GCA

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 for 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.