Altoona's main public gathering space is Heritage Plaza. Built in the early 90s, it never lived up to expectations, as its timing aligned with a long period of economic malaise throughout the central business district and its program quickly became dated. Happily, Altoona is experiencing a renaissance. The new Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence and Penn State-Altoona's downtown campus are both within a block of the site. Specialty retail and associated residential units are returning, and a spirited creative culture is taking hold.
In late 2016 a small group of local leaders approached me to prepare a redevelopment concept for Heritage Plaza and its immedidate context. The new program was largely based on a +400-respondent survey I'd conducted in preparation for an earlier studio excercise. Residents, local merchants and artists wanted to celebrate the town's unique rail heritage. They called for performance space, a multi-use market pavilion, kids' water play, outdoor cafés, enhanced pedestrian circulation, and robust green infrastructure. The concept envisions reinforced linkage to the Intermodal Transportation Center and Amtrak Station. A roof-top viewing deck atop the Rail Station Café (converted from an historic Pullman coach) affords a sweeping view of the rail yard and Railroaders Memorial Museum, and a new pedestrian bridge links to local schools and UPMC's regional medical complex. Sight lines northerly to the iconic cupola of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament are strengthened, and re-used plaza pavers form an elevated pedestrian crossing at the 11th Ave. / 14th St. intersection to calm traffic and invite passersby into the plaza.
The design was prepared in collaboration with Shiyang He (MLA '17). Richard Karcher, AIA, was project initiator and facilitator. Local partners included the City of Altoona, Penn State Altoona Chancellor's Office, Downtown Altoona Business Community, and Allegheny Ridge Corporation.
The plaza concept has been widely embraced, and fund raising is ongoing. The Altoona Mirror recently covered the story of Heritage Plaza's revival.