mon-oakland connector

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.

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

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.

Mayoral Candidate Visits The Run, Hazelwood

On May 6, Pennsylvania State Representative Ed Gainey met 30-40 community members in The Run. Rep. Gainey, who hopes to win the Democratic primary in the race to become Pittsburgh’s next mayor, heard Run residents describe the severe flooding that plagues their neighborhood. They also discussed the city’s plans to widen Swinburne Bridge with a dedicated lane for shuttles between the Hazelwood Green development and the Oakland universities, a controversial project known as the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC). One small business and several families located near the bridge have received letters from the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure invoking eminent domain.

“The [Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s (PWSA’s)] stormwater project is designed around the MOC,” said Ziggy Edwards of The Run. “Their design doesn’t fix the flooding, and [PWSA] won’t show us a model without the MOC.”

The crowd made its way to the neighborhood’s recreational facilities beneath Interstate 376, which include a recently reopened basketball court and a dilapidated playground that was partially barricaded after a child was injured. Several parents from The Run mentioned a 2018 playground closure due to concrete chunks falling from the underside of the highway. Crews have since installed netting under that section of 376.

As the group continued toward the Junction Hollow section of Schenley Park, Rep. Gainey asked questions about the MOC, for which DOMI plans to build a new road through Schenley Park. Residents peppered him with information, describing the lack of genuine community support for and involvement in the project. For example, Run residents described how they learned of the plan from a 2015 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“There are certain people in Hazelwood… organizations who knew or heard about what’s going on and that support [the MOC],” said James Cole of Hazelwood. “But the people IN the neighborhood, FROM the neighborhood, live, sleep, breathe, interact with the people in the neighborhood… nobody’s for it.”

The Hazelwood Green development is owned by Almono Partners, which plans to operate the proposed MOC shuttles.

“I’m not against new people coming to Pittsburgh; as a matter of fact, we want that level of growth,” Gainey told the group. “But it shouldn’t be at the expense of people who’ve been here forever and a day. If you want to know what’s going to bring this city together in a unified way, it’s because you’re fighting that power. It’s [saying], ‘I’m not gonna be removed. I’m NOT gonna be removed.’”

Rep. Gainey continued his walkthrough in Hazelwood. As the group re-formed at the corner of Hazelwood and Second Avenues, he spoke with Pastor Lutual Love, Sr. of Hazelwood about development of the 4800 block of Second Avenue.

“We were expressing our disapproval of the current design [for the proposed development],” Pastor Love recounted. “We’re trying to influence the City to change the current RFP to include retail space—such as a grocery store, high-tech laundromat, or credit union—that offers services to lower-income people, that’s more family oriented. There’s a lot of one-bedroom housing being proposed.”

Rep. Gainey mentioned his visit to The Run and Hazelwood during a May 10 meet-the-candidates Q&A session hosted online by Voter Empowerment Education and Enrichment Movement (VEEEM) Pittsburgh. “I would not be for the Mon-Oakland Connector,” he said. “I was down in The Run, I was down in Hazelwood, and I was in Greenfield… They don’t want the Mon-Oakland Connector; they don’t feel it’s going to benefit them.”

All three candidates challenging Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto—Rep. Gainey, Tony Moreno, and Mike Thompson—said they would reallocate the $23 million of capital money to more urgent neighborhood infrastructure needs and prioritize flood mitigation.

Photo from Gainey mayoral campaign social media post

The Secret of the Shuttle Route

It seems like a question with a simple, straightforward answer: Where does the proposed MOC shuttle go after it leaves Schenley Park and enters The Run?

Junction Coalition sought the answer by emailing director Karina Ricks and project manager Michael Panzitta of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI). We got more (in terms of material for this post) and less (in terms of the answer itself) than we imagined in our wildest dreams.
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February 22, 2021

Good Afternoon Ms. Ricks and Mr. Panzitta,

We are writing to request a detailed, clearly marked map of the proposed Mon-Oakland Connector route between the Schenley Park soccer field (by the railroad overpass) and Saline St. at Greenfield Ave. This information is missing from the presentation at your October 2020 public meetings, which you described as the “final” opportunity for public input.

In slide 11, the green line representing the proposed route ends abruptly as it enters The Run from Schenley Park. Slide 37, presented by a representative of Almono Partners, shows a vague illustration that includes an almost uniformly straight line through The Run as if there are no streets, buildings, or recreation areas in the path of the proposed route.

Confusion on the topic of MOC’s exact route occurred at a recent community meeting. One attendee insisted the route had been changed and now will not enter the neighborhood, but instead follow the “Swinburne Connection” route shown in slide 22 of your presentation.

Please provide clarification on this issue and eliminate the confusion by sending DOMI’s proposed route per the specifications above. As public servants, you have an obligation to be transparent concerning DOMI projects and their effects (potential or otherwise) on Pittsburgh residents. Residents have a right to full and complete knowledge of all plans for their communities.

Sincerely,

Junction Coalition
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March 10, 2021

Hello Again Ms. Ricks and Mr. Panzitta,

More than two weeks have passed since we sent our previous email requesting a detailed, clearly marked map of the proposed Mon-Oakland Connector route between the Schenley Park soccer field (by the railroad overpass) and Saline St. at Greenfield Ave. We are following up with you for clarification on the proposed MOC route through The Run. We expect a reply within the next 24 hours along with the detailed, clearly marked map we requested. This information is missing from the presentation in your October 2020 public meetings, which you described as the “final” opportunity for public input.

As mentioned in the earlier email, those who are working on behalf of the public and funded with taxes have an obligation to be transparent concerning proposed DOMI projects and their effects (potential or otherwise) on Pittsburgh residents. Residents have a right to full and complete knowledge of all proposed plans for their communities.

Our request for this information is not unreasonable. The information requested should be straightforward by this point in the process. We’d prefer to not be forced to file RTK requests, but will if necessary in order to be clear on the exact path and scope of the proposed route. The Run needs to know how it would affect our community.

Sincerely,
Junction Coalition
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March 15, 2021

Hello Junction Coalition

Attached please find the requested roll plot with call-outs to specify the details of the two trails.

·       The mobility trail terminates at the parking lot near the soccer field. At this point, trail users join the shared use of the public streets.

·       The Three Rivers Heritage Trail (aka Junction Hollow Trail) follows largely the same path it does today – continuing along the east side of Boundary street under the rail underpass, crosses Boundary Street and then continues adjacent to the rail embankment to the Saline Street cycle track, up an improved curb to and through “The Chute”.

When the “Swinburne Connection | Chute Bypass” is established (see slide 21 of the presentation), the mobility trail would split would have altered the route of the Mobility Trail will skirt around the parking lot and instead climb the embankment below Swinburne, connect to the Swinburne Bridge and provide two options: either crossing the bridge and connecting directly to the Sylvan Trail or continuing straight down Swinburne Extension for a direct connection to the Jail Trail.
***

March 17, 2021

Ms. Ricks and Mr. Panzitta,

Thank you for the reply. There is still a bit of confusion regarding the illustration you provided and the message in your email, Rather than make assumptions, we are including these few questions for clarity:

  • Your Mon-Oakland 4MR attachment shows the path of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail through the neighborhood, which as you stated appears to be largely unchanged from what it is today. But it does not show the path of the “mobility trail” through the neighborhood. Some people are interpreting this map as though the 3RHT route is showing the path of the shuttle through The Run. Can you clarify whether the shuttle will be taking this path shown in orange for the 3RHT? If not, can you please answer the original question: On what streets in The Run neighborhood will the shuttle travel?
  • Why is a “Swinburne Connection” being discussed when you previously stated in an email: “The mobility path is to be an exclusive pathway suitable for both light shuttles and other e-powered vehicles such as e-bikes and, when categorized, e-scooters and other such vehicles as may evolve over time. There is insufficient width on Swineburn to provide this dedicated path. The street cannot be widened due to the fragile soil conditions.” (emphasis added)?
  • For whom does the “Swinburne Connection” provide two options–cyclists or shuttles? Will shuttles be permitted on the Jail Trail?
  • What did you mean by “slivers” when you said you might need to take “slivers” of our neighbors’ properties on Acorn Street to accommodate the shuttle route on Swinburne Bridge?

~JC
***

April 26, 2021

Hello Again Ms. Ricks and Mr. Panzitta,

It has been more than a month since the previous email and we have not received a response. We wanted to give you another chance to respond before we publish an article on this topic. Do you have answers to any of the questions in our March 17 email?

Thank you,
JC
***

If we ever receive a response, we’ll be sure to post it here. In the mysterious world of the MOC, questions only lead to more unanswered questions.

Bill Seeks Additional Funds for Mon-Oakland Connector

Bill 1366, first presented at City Council’s April 6 meeting, would award $396,223.31 to Michael Baker International for work on the hotly contested Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC). The MOC, a new road through Schenley Park and two adjacent neighborhoods, is designed to accommodate privately operated shuttles between the Hazelwood Green (HG) development and the Oakland universities where HG’s desired tenants work and learn.

The bill amends one that City Council first passed in December 2018. The original bill called for “payment of the cost not to exceed $1,346,644.10.” In 2020, City Council voted for an amendment that added $289,037.40. Bill 1366 brings the total to $2,031,904.81 for Michael Baker.

Bill 1366 retains wording from previous versions that states the MOC will “support green infrastructure,” which is false on two counts. First, asphalt surfaces like parking lots and roads add runoff that contributes to flooding in The Run. The proposed shuttle road adds at least 0.80 acres (34,850 square feet) of paving to Junction Hollow. Although PWSA representatives tout a projected reduction in flooding when comparing the “current state” (doing nothing) to their model, the road’s true impact on flooding cannot be measured without an MOC-free project model. Second, the PWSA stormwater project has removed green infrastructure from its design since the original bill was written in 2018.

Bill 1366 also asserts that the MOC will “ensure safe travel” and “protect local neighborhoods” even though the MOC forces cyclists to share space with motorized vehicles in Schenley Park and commandeers streets in The Run neighborhood. Of concern to all affected communities, linear transportation projects like the MOC tend to gentrify surrounding neighborhoods.

Less than five months ago, City Council unanimously passed a budget amendment that shifted $4.15 million away from the resident-opposed project. $1.2 million of that money was allocated to creating a Sylvan Ave. trail for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as Hazelwood Complete Streets.

Residents of Hazelwood and The Run prioritized neighborhood repairs to fund; a Sylvan Ave. trail did not make the list. $1.2 million would not even cover key projects like safe street crossings in Hazelwood’s business district and an Irvine St./Second Ave. sidewalk upgrade to ADA standards. Yet City Council is considering a bill that would use one third of the MOC funds “reallocated” to Hazelwood on consulting/engineering work already planned for the phase 2/Sylvan Ave. stretch of the MOC. The MOC also has in its coffers an unknown portion of $14.5 million from the 2018 and 2019 budgets.

At the April 14 City Council Standing Meeting, Councilman O’Connor said of Bill 1366, “The title of it, I don’t like and I don’t think the neighborhood likes, but this is part of an extended agreement with Michael Baker, who’s the lead engineer with PWSA as well, so there’s a stormwater piece that is supported.”

He asked Department of Mobility and Infrastructure Director Karina Ricks to “confirm that the money goes to the geotech on Sylvan to make sure it’s stable and the second piece if you can just explain briefly the stormwater, ’cause I know we’re working with PWSA on that.”

Ricks replied, “This supplement is to complete additional geotechnical evaluation of Sylvan; it’s a complex hillside and requires—has been closed for 30 years at this point, so we’re needing to do additional exploration to make sure that that is stable and that we’re able to reopen that for the community plan as the Sylvan Connector and then the other piece of this is to complete work on an associate permit for the stormwater implementation that PWSA is leading.”

Bill 1366 plainly states that it funds the MOC, and all work identified at the April 14 meeting is needed to accommodate the MOC. What’s more, it leaves less than $1 million to fix unsafe infrastructure throughout Hazelwood.

The bill is listed as “affirmatively recommended” on the City of Pittsburgh Legistar website, but has not yet been put to a vote. Residents are encouraging Councilman O’Connor to oppose Bill 1366 and continue working with City Council to fund community-identified needs instead of the MOC, which benefits the HG development at the expense of its neighbors.

You can contact Councilman O’Connor at 412-255-8965 or corey.oconnor@pittsburghpa.gov.

Update: According to Councilman O’Connor’s chief of staff Curt Conrad, the funds for Bill 1366 “are not coming out of Hazelwood funds the councilman allocated in the most recent budget. The $1.2 million is still preserved for trail improvements along Sylvan. The funds for Michael Baker are coming from 2019 PayGO and Bond funds” as shown in the table he provided below.

Budget YearSourcePrevious EncumbranceCurrent EncumbranceTotal Encumbrance
2018PayGo$1,380,000.00$1,380,000.00
2019PayGo$255,681.50$276,663.50$532,345.00
2019Bond$119,559.81$119,559.81
 TOTAL$1,635,681.50$396,223.31$2,031,904.81

Two interesting takeaways from this information:

  1. It appears the $397K comes from the $14.5 million for the MOC in the 2018 and 2019 budgets.
  2. The entire $1.2 million from the reallocated 2021 MOC funds is going to “trail improvements along Sylvan” rather than repairs to existing sidewalks in Hazelwood.

55M More Reasons to Defund the Mon-Oakland Connector

The COVID-19 emergency has shone a harsh light on Pittsburgh’s funding priorities. One glaring example is the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC), a controversial luxury microtransit project that primarily serves the Hazelwood Green development and has earned distrust from residents of affected communities.

The foundations that own Hazelwood Green imagine it as a second campus for CMU and Pitt. In a 2009 report, the Remaking Cities Institute of Carnegie Mellon University called a dedicated connection between Oakland and Hazelwood “the singular most important gesture that will ensure the success of the ALMONO site’s redevelopment.” (emphasis in original)

“What was problematic before the pandemic became unconscionable in this climate,” said Laura Wiens, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. “Funding this project would mean that other critical needs aren’t being met right now.”

Pittsburgh, like many cities, was hit hard. “Our tax revenues cratered, and there is still no clear path forward to replace them,” Mayor Bill Peduto stated in his 2021 budget speech. Pittsburgh faced a $55 million operating budget deficit at the close of 2020, and is depending on federal aid to avoid $25.6 million in personnel cuts starting in July 2021. About 634 city employees stand to lose their jobs.

A unanimously-approved budget amendment proposed by Councilman Corey O’Connor, whose district includes two MOC-affected communities, moved $4.15 million from the MOC. Those funds made up the 2021 budget for the MOC. They were redirected to the Housing Opportunity Fund (this citywide program received $1.9 million—$750,000 of which is earmarked for the Flats on Forward development in Squirrel Hill, leaving a little over half for Pittsburghers struggling to stay in existing housing), support for small businesses, and infrastructure improvements in Hazelwood.

Yet plans move forward to build the MOC shuttle road through Schenley Park and adjacent neighborhoods. Almono Partners spokesperson David Caliguiri said the foundations “believe the Mon-Oakland Connector remains a critical economic development effort for the City of Pittsburgh and the entire region” and are committed to funding the shuttle service. MOC may have lost 2021 funds from its total price tag of $23 million, but it’s still flush with an unknown portion of $14.5 million already granted in the 2018 and 2019 budgets.

The MOC has a long, shady history (its most recent chapter began with a fraudulent grant application to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development) and continues to function as a magic-bag project with components and costs that morph according to justifications needed for it at any given time. For example, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) claimed in a January 2020 memo that Irvine St./Second Ave. sidewalk repairs in Hazelwood—a key component of the community-generated Our Money, Our Solutions alternative plan—was always part of the MOC. By October, DOMI’s commitment to fund those repairs had vanished from the MOC budget.

For some neighborhoods—especially Panther Hollow and The Run—harm from the MOC goes beyond diverting limited resources. Two groups of residents in The Run are at risk of being displaced by the shuttle road: those who live near Swinburne Bridge, which DOMI has decided to replace rather than repair so the bridge can be widened for a dedicated MOC shuttle lane; and those who live in flood-prone areas near Big Jim’s.

The first group has already received letters from DOMI implying the City may use eminent domain to take property for the bridge replacement. The second group is some or all of the “affected properties” listed in PWSA documents concerning their Four Mile Run Stormwater Project. These internal documents, obtained through Right-to-Know requests, also reveal that the stormwater project was designed around the MOC and will not adequately protect people’s homes. One proposed solution involves a “discussion regarding property acquisition and other discussions that will not be widely popular.” The stormwater project, for which the PWSA secured $40 million, was billed as a solution to The Run’s flooding problem. But less than half of those funds are being spent on stormwater work in Schenley Park. According to PWSA acting senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito, “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)

Besides forcing families out—some of whom have lived in The Run for three generations—the legally questionable use of eminent domain to serve a development project also removes affected properties from the tax rolls. About 40% of land in Pittsburgh is already tax-exempt because the government, universities, and other non-profits own it.

A lack of accountability and transparency surrounding the MOC has allowed DOMI to plan at will behind a screen of public-facing gestures since the department’s inception in 2017. But signs point to a reckoning for the MOC. According to the TransitCenter organization, “PPT is working with the city auditor to assess options for formally moving the money, and to make recommendations about how that money should be spent.”

In past years, City officials have answered public calls to defund the MOC by saying those capital budget funds can’t be applied to other areas of need like the operating budget. This position becomes harder to maintain now that $1.9 million has been moved from the MOC to the Housing Opportunity Fund, decidedly not part of the capital budget.

There is no shortage of ways Pittsburgh could reallocate $14.5 million to meet critical needs of residents. Keeping those funds in reserve for an unpopular, top-down project like the MOC is a disgrace in today’s austere climate.

8 Urgent Questions for PWSA Board of Directors Re. Stormwater Project

On February 26, 2021, Ziggy Edwards of The Run addressed PWSA’s board of directors at their monthly meeting. She brought concerns from her neighborhood that the design and implementation of PWSA’s Four Mile Run (4MR) Stormwater Project suffers from skewed priorities. The project, which will include major construction on the only road into The Run, focuses on accommodating the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) rather than fixing severe flooding.

The following questions, which PWSA also received via email, are based on information in the Right-to-Know (RTK) request documents we have received so far and independent expert analysis of the plan submitted with the permit application to the PA Department of Environmental Protection and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

1. Why did the Heinz Endowments pay Howard Neukrug (past Philadelphia Water Commissioner) to review the PWSA stormwater project? (source: PWSA/CEC 4MR Weekly Meeting Minutes, April 16, 2019)

2. How much of the $40 million for the PWSA stormwater project did not come from the Heinz Endowments and/or other foundations that own the Hazelwood Green development?

3. How can the three new PWSA board members, who all have ties to entities with vested interests in the Hazelwood Green (HG) development, oversee the stormwater project in a fair and impartial manner that doesn’t benefit HG at the expense of Schenley Park and residents in The Run? For that matter, how can the other board members be fair and impartial in this project when they were all directly nominated by Mayor Peduto (a longtime proponent of the MOC)?

4. As you may know, the proposed MOC adds at least 0.80 acres (34,850 square feet) of paving to Junction Hollow. With the types of storms Pittsburgh has had in the past 10 years, a year with 50 inches of rain would generate an additional 1 million+ gallons of runoff to The Run. Why does the plan in the permit application propose to pollute this stormwater runoff by directing it from the MOC to the existing combined sewer system and not to the new stormwater network that flows directly to the river?

5. Did any consultant not funded by HG owners evaluate the impact of this stormwater project design on The Run? What did the consultants say about the absence of stormwater inlets of pipes along the proposed MOC road? What did they say about the absence of stormwater runoff from the road to the daylighted stream?

6. Is it true that the PWSA stormwater project’s construction plan calls for 4MR Field across Alexis Street from Big Jim’s to be used as a staging area for construction equipment and materials?

7. Because the “Parkway side” of the 4MR watershed is excluded from PWSA’s stormwater project, residents of The Run are still likely to see stormwater arrive in our neighborhood from that side of 4MR—even after this highly disruptive project is completed. Any flood water that enters the combined sewer network above The Run will still be in the combined sewer pipes running under the neighborhood. Therefore, if the volume of stormwater entering the combined sewer pipes above The Run is greater than those combined sewer pipes can handle, we are still likely to see raw sewage come to the surface from the remaining combined sewer inlets and/or manholes. Why is none of the $41 million earmarked for this project, which was billed as a solution to flooding in The Run, being spent on remediating the “Parkway side” of 4MR?

8. Is the PWSA board of directors aware that PWSA was ordered by the Office of Open Records to complete a review and provide the rest of its documents responsive to our RTK request? The deadline was yesterday [February 25, 2021]. At 8:52 p.m. we received a link to a zip file with a password that doesn’t work. Will the board encourage PWSA Attorney Samuel Hornak to resolve this issue as quickly as possible, since PWSA effectively missed the deadline?