a crane had to be brought in and some construction was required, the one project cost $150,000. It was covered thanks to grants from Duquesne Light and the Elm Street program.

Mr. Half said that project is "far too much money to replicate across the city." His idea is to light steps by replacing the steel handrail -- which in some cases need to be replaced anyway -- with Plexiglas tubes to hold and protect the lights and a solar charge to light them. Lit handrails up the sides of hills would be a visual treat from roadways.

He has other ideas, too -- that the steps be used in comprehensive wellness programs for which people could get discounts on their contribution to company health plans, and maybe insurance companies donating to the escrow fund for upkeep of the stairs.

None of these ideas are his to make happen, he said, but as Bob Regan proved with Step Trek, ideas do take hold.

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