Special Reports

The Mystery of the Old MOC Funds

When Mayor Ed Gainey announced an end to the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road at the February 17 Greater Hazelwood community meeting, residents of affected communities applauded. They immediately requested basic improvements like safe street crossings, sidewalks and facilities for after-school programs. Officials offered no specific plans for redistributing MOC funds, but early reports focused on building a biking and walking trail that follows the same MOC route.

Five months after the MOC’s formal demise, as the bike/pedestrian trail project moves forward piece by piece, details on leftover MOC funds remain murky. 

When we contacted Emily Bourne, communications specialist for Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI), she said in a June 10 email that $6.7 million remains in the budget for the MOC, which she referred to as the Four Mile Run project.

“All of the funds are still in Four Mile Run named capital accounts,” Ms. Bourne wrote. “Any movement would require council action unless spent on something connected to the Four Mile Run project.”  

However, Pittsburgh’s 2021 capital budget reported the project had $7.7 million in “unexpended/unencumbered prior year funds.” This figure aligns with the one provided to us by DOMI’s chief engineer Eric Setzler in late 2021. He said in a phone call, “I am seeing about $8 million [of City funds].” 

Peering inside the magic bag

Some of the $1 million difference between the 2021 and 2022 figures can be explained by money that was diverted from the MOC budget.

In December 2020, City Council passed a budget amendment introduced by Councilman Corey O’Connor that moved $4.15 million out of the MOC. Those funds were divided among affordable housing programs, support for small businesses throughout Pittsburgh, and infrastructure improvements in Hazelwood. This should have left around $3.85 million in MOC funds.

But Ms. Bourne, when asked to confirm this, emailed that the diverted money was “not actual funds.”

“Had the budget been passed as introduced they would have been, but they were moved before the budget was adopted,” Ms. Bourne wrote. “There could have been other budget moves but nothing with actual obligated funds.”  

“The only transfer was from December 2021 when Council moved $575,000 from Mon-Oakland ‘Four Mile Run’ to Street Resurfacing,” she added.

Indeed, Councilman O’Connor did introduce a budget amendment to remove $575,000 from the MOC funds. Of those, $550,000 went to new lights for Bud Hammer Field in Greenfield and $25,000 went to repair steps around Burgwin Field in Hazelwood.

It is unclear how the Bud Hammer Field lights and Burgwin Field steps are related to street resurfacing, and where the $4.15 million in the 2020 budget amendment originated if not from MOC funds. Also unexplained is the $4 million shown in the 2021 capital budget as going back into the MOC for 2022. 

Asked to comment during a June 10 phone conversation, Councilman O’Connor said, “People at DOMI are not very intelligent. Whoever you were talking to does not know what they are talking about. We always make amendments before a budget is passed. Only the final draft of the budget matters.”

The 2022 capital budget contains no mention of the MOC. Councilman O’Connor explained this by saying the project “would not have to be listed in the capital budget if the funds have already been allocated,” and no new funding was being requested. 

About 7% of the $8 million in the fund last December is unaccounted for by our reckoning. This could be a calculation error due to rounding, or it might actually be missing. But the funds still exist and are being spent on lights and steps, at the very least.

Table showing known expenses or allocations and remaining balance calculated, compared against DOMI's reported MOC budget as of June 2022
Table showing known expenses or allocations and remaining balance calculated, compared against DOMI’s reported MOC budget as of June 2022

When will our money fund our solutions?

One fact has become plain over the past five months: The project and its funding will continue—minus Almono Partners’ proposed shuttles and the MOC name.

This slow-walked continuation of the project formerly known as the MOC raises concerns among members of MOC-affected communities. Residents and community organizations created Our Money, Our Solutions (OMOS), an alternative plan listing needed improvements that cost less than the MOC’s original $23 million budget.

Some OMOS priorities have come to pass, such as weekend service on the 93 bus line and Second Avenue/Irvine Street sidewalk repairs in progress. But critical items—such as traffic-calming measures on Hazelwood Avenue and lower Greenfield Avenue and those discussed at the February 17 meeting with Mayor Gainey—remain unaddressed. Why is bike trail infrastructure being prioritized over needs like these? City parks already have a dedicated source of revenue from taxpayers, while neglect has destroyed existing infrastructure in these communities over decades.

“We said at the February 17 meeting that we are looking to put in a request for money for repairs and improvements for Burgwin [Recreation Building],” Councilman O’Connor said, explaining those funds would not come from the MOC budget.  

He added this is the first year City Council will have park tax funds to work with, and they have not yet finalized the process for distributing them.

Meanwhile, explorations into the mysteries of MOC funding continue. In a May 27 email responding to inquiries, City Controller Michael Lamb said his office will soon release their performance audit of several city departments. The audit included a review of the MOC that helped inform Mayor Gainey’s decision to end the project.

Public Discussions Begin on Changes to Sylvan Avenue

On April 26, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) hosted a meeting via Microsoft Teams to kick off public engagement on its Sylvan Avenue Multimodal project, presenting early plans and fielding questions from community members.

Many of those questions revealed concerns about the project’s limited scope, its priority level and timing, and its potential effects on residents along Sylvan Avenue.

A project within a project

The Sylvan Avenue Multimodal project is one part of a pedestrian/cyclist trail that replaces—but follows the route of—the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road between Greenfield and Hazelwood avenues. The stretch of Sylvan Avenue between Home Rule Street and Greenfield Avenue (currently closed to traffic) is also part of the trail but considered a separate project.

According to DOMI project manager Michael Panzitta, the City of Pittsburgh received a $1.76 million state grant to restore the closed part of Sylvan Avenue for bikes and pedestrians only. Along with separate funding, work on the Home Rule-to-Greenfield stretch of Sylvan Avenue will come with its own set of public meetings.

Discussion at the April 26 meeting was limited to plans for Sylvan Avenue between Home Rule Street and Hazelwood Avenue.

That work includes reconstructing the sidewalks, repaving the street, and adding features to slow down traffic. Two of the biggest traffic-calming features are raised pedestrian crosswalks at two sets of city steps, and landscaping near the entrance to the trail.

In addition, Sylvan Avenue is set to be designated as a Neighborway street, meaning it is a low-traffic street designed for the needs of people on foot, bikes, or other nonmotorized vehicles.

A combination of city and federal funding

The City of Pittsburgh is funding the design phase and street repaving. Construction funding comes from a federal grant with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation oversight, explained Leon Jeziorski of Michael Baker International, the multimodal design firm for the project.

Mr. Panzitta was unclear on the source of federal funding. In a May 9 email, he referred funding questions to Emily Bourne, DOMI communications specialist. Ms. Bourne replied to emailed inquiries that she was coordinating her response with that of Mayor Gainey’s press secretary, Maria Montaño, who had been contacted separately.

Community concerns include parking, safety

During the Q&A portion of the meeting, residents raised concerns about pedestrian safety on Hazelwood Avenue and the limited parking available on Sylvan Avenue.

Pastor Tim Smith, CEO of Center of Life—located at the intersection of Hazelwood and Sylvan avenues—asked if the project will widen the road. He said people park on both sides at that end of the street, which leaves a narrow space for drivers passing in opposite directions. Mr. Jeziorski responded that the project would not address parking issues, and the east side of the street (across from the Center of Life) is currently a “no parking” zone.

A Sylvan Avenue resident who did not give her name said enforcing the “no parking” zone would prevent residents from parking near their homes.

Roy Simms, who said he’d lived on Sylvan Avenue for more than 50 years, asked if the city steps would be repaired as part of the project. Mr. Panzitta answered that the steps are also outside the project’s scope.

Why here, why now?

Several attendees wanted to know more about why this project was identified as a priority now. Despite being touted as a safe multimodal connection, it does not address issues with the steps, the decrepit retaining wall and railing near the future trail entrance (the project will use landscaping to block off the railing rather than fix it, according to Mr. Jeziorski), or dangerous conditions at either end of Sylvan Avenue.

“If you’re looking to increase bike accessibility in a safe way, there’s a lot of already-existing safety issues with Greenfield Avenue,” said Eric Russell, a Greenfield resident and daily bike commuter. “Especially if you’re dumping people onto Greenfield Avenue from Hazelwood.”

Catherine Adams lives on Hazelwood Avenue and said some of her neighbors have been hit by cars. They have been meeting with DOMI and District 5 Councilman Corey O’Connor about speeding and safety issues on Hazelwood Avenue for the past two years.

Mr. Panzitta said the trail is included in the Greater Hazelwood Neighborhood Plan. Page 96 lists “creat[ing] a bicycle route up the hill from and parallel to Second Avenue” as a way to “address gaps in multi-modal network throughout the neighborhood.”

Mr. Jeziorski defended the project, asserting that improved accessibility to this corridor will draw more residents and businesses to the neighborhood. The increased activity should help Hazelwood get grant funding to replace the steps. “So this is a building block that can help with other improvements in the future,” he said.

Hazelwood Forests Play a Key Role in Pittsburgh’s Future

In 2017, Pittsburgh led the way for many U.S. cities by announcing its Climate Action Plan to prepare and protect against effects of climate change. The plan lists urban ecosystems strategies for achieving its goal to “increase carbon sequestration by 100% by 2030.” One of these strategies is to “halt the conversion of forest canopy to development.”

Forests are our best defense against destruction caused by industrial pollution and global warming—and the importance of Hazelwood in Pittsburgh’s plan can’t be overstated.

Links between forests protect more than trees

Besides a high-profile brownfield redevelopment (Hazelwood Green), Hazelwood contains a vital forested corridor that connects two major city parks: Schenley and Frick. The connection supports a variety of wildlife including coyotes; foxes; deer; turkey; hawks; owls; and songbirds such as wood thrush, vireo, tanager, and warbler.

“The more a fox from Schenley Park can reach the population of foxes over in, say, Duck Hollow, the healthier our fox population will be,” Matt Peters, administrative coordinator for Heartwood, an environmental organization, said during a phone interview. “Forest fragmentation leads to isolated animal populations that are vulnerable to disease and inbreeding.”

A compromised or weakened fox population disrupts the ecological balance and can lead to an overabundance of rats and mice. This, in turn, causes an increased chance of diseases jumping from animals to humans, Mr. Peters said.

That’s only one example of how connected, protected forests can benefit all living beings in and around them.

“It’s not just because we like trees,” said Tiffany Taulton, director of outreach and sustainability at Hazelwood Initiative (HI), discussing her work with Hazelwood Greenways Partnership in a phone interview. “This is public health infrastructure.”

Urban forests like Hazelwood’s help improve air quality, an issue that continues to plague Pittsburgh decades after most of its steel mills closed. They also help reduce flooding, mold problems, and heat-related deaths. Ms. Taulton shared a sobering quote from Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists: “In an average year in the U.S., heat kills more people than any other type of extreme weather.”

“People should be able to experience nature and the physical and mental health benefits it provides,” said Ms. Taulton. A connected forest offers the opportunity to “get out, get exercise in a way that reduces stress and lets you travel to other neighborhoods without traffic.”

Our forests are receiving funds and recognition

In December 2021, Pittsburgh City Council voted to make over 300 acres of greenway into parks—a game-changer for Hazelwood forests.

“Designating most of the [Hazelwood] greenway as a park gave it access to the funding and resources parks get,” said Mr. Peters. This includes funding from the city park tax passed in 2019.

The move supports another Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan strategy: “Allocate adequate resources to sustain the public open space system.”

Community volunteers were already hard at work in the greenway. HI, Landforce, Pittsburgh’s City Planning Department, Tree Pittsburgh, and Allegheny Goatscape coordinated in recent years to clean up an area near Elizabeth Street. In 2021 they built a trail loop, planted trees, worked on drainage issues, and used goats to clear invasive plants. Neighbors hit existing trails to remove all types of litter—from shards of glass (a dedicated cleanup organized by Boy Scout Troop 3945) to discarded televisions. In November, these efforts led to the Hazelwood Greenways Partnership placing as a finalist in the United Nations Climate Challenge Cup.

Let’s take Hazelwood forests to the next level

As community members who care about our forests, we can hold the City of Pittsburgh accountable meeting its own management goals for climate preparedness.

Mr. Peters urges a temporary moratorium on development proposals affecting forested lands. He says a citywide evaluation of Pittsburgh forests would help us identify ways to maintain their ecological integrity. 

Such goals need not conflict with economic ones. Ms. Taulton pointed out that the newly designated park in Hazelwood is “an amenity for the entire city, and a nice tourist attraction as well.”

This post, along with many others on this website, was originally written as an article for The Homepage.

End of MOC Shuttle Program Begins New Community Conversation with Mayor Gainey

Mayor Ed Gainey and District 5 City Councilman Corey O'Connor at Feb. 17 MOC meeting

On February 17, Hazelwood residents and others gathered at Propel Hazelwood to discuss rapidly evolving developments in the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) project. The day before, Mayor Gainey’s office announced an end to the controversial shuttle road that was the essence of the MOC.

The meeting, hosted by the Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative (GHCC), brought a wide range of human interactions and emotions: sometimes heated, sometimes funny, occasionally joyful. Some attendees remarked that it was their first in-person meeting in months or years. The auditorium burst into thunderous applause several times—including after Propel Hazelwood students performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and especially when Mayor Gainey said, “The Mon-Oakland shuttle project will not go forward.”

Moving forward together

Mayor Gainey’s announcement marks a huge turning point in MOC-affected communities’ battle to reclaim their tax dollars and voice in their future. It is an opportunity to repair public trust that was shattered by 6.5 years of pushing the MOC over multi-community opposition.

The battle is far from over. Already the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is writing op-eds attempting to resuscitate the weak case for MOC shuttles in the future. And the needs of existing 15207 residents still lack attention and funding the now-defunct MOC continues to enjoy. As the new Gainey administration works with our communities on building a new way forward, focus should be redirected to:

  • Critical needs in Hazelwood. Though Councilman Corey O’Connor moved some funds from the MOC, it still has about $7 million. Early reports indicate most of the MOC’s original $23 million budget will be restored for a new bike trail and improvements to Schenley Park and the Hazelwood Greenway (now also designated as a city park). Parks and infrastructure are both important, and should not be pitted against each other. Even the loveliest bike trail should not be prioritized over basic necessities for Hazelwood like safe street crossings, sidewalks, and facilities for after-school programs. City parks already have a dedicated source of revenue from taxpayers, while neglect has destroyed Hazelwood’s infrastructure over decades.

  • A stronger stormwater plan in The Run and Schenley Park—unhampered by the MOC. The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s (PWSA’s) $42.65 million stormwater project, touted as a way to fix severe flooding in The Run, came after and was designed around the MOC shuttle road. For years, residents were told these were two separate projects and that PWSA’s efforts could easily move forward regardless of the MOC’s fate. That message has changed recently, but Run residents, who have been awaiting flood relief for decades, value effectiveness over speed. For years they have challenged PWSA to provide a stormwater model that does not include the MOC. Instead, PWSA compared the MOC-centric design against doing nothing. The Run has an opportunity to finally see how much better PWSA can address flooding now that accommodating a shuttle road has been dropped from their project requirements.

  • Transportation solutions that improve rather than undermine public options. The Our Money, Our Solutions (OMOS) plan, created by MOC-affected communities with help from Pittsburghers for Public Transit, contains many improvements that would serve residents and the Hazelwood Green development. Some of those improvements, such as weekend service for the 93 bus line and Irvine Street sidewalk repairs, have already been secured. Others, like extending the 75 bus line into Hazelwood, are under consideration. If we don’t adopt OMOS wholesale, we can at least revisit and borrow heavily from it.

Our new plan needs a new name to reflect new priorities

We all deserve a fresh start to distance ourselves from the dishonesty and corruption that plagued the MOC from the start. The MOC quickly became a “magic bag” of components and costs that shifted according to justifications needed for it at any given time. Only the shuttle road has remained consistent. Now that the road has been removed, this project is no longer the MOC. Any work in Schenley and Hazelwood parks must have a clear focus and leave non-transparency behind.

You can view a livestream of the meeting provided by Center of Life.

Photo courtesy of Juliet Martinez for The Homepage

New Mayor Delays Oakland Crossings Hearing

Map of the “OPR-E subdistrict” proposed for Oakland Crossings development

Controversial rezoning process could set “dangerous precedent” for Pittsburgh development

On January 10, Mayor Ed Gainey requested a 30-day continuance on a controversial proposed zoning ordinance. This delayed the City Planning Commission hearing on a development called Oakland Crossings.

The Planning Commission was scheduled to host a public hearing on the matter January 11, but at Mayor Gainey’s request delayed the hearing until its February 8 meeting. After the hearing and a review of the legislation, the nine-member panel will give its recommendation to City Council.

“I look forward to discussions on this development and those across Pittsburgh and how they can promote equity and affordable housing,” Mayor Gainey said in a statement. “I am hopeful we will find a solution that prioritizes equitable development, aligns with the priorities raised by residents in the Oakland Plan process, and delivers on much needed affordable housing prospects for the people of Pittsburgh.”

A major change to Oakland’s landscape

Developer Walnut Capital seeks changes to zoning regulations that would create a new subdistrict in Central and South Oakland. The 17+-acre area stretches between Forbes Avenue (near UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital) and Boulevard of the Allies. Many of its stately brick houses have been subdivided to accommodate student renters. Notable landmarks include the former Howard Johnson’s, the former Isaly’s building, and a large open green space between the two. The rezoning would allow new uses for this land such as parking garages, utility-generating plants, wastewater treatment plants, university campus facilities, and educational classroom spaces.

Map of the proposed new subdistrict divided into three areas of
South/Central Oakland (A, B, C)

Fast-tracked bill worries Pittsburgh residents, community groups

Janice Markowitz, a board member of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC), welcomed the continuance. She commented, “We’re confident that Mayor Gainey has made a thoughtful decision and will be inclusive and respectful of the process as we move forward.”

OPDC has been a vocal opponent of Oakland Crossings, citing potential displacement of low-income residents and special considerations for the project that have subverted the normal rezoning process.

“The Department of City Planning handles public engagement and considers competing interests before the Planning Commission reviews. Then City Council would review after the Planning Commission,” OPDC assistant director Andrea Boykowycz said at an October 5, 2021, City Council public hearing about Oakland Crossings. “The bill before you has skipped that process entirely and started from the wrong end of the line.”

Former Mayor Bill Peduto introduced the bill to City Council on September 17. Since the zoning amendment originated in the Mayor’s office, Mayor Gainey is now acting as the applicant. Ms. Boykowycz requested the October 5 meeting on behalf of OPDC and asked City Council to refrain from taking action on the bill—at least until Oakland community groups have had a chance to finalize their forthcoming Oakland Plan.

City Council heard about an hour and a half of public testimony from residents and community groups across Pittsburgh, the vast majority of whom shared Ms. Boykowycz’s concerns about what she called the “dangerous precedent” Oakland Crossings’ fast-tracked acceptance would set.

“I believe the handling of this request for zoning change will affect the outlook of all neighborhoods regarding community planning … Neighborhood groups have an expectation that the whole reason for completing a plan is to then have conversations with developers and others about how the market might fit into various community needs,” April Clisura said at the October 5 hearing. Ms. Clisura lives in Greenfield and volunteers for community organizations in Greenfield and Hazelwood. “We community residents need to call for clarification and stand up for what constitutes public participation.” Ms. Clisura also suggested creating a community planning bill of rights for Pittsburgh.

Run resident Barb Warwick, who spoke next, is also active in Greenfield and Hazelwood and shares these concerns. “From where I stand in The Run, OPDC is a powerhouse when it comes to sway in this city,” she told council members. “So if you’re going to brush them aside, if you’re going to tell them that their neighborhood plan doesn’t matter, that big-money developers can just do what they will—what hope is there for the rest of us?”

City Council approved the bill and forwarded it to the Planning Commission on October 12. On January 25, OPDC hosted a community meeting on Zoom about Oakland Crossings. More than 100 participants, including Mayor Gainey, attended. The Department of City Planning will host another meeting on February 2 at 6 p.m.

Irvine Sidewalk Repairs Receive Funding

Construction Projected for Summer 2022

Long-needed sidewalk construction on Irvine Street between Hazelwood and Greenfield Avenues got more attention recently when updates to the project’s Engage PGH webpage raised questions about funding.

Although the fact sheet linked from the webpage stated “this project is only funded for design. DOMI [Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Transportation] is investigating potential sources for construction funds…,” construction is funded and slated to begin in June.

DOMI’s chief engineer Eric Setzler said the project received a grant of $120,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, plus $1 million in funding from the $335 million Pittsburgh received as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

Mr. Setzler reported that the Irvine Street project mainly consists of sidewalk and curb replacements with “updated ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant] ramps at the intersections.”

“We would like to get as much curb reveal as possible,” he said, referring to the height of a curb that helps provide separation from the road. As layers of asphalt are added to a road over time, its level rises closer to the adjacent sidewalk. Other Irvine Street improvements include adjusting drainage from the sidewalks and adding a small retaining wall to “hold the slope back”—especially near the Greenfield Avenue end of Irvine Street. The area currently has rock-filled wire cages called gabion baskets.

Mr. Setzler added that the project is “on a good track,” with design scheduled to wrap up by late January.

Run resident Barb Warwick noticed the outdated fact sheet and commented on the page, along with several other community members, calling for construction funds to be taken from the budget of the unpopular Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC).

“$12 million is a lot of money and it’s just sitting there in DOMI’s coffers,” Ms. Warwick said, referring to the estimated MOC budget. “Now that everyone is finally acknowledging how misguided DOMI’s plan to build a shuttle road through Schenley Park really was, we can start using that money for mobility improvements the people of Pittsburgh actually need.”

Regarding the MOC budget, Mr. Setzler said, “I am seeing about $8 million [of City funds], not counting anything from PWSA [Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority].” He mentioned the $4 million difference had been redirected in the 2021 budget through an amendment introduced by District 5 Councilman Corey O’Connor. PWSA has a budget of more than $42 million to complete a stormwater project on the same land as the MOC.

The MOC, slated to be put on hold by incoming Pittsburgh mayor Ed Gainey, proposed connecting Oakland university campuses and the Hazelwood Green development through the park’s Junction Hollow section and two adjacent neighborhoods—The Run and Panther Hollow. Affected communities including The Run, Panther Hollow, Greenfield, South Oakland, and Hazelwood created their own plan for how MOC funds should be spent instead: Our Money, Our Solutions (OMOS).

The ARP funding arises from controversy as well. When it was announced in July 2021, Mayor Bill Peduto drew criticism from constituents who said he needlessly rushed to set a major spending agenda that prioritized infrastructure above mitigating COVID-19-related harms, such as evictions.

Anna Tang, a community organizer with BikePGH, received an email alert about the page update on Dec. 3; she forwarded it to her contacts in the Greenfield/Hazelwood area. “It’s my job to let the public know about this stuff,” Ms. Tang said, speaking as a citizen familiar with City websites rather than as a representative of BikePGH.

“This is an important corridor for all modes of transportation,” Ms. Tang remarked, “and it seems like the most vulnerable users are almost always last to get the infrastructure attention they need. [The sidewalk repairs] couldn’t come soon enough.”

“To be 100% honest, there’s not a whole lot of things to provide feedback on,” Mr. Setzler said of the project’s Engage PGH webpage. “But we still want to put it out there and let people see it.”

Although other city departments have been sharing their projects on Engage PGH for longer, “DOMI is catching up,” Mr. Setzler added. “Going forward [Engage PGH] will be our main source for sharing project information. In general, projects will still have outreach to community groups and public meetings”—virtual or in person.

As of Dec. 14, the project page had an updated fact sheet and a new “virtual public plans display.” The display features maps and a schedule that projects construction will take seven months. In addition, a new feedback form was placed on the page above the existing 140-character comment field. You can also create an Egage PGH account to receive email alerts about upcoming projects in areas you choose from a list.

PWSA Fields Questions on Stormwater Project Delays

On Oct. 19, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) held a meeting via Zoom to update the public on its Four Mile Run Stormwater Project. The project, announced in 2017 as a way to address severe flooding in the Four Mile Run neighborhood (The Run), has come under fire from skeptics who say it is designed around the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) plan. The MOC, announced in 2015, calls for building a road for university shuttles on the same land as the stormwater project. During the Q&A period after their presentation, PWSA officials made several false statements related to the MOC.

Shuttle road more integral to design than previously shared

Asked if PWSA is providing space in its stormwater plan for the MOC, Mallory Griffin of construction firm JMT (which is involved in the PWSA project) answered no. Yet PWSA senior group manager Tony Igwe asserted that removing the MOC from the watershed plan would require PWSA to start over, which would cause significant delay and cost millions of dollars in changes.

“PWSA has always said the stormwater project will still move forward whether the trail is there or not,” Mr. Igwe explained. “But what we never said was how much additional cost and time would be required if the trail isn’t there… To suddenly shut down one piece of that project, take it off the table, and then ask us to do a project, the first thing that’s going to happen is now we have to redesign the project to take that Mon-Oakland [Connector] out of the equation.”

The public has been told repeatedly at public meetings that the watershed plan and MOC are “two separate projects.” PWSA’s own notes from its Sept. 2020 public meeting on the stormwater project state:

“We are going to do the stormwater project no matter what. If the roadway stopped being planned, we would have to amend our permit, which would result in a paperwork review for [the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP)] and some timing changes, but we would still do our project. For the stormwater project, the money is committed, the PWSA board has approved it, the design is essentially complete, and we are moving forward with it.”

In several earlier public meetings, former stormwater project manager and current PWSA Board Chair Alex Sciulli had assured residents that the stormwater project takes precedence and that removing the MOC would not cause a significant delay because they are two separate projects.

New mayor, MOC opposition portrayed as obstacles

Ms. Griffin said that the PWSA hopes to have the permit approved by this winter, but warned of consequences if the MOC is removed as residents have been requesting for years. Slide 21 of PWSA’s presentation reads, in part: “If the new City Administration changes or removes the Mon-Oakland trail design, permitting will need to start over causing significant delay.”

Outgoing mayor Bill Peduto introduced the MOC plan to advance university and foundation goals. Mayor Peduto became Pittsburgh’s first incumbent mayor to be unseated since 1933. Mayor-elect Ed Gainey, by contrast, has clearly stated that he opposes the MOC. According to his campaign website, “Ed will stop the buildout of Mon-Oakland connector and prevent the construction of other privatized or quasi-privatized mass transit systems designed to support luxury development at the expense of existing residential communities.”

Community members at the meeting reminded PWSA of this, but Mr. Igwe said, “Up until that is done officially, all we’re really dealing with is people giving us their ideas and opinions on where they stand, and until someone puts something in writing formally that says it’s from the office of the people who can make the decision, that’s where we have to assume the project is going until it’s absolutely clear that it will not.”

Run residents have suffered a total of 10 major 25- to 75-year flood events in the last 15 years. They say a 10-year flood event plan (per PWSA’s current design parameters) is dangerously inadequate and that addressing floods must be prioritized. Every flood in The Run is an illegal combined sewer overflow that contains raw sewage—not merely stormwater runoff—which independent stormwater management consultants have labeled a public health and safety crisis.

Budget numbers continue to fluctuate

PWSA will spend $42.65 million on the stormwater project, according to their latest presentation. In a June 2020 meeting, another public presentation revealed that only about $14 million is going directly to flood relief in The Run. Asked why, PWSA acting senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito responded in an email on Aug. 24, 2020, “The remaining funding can go towards future projects in the upper portions of the watershed, provide opportunities to collaborate with the universities and other community organizations on future stormwater projects, or revisit some of the original green infrastructure projects planned for Panther Hollow Stream and Phipps Run.” (emphasis added)

Excerpt from Nov. 10 PWSA letter in response to resident statement at Oct. 22 PWSA board meeting

Subsequent presentations between then and now have added items that were not previously considered part of the “core” project in the Junction Hollow section of Schenley Park. It is unclear whether the money set aside for opportunities to collaborate with the universities has been diverted to these new items, including “Construction Management / Inspection” (which presumably was always needed to complete the project).

In a letter responding to a resident’s statement at PWSA’s Oct. 22 board meeting, Mr. Igwe included the information from the budget slide and said the budget “does not contain $26 million ‘being held back for future projects.’”

Good news break: Sidewalks restored

The Oct. 19 presentation included photos of sidewalks in The Run that were dug up in the process of moving gas lines in advance of the stormwater project. One community member commented that the strip of rocks filling the trench down the middle of the sidewalk looked like “a tripping hazard.” A Run resident said they had been told the sidewalks would not be replaced until after the stormwater project is completed.

Ms. Griffin said the sidewalks were “100% in Peoples’ scope to replace” and pledged to “follow up with them tomorrow first thing to see what their schedule is for replacing the sidewalks.”

About two weeks after the meeting, construction crews returned to The Run. As of Nov. 12, they were putting finishing touches on the new sidewalks.

PA DEP concerns downplayed

PWSA received a technical deficiency letter from PA DEP dated May 27, 2021, in response to their permit application filed for the project in August 2020. Ms. Griffin and Mr. Igwe both mischaracterized this letter during the Q&A session, stating that the deficiencies identified were unrelated to the MOC. Ms. Griffin said that in a subsequent PA DEP letter “they had no questions on the trail’s impact to the flooding.” This point is debatable, but PA DEP’s concerns in the May 27 letter regarding the MOC are not incidental. Of 35 items listed in the 8-page letter, 13 specifically mention the MOC. For example, environmental comment 26 refers to additional permit requirements associated with the MOC:

Since PWSA is the applicant, will PWSA be responsible for the operation and maintenance of this section of DOMI’s project? Alternately, please consult with DEP, regarding additional permit requirements, if PWSA will not own or have primary responsibility for this section of DOMI’s Mon-Oakland Mobility Project.”

On Oct. 29, PA DEP sent PWSA a second technical deficiency letter. They identified remaining “significant technical deficiencies” and requested a meeting with PWSA to discuss and explain them. Comment 17 in this second letter asks PWSA to “confirm that the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project is the same as the DOMI trail” and clarify that the full scope of the project is shown in a drawing called the “Boundary Street Concept North of Junction Hollow.”

“If there are additional components and/or sections of the overall DOMI Trail/Mon-Oakland Mobility Project,” the comment continued, “please note that a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment may be requested.”

After the Oct. 19 meeting and before receiving word of the second letter, residents asked the PA DEP to delay their decision to approve or reject the dual permit until at least February 2022.

Hazelwood, Run Residents React to Announced Playground Funding

On Sept. 2, Four Mile Run resident Barb Warwick found Department of Public Works [DPW] workers at the neighborhood’s playground. “[They were] replacing a lot of the old and rusted parts,” she recalled. “My kids are super happy to have their playground back.” 

OnePGH will rehabilitate playgrounds in The Run and Hazelwood 

For more than three years, neighbors in The Run had pleaded with city officials to repair and reopen their playground. It was plagued by hazards, including deep holes left by missing benches and tables. Concrete chunks had fallen from the Parkway East during PennDOT repairs, and a broken play structure had injured a child. But the sudden appearance of DPW workers was not quite what the community had asked for. 

A Sept. 3 City of Pittsburgh press release announced that “Carnegie Mellon University [CMU] and the City of Pittsburgh have partnered to provide support for the rehabilitation of Four Mile Run playground in Greenfield and improvements at Lewis playground in Hazelwood as part of the OnePGH community investment plan announced earlier this year by Mayor William Peduto.”

The press release characterized DPW’s work on The Run’s existing playground as “short-term repairs” while the new playground is being planned. But residents of The Run say no one was lobbying for a brand-new playground, and that it should be unnecessary once their playground is fully repaired. 

Plan does not include specifics or reflect neighborhood input

The press release did not say how much CMU planned to donate for each playground. OnePGH is a partnership between the city and outside nonprofits, including CMU. District 5 Councilman Corey O’Connor said there is “no set number” for the CMU donation “because we want to do a neighborhood process to see what people want at both playgrounds.”

“For The Run,” Councilman O’Connor added, “[these current repairs were] City money. We requested the repairs last fall, but there was a backlog due to COVID.”

“It’s exciting to see the work happen,” Run resident Ziggy Edwards said, but added, “We learned about these plans the same way we learned about the CMU- and Pitt-proposed Mon-Oakland Connector [MOC]: through press coverage. It’s disappointing that—once again—major decisions affecting our neighborhood came from a partnership between our elected representatives and monied interests that excluded residents.”

Hazelwood and Run residents, along with dozens of social justice and community groups, churches, and others have rejected the MOC—a proposed shuttle road between the Hazelwood Green development and Oakland campuses championed by the public-private partnership formed between CMU, Pitt, and Mayor Peduto’s administration for that purpose. Residents say building a new road through the Junction Hollow section of Schenley Park and The Run will permanently degrade the park and one day erase the neighborhood. Affected communities including The Run, Panther Hollow, Greenfield, South Oakland, and Hazelwood created their own plan for how MOC funds should be spent instead: Our Money, Our Solutions (OMOS).

The city did not seek input from Hazelwood residents on restoring Lewis Playground 

James Cole of Hazelwood said he was unaware of CMU’s playground funding commitment until contacted for this article. “How is it that no one asked the people in the neighborhoods what they want?” he asked. “I have 150 kids up [at Burgwin Field for youth programs] every day, and this is the first I’m hearing about it.”

Three Rivers Village School [TRVS] is planning a move from the Spartan Center into the former YMCA across Chatsworth Avenue from Lewis Playground. Staffer Jason White-Weidow said he had not heard about the plan to improve the playground either. 

“It would definitely be great for TRVS to have an updated park there and it would get a lot of use by our kids, including the Hazelwood residents,” Mr. White-Weidow said. “We agree though, that it is strange that the community wasn’t consulted.” He added that if other parks or community resource priorities would serve more residents, especially kids, then neighbors’ voices should be heard and respected. 

Councilman O’Connor said the community has expressed itself extensively about both playgrounds. “We’ve heard from people for a number of years,” he said, naming the Greenfield Community Association, Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., Center of Life and other community groups. He said other feedback came from community and budget meetings and 311 calls. 

Councilman O’Connor said there is no timeframe yet for the meetings the city wants to hold with residents, but stressed that “there will be opportunities for community input.”

Residents say Greenfield K-8 needs a playground 

In a similar spirit to the OMOS plan, residents are already identifying and proposing alternatives for the Four Mile Run playground funds. Ms. Warwick says a playground is desperately needed at Greenfield Elementary School. 

“Greenfield is a K-8 school with a special needs program and a Pre-K program. Right now, all they have is a field that’s often too muddy to use and a big parking lot,” Ms. Warwick explained. A group of parents from the Greenfield Community Association and the Greenfield School PTO are working together to raise funds for a playground. “We should build a playground that will improve the lives of kids from all over Greenfield,” she added.

Pittsburgh’s RCO Ordinance Caters to Developers While Stifling Grassroots Voices

In late 2018, Pittsburgh City Council passed an ordinance that is birthing a system of Registered Community Organizations (RCOs). According to the City of Pittsburgh’s website, this new system gives RCOs “a formal role in the current development projects [taking place in a neighborhood] as well as neighborhood planning processes.”

Community organizations that want to become RCOs must meet criteria that include:

  • Being a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit.
  • Maintaining a website and posting public meeting agendas, minutes, and decisions.
  • Holding two public meetings each year in an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible space.
  • Submitting a signed letter from their City Councilperson.

Critics point to the financial and political resources needed to satisfy these requirements. Obtaining 501 (c)(3) nonprofit status can take months or even years. Although recent updates to the process allow some organizations to file a shorter form, the IRS will reject forms with any mistakes. Filing the form requires an online payment. Organizations may lack the funds to maintain a website or secure an ADA-accessible meeting space. And, critically, organizations at odds with their City Councilperson may find themselves shut out of RCO status.

According to a Dec. 3, 2018, Public Source article, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation Marimba Milliones described the required letter from a city council member as “an infringement of free speech.”

“Anyone who’s done any level of community organizing knows that a core part of community organizing is being able to go and articulate your issues to whomever, however…without retribution,” Ms. Milliones said at a community meeting. “And to give any elected official or any person the power to essentially endorse you as the voice for your community is unacceptable.”

The City speaks from both sides of its mouth on the issue, insisting that it “values the contributions that community organizations bring to our city and holds each in equal regard” while also saying “RCOs will receive certain benefits, not favoritism” compared to non-RCO groups. The benefits in question, obtainable only by jumping through the above-referenced hoops, lead to elevating well-connected professional community organizers above grassroots organizations with fewer resources or with interests that go against those of developers.

Outcomes of this new layer between average Pittsburghers and civic participation could prove dire in neighborhoods slated for big development projects by powerful interests. The proposed Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road through The Run is a prime example.

The Run, technically part of the Greenfield neighborhood, is geographically isolated from the rest of that community. Neither the MOC nor severe flooding in The Run affect upper Greenfield. One Greenfield Community Association (GCA) board member told GCA meeting attendees that the organization “does not represent the people of Greenfield.” Yet the GCA is currently in the process of acquiring RCO status and will become the de facto representative of the entire neighborhood—including The Run—in matters of community development.

This leaves Run residents in a tenuous position. The GCA, which includes a tiny minority of Run residents, can easily ignore or compromise on issues concerning the MOC and combined sewer overflows to avoid ruffling feathers in city government. Run residents cannot afford to do so. A 2017 City-mandated survey of Run residents showed overwhelming opposition to the MOC roadway and unanimous demand for effective flood relief. Furthermore, part of the MOC plan calls for seizing several Acorn St. properties through eminent domain to widen Swinburne Bridge and make a dedicated lane for MOC shuttles.

Residents of The Run and surrounding communities created the Our Money Our Solutions (OMOS) infrastructure/transportation plan to address the needs of existing residents. The group identified the needs of each community together rather than acting as individual neighborhoods in a void. In this way, they avoided “solutions” that could harm surrounding communities.

The OMOS plan is an example of how communities can unite to address their own needs—as opposed to the top-down, chainsaw development approach Pittsburgh has historically favored.

Requiring developers to address the community with their plans makes sense; however, the devil is in the details. Putting a nice face on rubber-stamping, bulldozing on behalf of outside interests, and rigging the game further entrenches these same old techniques of destroying healthy communities for profit. There are fairer ways to ensure that developers pass through a community approval process.

If you are concerned about the role of RCOs, start by finding out if your community has one. If your research or participation shows that the local RCO does not serve the interests of your community, you have a lot to consider. You may wish to form your own RCO—or work toward replacing the RCO framework in Pittsburgh.

PWSA Pushes Ahead on Four Mile Run Stormwater Project Without Permit

Despite receiving a Technical Deficiency Letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) in response to their dual permit application for the problematic Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road and Four Mile Run Stormwater Project, PWSA shows no sign of reconsidering its plans. The current stormwater project is inadequate to address the flooding issues, in part because it was designed around the MOC. On top of that, existing flood protection benchmarks do not account for worsening conditions caused by overdevelopment and climate change.

May 27: The PA DEP sent the Technical Deficiency Letter. Its engineering and environmental comments contained numerous references to the MOC and requests for clarification on its impacts. Here is a small sampling of problems from the 8-page letter.

Engineering comment 5d: Was the area as a result of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure proposed trail and road incorporated into the flood analysis inundation limits study for proposed conditions. Provide evidence that the impervious area will not contribute additional flow increasing water surface elevations detailed in Figure 01 & Figure 02 of Project 2018-GI-102-0.

Environmental comment 25: Per Module S1, in the EA, “The purpose of the Project is to manageand/or remove direct stream inflow to the existing CSS within the Junction Hollow valley of Schenley Park and to improve the CSS system from Junction Hollow to the Monongahela River, by repair, replacement, and/or separation of the CSS and stormwater lines. The goals and benefits of the Project are to reduce CSOs; reduce flood risks and basement backups; reduce sediment transport; and leverage resources for regional benefit, including align with the Parks Master Plan.” Describe the relationship between PWSA’s project and the City of Pittsburgh’s project, in terms of the project purpose.

Environmental comment 26: The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) is identified as the applicant, on the application form; however, the Project Description identifies the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project as a City of Pittsburgh project, led by the City’s Dept. of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI). Since PWSA is the applicant, will PWSA be responsible for the operation and maintenance of this section of DOMI’s project? Alternately, please consult with DEP, regarding additional permit requirements, if PWSA will not own or have primary responsibility for this section of DOMI’s Mon-Oakland Mobility Project.

Environmental comment 29: Since this application only includes a section of DOMI’s Mon-Oakland Mobility Project, identify and describe, to the extent possible, any and all potential impacts to aquatic resources, including watercourses, floodways, floodplains and bodies of water, from the overall Mon-Oakland Mobility Project. Please note that based on your response to this item, that a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment may be requested.

The letter stated that PWSA had 60 days to respond to these comments, or the application would be considered withdrawn. The deadline was July 27.

May 28: At the monthly PWSA board meeting Ziggy Edwards of The Run urged the PWSA to create a model for the stormwater project that does not include the MOC. She also asked for a report PWSA commissioned from ms Consultants that provides great detail on the Four Mile Run watershed and was funded with ratepayer dollars.

June 3: PWSA chief of project management Alex Sciulli denied Ms. Edwards’ request for the report. Regarding the dual permit application, Mr. Sciulli said he “asked staff to prepare a response to the PA DEP letter and to provide additional clarification regarding the stormwater impact of the proposed MOC, including the specifics of the ms Consultants report and previous modeling.” He added, “At the appropriate time, we will be happy to share and discuss our response to your inquiries.”

Mr. Sciulli did not clarify how PWSA would be able to address in two months the fundamental shortcomings identified by PA DEP.

June 13: Intense storms caused flash flooding in The Run that totaled several cars, damaged a garage, and caused sewage backups in basements.

June 25: At the monthly PWSA board meeting, several Run residents spoke and/or submitted statements regarding the June 13 flood. Ms. Edwards again implored the PWSA to come up with a plan to address flooding that is not designed around and hindered by the MOC.

“We need answers on how much better PWSA could address the combined sewer overflows without [the road]. These answers have life-or-death importance to The Run,” she said.

Ray Gerard of lower Greenfield recounted the flood’s aftermath in his statement. “The City again neglected to show up and remove inches of leftover fecal matter on the streets, sidewalks and limited community green space. The neighborhood literally smelled like [$#!*] for days. It’s understood that there are other areas of the city that suffered damage and flooding, but that was runoff storm-water, not raw sewage… Residents and their children are forced to breathe this toxic air in for days. Our local officials continue to ignore, at great risk, the lives and health of Run residents.”

July 9: PWSA senior group manager Tony Igwe sent a letter to Run residents informing them that although “the plans for the stormwater project are being reviewed by the [PA DEP] and we cannot move forward with construction [on the stormwater project] until a permit is issued … People’s Natural Gas (PNG) will begin construction to replace existing gas lines along Saline Street, Alexis Street, Four Mile Run Road, and Boundary Street.” The letter included a tiny image of a map with illegible text (see image above).

Stay tuned for updates on PWSA’s response to the Technical Deficiency Letter and whether PNG’s planned construction lacks necessary permits.