Change in Sewickley, Part 2 – Picture Shows, Parking, Phones, and Left Turns

A ‘small cell” wireless phone transmitter site, disguised as a utility pole, at Broad and Beaver Streets in Sewickley. These sites are designed to provide coverage through the upcoming transition to 5G wireless networks. Several of these sites can be seen in and around the Sewickley business district.

 

At the end of March, I posted the first in a short series about changes both in progress and on the horizon in Sewickley Borough’s business district. Below are some additional things that I’ve noticed.

First, an update about Character Matters and the proposed Zamagias development. On March 31, Sewickley residents John LeCornu and Anne Clarke Ronce filed a complaint in Common Pleas Court¹ challenging the results of the Sewickley Borough Council hearing of November 21, 2016. As I wrote previously, their challenge is based on alleged violations of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.

While it’s still unknown if the Sewickley Herald will devote any resources to report on the dispute, I will provide updates as I can.

The Tull Family Theater – An Impressive Work in Progress

…and its predecessor at Beaver and Locust, taken 40 years ago.

The new Tull Family Theater in Sewickley…

 

Leslie and I attended a screening of Fences during the opening weekend for Sewickley’s new movie house, the long-anticipated Tull Family Theater.

The building has a very clean, corporate feel to it – this was offset somewhat by the warm reception we received from an eager group of staff members, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. The picture and sound quality were excellent, the seats ample and comfortable.

According to their website and additional reporting in the March 9 Herald, the theater has a programming schedule that is robust and varied, showing recent Oscar winners and nominees as well as classic films and specialty screenings of films showcasing the arts. More recent advertising touts some first-run big studio films coming up, along with smaller independent productions.

On April 10, I met with Executive Director Carolina Pais-Barreto Beyers and Communications and Education Director Karen Ferrick-Roman. They make up two of the theater’s three full-time employees.

Ms. Beyers emphasized that their core goal as a community asset is proficiency in cinema, and that the primary purpose of their diverse programming is an attempt to be a cultural center as well as a movie house – representative of the desires of their target audience, with the obvious metric – attendance – defining the direction they will take. Ms. Beyers and Ms. Roman cited an extraordinary response to the film Hermitage Revealed as an example of some of the ways they have been surprised at the success of some of their early film selections.

The Sewickley community is apparently so enamored of their new theater and its programming that the Herald was sufficiently persuaded to name the Tull Theater its 2016 Citizen of the Year. Perhaps the awardee should be more properly identified as the founding hearts and minds of the Village Theater Company, without whose literal and figurative groundbreaking work over several years there would not be a movie theater in Sewickley today. Last week’s Herald account gives credit where it is due.

As the Post-Gazette’s Brian O’Neill wrote last year“Nonprofit theaters have to think creatively to get butts in seats”. To be fair, the Tull Theater in its infancy seems to be in search of a soul and a personality. The Tuesday Classics and Cultural Screenings are a start, as was a March 19 news release from the theater touting its “initial outreach offering with the Mooncrest Neighborhood Program. Through this program, 50 young children from the Mooncrest Housing Plan will be able to experience a cinema for the first time with Beauty and the Beast.

The theater is actively seeking other groups or companies to help to sponsor similar outreach to “underserved children and senior adults”. 

The same day I was there, the theater was setting up for an afternoon sensory friendly screening of Beauty and the Beast, in conjunction with Laughlin Children’s Center.

I asked Ms. Beyers to comment on an informal survey I had conducted among independent, non-profit theaters in the Pittsburgh area, which showed that the Tull Theater is the most expensive in terms of full price adult admission. The $11.00 ticket cost also exceeds most multiplex theaters for a 2-D movie, and there is no “matinee” pricing for afternoon screenings.

Stating that “we absolutely need” the price charged for a full-price ticket, Ms. Beyers cited the varied programming, community outreach efforts, and new facility and equipment as contributing factors to the value a customer receives for their ticket price.

Ms. Beyers has a point. While other independent cinemas in our area provide unique and specialty programming experiences, the scope of the Tull’s offerings has been impressive for a group still trying to find what clicks with its customer base.

That exploration will continue with leveraging the theater’s Esmark and Bouchard Family Community Room, named for another large donor. The theater plans to begin using that space for small-scale live performances, as well as rentals for community events.

The Post-Gazette reported recently on efforts across the region to restore historic theater buildings as part of the revitalization of small town business districts. The multi-year efforts by those in Sewickley to bring movies back to “The Village” seems prescient to those going on now in communities like Ligonier and Latrobe. There is also an ongoing effort to restore the former Denis Theatre in Mt. Lebanon.

With its first-rate facility and professional management team, the Tull Theater has the potential to create a truly memorable entertainment experience for “Village” visitors and regulars alike. I’m looking forward to both continued excellence and more creative innovations in programming, but some moderation on price as well.

It’s apparent that the support of the community to fill their seats will be a key to that, and much more.

On Top of That, Let’s Pay More to Park

Now don’t you wait, or hesitate.

Let’s move before they raise the parking rate.

– Free (1970)

The twice-resurrected Sewickley Parking Authority has used its latest lease on life to make some significant changes in how they manage their revenue stream, as well as planning for future improvements.

First created in 1952, killed off, then brought back from the dead in the 1980s and again in 2015, the Parking Authority appears to exist solely as a mechanism for facilitating parking operations and capital improvements, while insulating these activities from the borough’s own fiscal operations.

After some initial hiccups, the transition from parking meters to pay stations appears to have been completed. With it comes a doubling of the parking rates for spaces in the business district, along with a doubling of parking fines.

I’m familiar with the pay station concept as applied by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. My first experience with Sewickley’s pay stations was a little more problematic than my prior uses – the buttons don’t seem to be as sensitive, and the device itself doesn’t feel as though it can survive the kind of abuse – human and otherwise – that can be meted out over time. We’ll see.

The authority is also feeling pressure from the business community regarding insufficient parking in the business district, and the need to move forward with a planned garage in the location of the existing municipal lot on Green Street. Business representatives that spoke to the Authority board at its February meeting cited the opening of the Tull Theater as a contributing factor to the Village’s parking woes.

The Herald report included cost estimates, depending on the design approved, of anywhere from 6.5 to 7 million dollars for a garage that would add roughly 200 spaces, while not dominating the Village skyline. Sewickley Mayor Brian Jeffe was quoted by the Herald as stating “We do not want this castle in the middle of town”.

I wonder what the Mayor thinks about the “castle” that’s been approved to go up just a block or two away.

Should such a garage be built, what may the additional impact be on parking fees borough-wide? Could we see a return of fees for Saturday parking?

Of greater concern is exactly how much business Sewickley is attracting to justify the increased fees and garage construction. I can understand the concept of Sewickley as a specialty shopping and dining destination, and some of the special events during the year certainly attract some crowds.

How much of that foot traffic translates to real business income, and/or an experience that people are willing to pay a premium for, and not just for parking?

I don’t know the answers, but for those who rely on the health of Sewickley’s business district for their livelihood, I certainly hope that these changes are economically sustainable in the long haul. Groups such as Explore Sewickley are attempting to gauge community sentiment, and encourage involvement in the Parking Authority and its operations.

In the meantime, those of us who choose to visit Sewickley during the business day may have additional factors to consider before deciding if the end justifies the means.

Bordering on the Bizarre – Whose Left is it Anyway?

Over one year ago I reported about proposed changes in left turns from southbound Ohio River Boulevard onto Graham Street and Boundary Street in Sewickley, and their potential impact on motorists trying to reach places not easily accessible by other routes, such as the Critmore Medical Building. I also updated that reporting in a May 2016 post.

In mid-February, I got to witness firsthand some of the rush hour craziness of Route 65 in this area. One the way home from an overnight shift at about 7:45 AM, a car trying to make a left turn into Osborne Plaza from northbound 65 triggered a chain reaction rear-end crash that pinned one driver in her vehicle and sent a box truck into the hillside.

I heard the crash behind me, saw the box truck turn sideways, saw the power lines to my right shudder from the impact of the truck into a pole.

This was one of my few recent exposures to true rush hour traffic along this stretch of roadway. It was unnerving to see so many cars jockeying for lane position, or trying to make left turns across oncoming traffic.

The problems associated with traffic volume that outstrips the design and load capabilities of the roadway involved are a common problem in our area, and Route 65 is one of the more egregious examples, especially in areas such as this one that are too narrow to accommodate a center turn lane.

In response to a request from Sewickley Police, PennDOT has evaluated this area, and has been making recommendations to police and other officials to restrict left turns from southbound Route 65 onto and from Graham Street and Boundary Street, as well as make Graham Street one way from Ackley Terrace to Route 65, thus eliminating turns from the boulevard altogether.

Route 65 at Boundary Street, looking south.

Since last year’s post, the borough has received lots of feedback from citizens and other stakeholders, in the form of comments at council meetings and personal contact with the Mayor and other officials. In March of this year, council debated the proposed restrictions, and arrived at a compromise draft ordinance that would only establish left turn restrictions during rush hour traffic periods.

At their meeting of April 11, council approved this compromise as Ordinance 1351, which went into effect immediately. Borough Manager Kevin Flannery estimated last week that “the signage will be in place within the next 2-3 weeks”.

I believe that the compromise is a good move on council’s part, so long as it can be enforced in an effective manner, while not creating additional confusion or hazards for the traveling public.

It would have been nice if the Herald had followed up on their March 20 story by reporting the eventual outcome, but as of their April 27 edition no story has been published, either online or in print.

As I detailed in April 2016, there are some things left unresolved – the no left turn restriction at Boundary Street may impair the ability of patients and employees at the Critmore Medical Building from being able to legally access the facility from Route 65 during rush hour.

This has a lot to do with the intersection of McKown Lane and Route 65, where left turns are always prohibited. Without additional directional signage, this could leave unfamiliar travelers scrambling to access the facility, and often chancing an illegal left turn out of frustration and/or a lack of knowledge of the area.

This intersection, like Critmore itself, lies within Glen Osborne Borough, and any change to the restriction on McKown would have to come from Glen Osborne council. Review of council minutes for February show that Sewickley Mayor Brian Jeffe and Police Chief Richard Manko addressed council regarding not only left turn restrictions, but the need for increased traffic enforcement along the Route 65 corridor beyond the Glen Osborne boundary. There is some awful recent history involving this stretch of the roadway as well.

Council members stated in March that they would monitor Sewickley’s actions pertaining to left turn restrictions, and make recommendations accordingly. Let’s hope so.

Chief Manko went as far as to opine that his borough should be contracted to provide police service to Haysville and Glenfield, which are currently the only Allegheny County municipalities receiving protection from the Pennsylvania State Police.

While that topic is certainly worth exploring further – and I will – I would opine that police protection in these tiny boroughs is much more than just Route 65, and in the case of Glenfield that role might be better fulfilled by the Ohio Township Police, who currently protect every other municipality surrounding it, excepting Haysville.

It also could be argued by Glenfield residents that their biggest traffic issue may not be Route 65, but Kilbuck Street leading to the on-ramp for Interstate 79 north – a residential neighborhood with a 25 MPH speed limit that is largely ignored.

Have a safe and healthy springtime ahead – it’s election season!

References:

¹  LeCornu et al v. Sewickley Borough, Allegheny County Department of Court Records

Sewickley Herald Digital Archive

 

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