Duquesne Incline seeks to reverse declining ridership
Copyright 1999 PG Publishing, All Rights Reserved.
By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
The closing of the incline is far from imminent and money for upgrades could soon be available from public and private sources. Nonetheless, David Miller, 79, chairman of the nonprofit Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Heights Incline, says his group has launched a new fund-raising effort which, for only the second time, hopes to solicit money from foundations and government sources.
The new fund drive preceded a $7.2 million tax increment financing plan initiated by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and approved by City Council for Forest City Enterprises, owner of Station Square, which is west of the base of the incline. TIFs use increases in property-tax revenues generated by new construction to pay off bonds used to build those projects. The TIF is part of Forest City's $71 million master plan for new development at Station Square and would, in part, pay for an elevator and handicapped access to the incline's lower station.
Miller's new fund-raising effort coincided with a battle over a related issue -- the status of the long-vacant, 96-year-old W.W. Lawrence Paint Co. building, a six-story structure sandwiched between the Ohio River and West Carson Street and adjacent to the incline's lower station. Last week the city Planning Commission voted to recommend against granting a historic designation to the building. The city's Historic Review Commission previously recommended historic status for the building, which puts it at odds with the Planning Commission. The final decision is up to City Council, but it will need at least seven (of nine) votes to denote the structure as historic, in view of the Planning Commission's opposition. Council is expected to vote by the end of December.
Miller concedes that the future of the incline seems linked to that of the paint building. The structure is currently at the center of a debate that pits owner Forest City and city Councilman Alan Hertzberg, who want to tear it down, against Preservation Pittsburgh and the city's Historic Review Commission and other historical groups, who site the building's architectural importance and historical relevance. The dilapidated building was designed by architect Joseph Franklin Kuntz and was once the source of all the paint used on U.S. Navy ships.
Another player waiting in the wings is Harrah's Casinos, once part owner of Station Square, which retains until 2007 an option to purchase the 6-acre parcel where the paint building stands. If Pennsylvania decides to legalize gambling by that year, Harrah's hopes to make it the site of a floating casino. Miller said he's pursuing revenue to make upgrades while waiting for the related issues to be resolved. The last time his organization sought outside funding was a decade ago when improvements were made to the incline's upper station on Mount Washington. The cash infusion would pay for upkeep and improvements needed on the city-owned pedestrian footbridge over Carson Street and an elevator at the lower station house.
"We're going to both public and private agencies that support good operations like ours," said Miller. "The amount needed tends to be a moving target [but] we're looking at in the range of $600,000 to $800,000," to complete the desired upgrades.
Despite the addition of an observation deck, gift shop and upper station improvements 10 years ago, the number of riders on the Duquesne Incline has dropped from more than 500,000 to below 400,000 a year, said Miller.
"More and more people are riding automobiles and abandoning public transportation," to get up and down Mount Washington, he said. "Therefore we're 80 percent dependent on visitors and tour groups and the like."
Once one of 15 inclines sliding up and down the bluffs surrounding the Point, the Duquesne Incline is now one of only two in operation. A decade ago the Monongahela Incline at the eastern end of Station Square took advantage of a large publicly financed modernization project that was rejected by the Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Heights Incline. Miller said that at the time, fears of government delays and loss of control kept his group from joining in the program. Construction of the Trimont apartments and offices on Mount Washington and development of nearby restaurants seemed enough to ensure the incline's continued prosperity without sacrificing its original design and mechanics.
But with no subsequent development at the western end of Station Square and commuters increasingly inclined to use cars, ridership continued to decline. Miller says yearly operating costs run between $400,000 and $450,000, and that despite the decrease in riders, the incline is "just about breaking even."
The new drive for capital could signal a significant change in funding strategy as City Council, historical groups and Forest City debate the future of the property near the base of the incline.
"We don't think the Lawrence Paint building can be renovated economically," said Forest City official Brian Ratner. Forest City has proposed razing the building and setting up a park or an "artifact park" on the site, at least until 2007.
Susan Brandt of the Mount Washington Community Development Corp. says that her board "strongly supports the Duquesne Incline and its participation in our neighborhood." She said the group is working with Miller to acquire independent funding for improvements, which includes a new overlook at the upper station.
"All of these proposed TIF improvements are related to what will happen to the paint building," she said. "The fact that the gamblers have it until 2007 makes reuse of the building impossible. We're trying to keep improvements to the incline a separate issue."