community engagement

DOMI Has a Bridge to Sell Residents Affected by Swinburne Replacement

residents and friends gathered at Zano's for 7/14 meeting

On July 14, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) hosted a virtual meeting about plans to tear down and rebuild Swinburne Bridge in lower Greenfield. The bridge, built in 1915 and rehabilitated twice, is in poor condition and had its weight limit lowered to 21 tons in 2014. According to the Swinburne Bridge project page on Engage PGH, it serves the communities of Four Mile Run (“The Run”), Greenfield, South Oakland, and downtown. The bridge connects Swinburne Street in South Oakland to Greenfield Avenue in lower Greenfield. DOMI said the city is working with the Federal Highway Administration and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) on the project.

About 65 attendees logged in to the meeting, plus an in-person “watch party” of 20 on the deck at Zano’s Pub House. Barb Warwick, who lives in The Run and is running for Pittsburgh City Council’s District 5 seat, facilitated questions from the group at Zano’s.

Representatives from DOMI, PennDOT, and private construction firm Alfred Benesch & Company all acknowledged that work on Swinburne Bridge will profoundly affect The Run. A significant portion of the neighborhood—and the only street providing vehicular access to it—lies directly beneath the bridge. DOMI painted a rosy picture of plans to minimize disruptions to the community while completing the project. But several aspects of the meeting fueled continuing mistrust among residents, who have years of experience with the city treating them as roadblocks to development projects that serve private interests.

A double standard for safety

DOMI project manager Zachary Workman responded with unequivocal commitment to unspecified comments in the chat about bridge safety concerns. “We are absolutely not going to have another bridge collapse,” he said, referring to the January 2022 collapse of Fern Hollow Bridge. “That can’t happen, and we’re not going to let it happen.”

Mr. Workman had more guarded answers to concerns raised by affected residents. He said DOMI is aware of dangerous traffic conditions along Greenfield Avenue that led to repeated requests for traffic-calming measures. “It’s definitely something that’s on DOMI’s radar for improvements in the future but they are going to be—it’s something that we’ll—it’s in the long-range plan as resources become available … It’s going to be a little while still and beyond the scope of this project.”

Project plans include a traffic signal at the intersection of Swinburne Bridge and Greenfield Avenue. When asked if a traffic signal could be installed sooner than the projected fall 2026 bridge completion, DOMI chief engineer Eric Setzler told residents, “Unfortunately, I think, it’s being constructed as part of this project. I certainly understand your desire to see it as soon as possible. I could definitely see that being beneficial, but it’s part of the project so it’s going to have to come at the same time as the rest of the project.”

“Property takes” not ruled out

Also in contrast with DOMI’s commitment to never let another bridge collapse, they went out of their way to avoid firm promises concerning homes and businesses beneath Swinburne Bridge.

Dana Provenzano, who owns two affected properties including Zano’s, asked, “You’re saying you’re not taking any properties, correct?”

“Our preliminary investigation into the demolition and construction is that this bridge can be demolished and rebuilt without taking homes,” Mr. Workman responded. “We’re in preliminary engineering, but that seems to be feasible.”

Mayor Ed Gainey emphatically promised residents that the city would not take anyone’s home (see video) at a February 17 meeting in Hazelwood where he announced an end to the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle project. Affected communities including The Run heavily opposed the MOC, which lives on as a purported bike and pedestrian trail that still enjoys a substantial yet murky budget. DOMI has long envisioned Swinburne Bridge as part of the MOC shuttle route.

Asked whether Mayor Gainey’s promise changed plans for the bridge, Mr. Setzler said it “did help us clarify what we were doing for this project … Once we knew [the MOC shuttle] was no longer part of the equation we could home in on bikes, peds, and vehicles.” He did not specify what kind of vehicles.

Mr. Setzler explained that a couple of years ago, DOMI was considering new alignments that would eliminate the sharp turn on the northern end of the bridge. “However, as we were looking at it we realized pretty quickly that any different path for the bridge would require right-of-way, require property takes—by definition, because you’re going over a place where there wasn’t a bridge before.”

Pittsburgh’s 2023 capital budget includes $100K for right-of-way acquisition associated with Swinburne Bridge, but Mr. Setzler said that setting aside funds for this purpose is standard procedure on this type of project. “We believe we can avoid taking property, and that is our goal,” he added.

A shared-use path to nowhere?

Many MOC critics believe profiteers who dreamed up the plan are regrouping to use this bridge replacement as cover for an eventual revival of the community-erasing shuttle road.

Mel Packer of Point Breeze said he has ridden his bike across Swinburne bridge and appreciates “how dangerous it can be once you get onto the Oakland side.” Although he welcomed the “shared-use path” in DOMI’s presented design, Mr. Packer questioned why the path suddenly stops in that treacherous location.

slide 14 of DOMI's 7/14/22 presentation shows current and proposed sections of Swinburne Bridge
Slide 14 of DOMI’s July 14 presentation shows current and proposed sections of Swinburne Bridge.

“I’m old enough to remember we had a bridge to nowhere once,” he said. “I feel like this is the bike path to nowhere … What are you not telling me? Why would we build a path that wide across the bridge when it’s impossible to widen Swinburne [Street]? We know it’s impossible—I mean, it would cost many millions of dollars; you’d have to buy properties up on the hill, build a wall 50 feet tall. No one’s going to do that.”

Mr. Setzler responded, “The shuttle has been put aside; that is done. But we’re really looking at the bike-ped connection, and a couple of things we showed on the screen [slide 13 of the presentation]—just to be clear, they’re not part of this project.”

He described a desired off-street connection between the Eliza Furnace trailhead and Swinburne Bridge where the path ends. This could allow cyclists and pedestrians to travel “into the heart of Hazelwood” without navigating the five-way intersection at Greenfield Avenue/Second Avenue/Irvine Street/Saline Street.

Slide 13 of DOMI's July 14 presentation shows "future connectivity."
Slide 13 of DOMI’s July 14 presentation shows “future connectivity.”

An additional connection was not listed in the slide’s text. “There’s also a potential to maybe get on a trail on the other side of the road [where the path ends on Swinburne Bridge] and get back down into [Schenley] Park and go up through the park past the soccer fields and get into Oakland,” Mr. Setzler said.

This route corresponds exactly with the “Swinburne connection” referenced in DOMI’s October 2020 presentation as “phase 2” of the MOC. The projected 16-foot-wide road was to traverse the same landslide-prone hillside with fragile soil conditions that prevent Swinburne Street from being widened.

Slide 22 of DOMI's October 2020 presentation shows "Swinburne Connection"/"phase 2" of the MOC.
Slide 22 of DOMI’s October 2020 presentation shows “Swinburne connection” listed as “phase 2” of the MOC.

DOMI’s presentation on the Swinburne Bridge did not include a slide with ideas for future traffic-calming measures on Greenfield Avenue, even though residents must face speeding traffic every time they walk between their houses and cars.

Rushing past design, community input

Rob Pfaffman, a prominent local architect, called the Swinburne Bridge project “a hidden opportunity to celebrate the Hollow, the community, the natural environment, and the trail of course running through it.” But he said that based on what he saw in the presentation, planners are disregarding that opportunity.

“You can’t have a design process where you’re already through preliminary design and you haven’t engaged the community,” Mr. Pfaffman commented. “[Design is] integral to a great project, and right now what you’re showing us is not that. It’s a Fern Hollow Bridge—which is basically expediting a project as quickly as you can and saying screw the design.”

The next public meeting is not scheduled to be held until 2023 or 2024—during “final design.”

Pittsburgh “Community Engagement” Needs More of Both

bad governance and good governance

Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) held a public meeting on July 14 about the Swinburne Bridge project. Mayor Gainey’s neighborhood services manager, Rebekkah Ranallo, debuted as a co-facilitator.

Ms. Ranallo seemed genuinely excited to learn that about 20 residents of Four Mile Run (“The Run”) and their friends had gathered at their local pub to participate as a group in the Zoom-only meeting. “I think it’s great that folks are getting together for civic engagement opportunities like this,” she said.

During the Q&A session, attendees brought up a list of community demands (listed below) for a transparent public process. Ms. Ranallo assured them on behalf of DOMI and the mayor’s office, “We want to let you know that improving the way all of our departments do community engagement with our residents is a top priority.”

As the City of Pittsburgh begins “engaging” communities about this project, it’s important to understand why getting involved is a matter of survival for affected residents—and how they lost trust in local institutions tasked with serving the public interest.

A long history of deceit

Residents of The Run, along with their neighbors in Hazelwood and Panther Hollow, have so far prevailed in a seven-year battle against private interests’ attempts to erase existing communities in support of the Hazelwood Green development using city funds and authority.

In August 2015, Run residents learned of Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle plans from a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article touting an already-submitted grant application that turned out to be fraudulent. DOMI, created in 2017, initially claimed they were pushing the restart button on the MOC concept. But the restart got off to a bad start when DOMI organized a January 2018 public meeting to “share the potential alternative routes” for the MOC. Attendees reported that the exercise seemed designed to herd them toward a conclusion that only the Schenley Park route could work.

Over ensuing years, DOMI continued pushing the MOC on affected communities in a dishonest and non-transparent way. These are just a few examples:

  • On April 13, 2018, DOMI filed for a $1 million grant for work on the Sylvan Avenue trail, part of the MOC route, to make the trail suitable for MOC shuttles. At a public meeting the following month on May 22, DOMI did not mention the grant at all. When the grant was approved in July 2018 by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, DOMI still did not inform affected residents. Asked about the grant and why DOMI kept it secret from residents, former DOMI director Karina Ricks said, “Well… we could have handled that better” and “It’s not possible for there to be some conspiracy—we’re just not competent enough for that.”
  • In August 2020, residents on Acorn Street near the Swinburne Bridge received a letter from DOMI and AWK Consulting Engineers citing eminent domain. When asked about this at the October 2020 MOC meeting, Ms. Ricks responded, “It is a letter written by a lawyer and, unfortunately, they do reference the right of eminent domain. The City has absolutely no intention to take properties [as part of the bridge construction]. There is a possibility there might be some slivers that will be needed to create new footings for the bridge.”
  • Residents obtained a 2018 request from DOMI to Pittsburgh’s Office of Management and Budget for funding. That document is mostly blank, but DOMI was nonetheless given $9 million of taxpayer funds. One section of the document DOMI did fill out was the section reading: Please identify the source of external funding and how the project adheres to the funding source’s rules and regulations. “Demonstrated support of the public” was a checklist item within that section. DOMI checked off this item and commented: Depends on which community!
Ranking criteria for Mon-Oakland Connector from 2019 budget application
A section of the City Budget form shows DOMI’s response to whether the project has community support. 

Additional information received through resident-filed Right-to-Know requests, sources in city government, and expert independent consultations revealed the true “vision” behind the MOC and the nature of Hazelwood Green’s relationship to surrounding communities. Private interests have a long-term plan that calls for erasing The Run off the map so universities can expand from Oakland campuses to Hazelwood Green. And it includes using eminent domain to acquire resident homes and business.

A 2009 study from the Remaking Cities Institute of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Remaking Hazelwood, makes this intention clear:

“The urban design recommendations proposed in this document extend beyond the boundary of the ALMONO site. The end of Four Mile Run valley, the hillside and Second Avenue are all critical to the overall framework. Some of these areas are publicly-held; others are privately-owned. A map is in the section Development Constraints. The support of the City of Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) will be critical to the success of our vision. The ALMONO, LP could try to purchase these sites. Failing that, the URA can support the project by purchasing those properties that are within the scope of the recommendations and making them available for redevelopment in accordance with the proposed strategy.”

Remaking Hazelwood, page 45

Unfortunately for existing communities seen by the authors of this report as “development constraints,” there is no evidence that underlying goals have changed for development in the area.

Another “restart button?”

Ms. Ricks left DOMI after Ed Gainey, who vowed to stop the MOC, won Pittsburgh’s 2021 mayoral race. Mayor Gainey announced the end of the shuttle road during a February 17 community meeting in Hazelwood, but DOMI has continued prioritizing MOC-related projects above longstanding infrastructure needs and dangerous traffic conditions in Greenfield and Hazelwood.

Public meetings about these projects have not shown improvement, either. DOMI originally scheduled the Swinburne Bridge meeting for June 16, but residents pushed back after finding out only 10 days in advance. The extent of DOMI’s outreach for that original meeting was a letter sent to a few residents, which those residents received on June 6. The rest of the community learned of the meeting through their neighbors who received the letter.

During a month-long lead-up to the rescheduled meeting, several residents asked DOMI to make the presentation (which they presumably would have prepared for the June meeting) available so the public would have time to review it in advance. None of the residents received a direct response from DOMI. About four hours before the start of the July 14 meeting, project manager Zachary Workman posted a statement in the Q&A section of the project’s Engage PGH webpage that DOMI would not honor the request.

Community demands shaped by experience

Residents have learned from years of MOC public meetings designed to check a “community engagement” box while minimizing the community’s effect on predetermined outcomes. The whole time, they were communicating ideas for better public engagement to DOMI—but DOMI ignored them. Residents have called for the following:

  • All meetings must be posted with a minimum of 14 days’ notice to allow working people to arrange their busy lives to attend and have their voices heard. The meeting information must be widely advertised on social media, sent to email lists, and communicated by any means necessary to community members who lack internet access.
  • The meeting presentation must be posted at the same time the meeting is announced. The public must be afforded sufficient time to review and understand the information being presented so they can come to the meeting prepared with questions. If you do not yet have the presentation ready, then you should postpone the meeting to give people a chance to review the presentation after you have posted it.
  • All meetings must include a Q&A session where every attendee is able to hear all questions asked and all answers given. The Q&A session itself should be expected to last at least an hour, if not two hours. All answers to questions should be thorough and truthful, with a clear plan for following up on information DOMI doesn’t have. The Q&A session must not be curtailed because of time constraints, especially if the presentation has taken up more than half the allotted time for the meeting. There is no reason the presentation should require so much time, especially since the public will have already had a chance to review it. Dialogue with the community should be the main focus of all meetings. 
  • Meetings must offer an in-person option so that no community members are excluded. 
  • Meetings with a virtual component must provide space for at least 300 virtual attendees so that no one is unable to access the meeting at any time.
  • After the meeting, a recording of the Zoom meeting and the chat transcript must be made available on the Engage PGH website.

Ms. Ranallo said at the July 14 meeting, “While I can’t speak to each item on your list of demands, we do want to build trust with you … We have a new administration, we have new leadership at DOMI, and we ask that you give us a chance to try to earn that trust.”

The community’s demands were compiled as a road map the city can follow to do exactly that.