Our Money Our Solutions

Car Wrecks on Greenfield and Hazelwood Avenues Highlight Need for Traffic Calming

car wreck on Greenfield Ave. June 23, 2022

Crumbling city steps. Disintegrating sidewalks. Bridges neglected for decades. As the project formerly known as the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) moves forward without Almono Partners’ shuttles, residents of MOC-affected communities are asking why the project still takes precedence over fixing dangerous conditions in the same area.

Along Hazelwood and Greenfield avenues, the skewed priorities have become impossible to ignore after two serious car accidents in the past two months.

Flipped car on Greenfield Avenue

At approximately 1:20 p.m. on June 23, Greenfield Avenue resident Will Smith heard a loud noise. He told us during a July 5 phone conversation that when he looked out his front window, he saw a car that had apparently flipped over and was resting on its side in the middle of the street.

Mr. Smith rushed outside with his phone to document the accident’s aftermath. The car’s roof was crushed. A man and two women had stopped and were checking on the trapped driver. Police arrived on the scene and closed the block to traffic. Within 15 minutes, firefighters arrived to rescue the man from his car using Jaws of Life. The driver was unconscious when placed on a stretcher and driven away by ambulance.

Photo courtesy of Will Smith

A witness driving behind the car said she saw another car cross the center line as it traveled east up Greenfield Avenue, causing the westbound driver to swerve and clip the side of a parked car before flipping over.

At the scene of the June 23, 2022 accident on Greenfield Avenue. Video courtesy of Will Smith.

Mr. Smith commented on the accident, “This was inevitable.” He described speeding on the narrow lower portion of Greenfield Avenue as “ridiculous” and noted, “Every resident’s car parked on the street was just ticketed a few weeks ago.”

Mr. Smith and his neighbors received $114 citations in the early hours of May 9 for having their wheels on the curb. Parking this way is common on Greenfield Avenue and other narrow streets where residents try to protect their vehicles from speeding drivers. One recent hit-and-run totaled the parked car of a resident who is also a city employee. Residents’ only available parking is on the downhill side of the street. They have to cross through swiftly-moving traffic to reach their houses.

“The city needs to do something to make drivers slow down and pay attention,” Mr. Smith said.

Multi-vehicle crash on Hazelwood Avenue

Residents along Hazelwood Avenue face similar dangers. On May 22, Kevin Dole witnessed the immediate aftermath of an accident at the corner of Greenfield and Hazelwood avenues near his home. When we spoke by phone on June 30, he said four or five vehicles were involved—including his neighbor’s parked car, which was totaled. An ambulance transported one person away from the scene.

Photo courtesy of Greenfield Livable Streets

Mr. Dole said speeding is a constant hazard on Hazelwood Avenue, a narrow two-lane road with parking on both sides. He guessed the average speeder travels 45-50 mph in the 25 mph zone and “would not be able to stop in time if someone stepped out.”

“It’s common to see detached side mirrors on the ground and people parked a little up on the sidewalk,” Mr. Dole said. In addition, he described faded pedestrian crosswalks and oversized trucks using Hazelwood Avenue as a shortcut to Hazelwood Green or other construction projects.

“There is no infrastructure to encourage people to slow down and no enforcement of the speed limit,” he added.

Although it was the first accident Mr. Dole saw, being a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, he has personally witnessed “many close calls” and heard from neighbors about other crashes.

One neighbor, Abby Zupancic, suffered a broken neck and other severe injuries in October 2016 when a vehicle hit him in front of his house. Mr. Zupancic told us what happened when we spoke by phone on July 8.

“Me and my wife and kids came home from shopping. My wife and son went in the house, and my daughter and I were behind them. I told my daughter, ‘Hang on a second, sweetie. I forgot to put the [side-view] mirror in.’ I went back out to the car, put in the mirror.” Mr. Zupancic was walking in front of his car when the vehicle plowed into him. He flipped in the air and bounced off the vehicle, then the ground.

Mr. Zupancic underwent emergency surgery and a grueling recovery process. “It took about a year to get fully functional,” he recalled. Although he still deals with chronic pain, he was eventually able to return to his job as a highway construction worker.

Mr. Zupancic, who has lived on Hazelwood Avenue for 18 years, said he sees dangerous speeding on a daily basis. He has witnessed two accidents in which a car flipped over—“which tells you how fast they had to be going.”

As for oversized trucks, Mr. Zupancic pointed out that a sign at the intersection of Greenfield and Hazelwood avenues clearly shows with an arrow that the truck route is in the opposite direction from the residential part of Hazelwood Avenue. But truck drivers ignore the posted route, not only worsening dangerous conditions but using “jake brakes” at all hours.

“It’s loud, it’s obnoxious, it rattles your windows,” Mr. Zupancic said. “This is a residential street, not a highway.”

Conditions are no better at the other end of the street near Second Avenue, where Reverend Michael Murray has lived for 26 years. During a July 4 phone call, Rev. Murray said over the past few years he’s noticed an increase in speeding and oversized trucks “beyond construction vehicles—trucks with great big iron rolls on the back, trucks carrying cars.”

“Some of the trucks are so huge you feel vibrations when they’re passing the house,” he added. He has lost three mirrors from side-swipes of his parked vehicle.

Rev. Murray is concerned that the problems will get even worse once construction on the nearby Hazelwood Green development is in full swing.

But residents on both streets said that years of calls to 311 and direct appeals to city officials have changed nothing.

Qualified, but not prioritized for traffic calming

Some members of Junction Coalition participate in the Greenfield Community Association’s (GCA’s) Development and Transportation Committee. The committee was copied—along with District 5 city Councilman Corey O’Connor’s chief of staff Matt Singer—on email correspondence between Greenfield resident and GCA board member Catherine Adams and representatives of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI).

A May 5 email from Cortney Patterson of the DOMI Traffic Bureau referenced an application for the Neighborhood Traffic Calming program. “Your street does meet the Neighborhood Traffic Calming requirements, however, this project did not rank high enough to be funded for construction this year.”

Ms. Adams responded on May 13, thanking DOMI for the information and clarifying that two separate requests were submitted—one for Hazelwood Avenue from Murray Avenue to Bigelow Street and a second, independent request for a study of Greenfield Avenue from Lydia Street to the Saline/Second/Irvine intersection.

She asked for more details on the studies conducted on both streets and what the results mean. Additionally, Ms. Adams wanted to know where Hazelwood and Greenfield avenues fall on the list of priorities so residents can anticipate when projects might be started and what to expect.

Ms. Adams sent a follow-up email on May 30, noting the accident on Hazelwood Avenue. She followed up again on June 26, but has not received a response from DOMI.

Major construction supporting Hazelwood Green

Several projects are planned or under way in the area—in some cases a few dozen feet from where accidents took place on Hazelwood and Greenfield avenues. But these investments seem designed to continue the former MOC project and improve access to the Hazelwood Green development.

Widening Greenfield Avenue at the Irvine Street/Second Avenue intersection. One block west of the June 23 accident described by Mr. Smith, construction is in progress to create a dedicated left-turn lane onto Irvine Street for traffic heading toward Hazelwood Green (as stated in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s September 26, 2018, meeting presentation called “Hazelwood Green Phase I Mitigation”). To make room for the additional lane, crews are narrowing the sidewalk at this busy intersection.

Reconfiguring the residential portion of Sylvan Avenue. At DOMI’s April 26 meeting about the Sylvan Avenue Multimodal Project, residents expressed concerns that planned improvements along the quiet street fail to address problems with nearby infrastructure and dangerous traffic patterns at both ends of the finished trail. The Sylvan Avenue trail, part of the proposed MOC shuttle route, connects Greenfield and Hazelwood avenues.

There is no infrastructure to encourage people to slow down and no enforcement of the speed limit.

Kevin Dole

Replacing Swinburne Bridge. The 107-year-old bridge has long been in poor condition. In a 2018 MOC public meeting, DOMI proposed using the bridge as part of the MOC route. During an October 2020 meeting, former DOMI director Karina Ricks assured affected residents that “the city has absolutely no intention to take properties [as part of the bridge construction].” But in the next breath, she added, “There is a possibility there might be some slivers that will be needed to create new footings for the bridge.” As of July 11, DOMI had not posted a presentation for residents to review before the July 14 meeting about the Swinburne Bridge project despite repeated requests.

Safety of residents should come first

“Residents of Hazelwood and Greenfield have been crystal clear about the kinds of solutions that would make their streets safer and more accessible,” said Dan Yablonsky, director of communications and development at Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT).

PPT worked with residents and community groups throughout MOC-affected neighborhoods to create Our Money, Our Solutions (OMOS), an alternative plan listing needed improvements that cost less than the MOC’s projected $23 million budget. These include traffic-calming measures on Greenfield and Hazelwood avenues.

“Infrastructure like speed tables to slow down car traffic, better sidewalks, more lighting, more benches, and better bus stops would all help improve access for all,” Mr. Yablonsky wrote in a July 11 email. “But when the rubber hits the road, we see time and time again that the city ends up spending money on infrastructure projects to benefit the developers at Hazelwood Green instead of the people who have called these neighborhoods home.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” he added. “Residents have done the work to make it clear what investments benefit the community. It’s up to the city now to follow their lead.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Letter to PA Dept. of Environmental Protection and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

image from permit application

Pennsylvania State DEP
Dana Drake, P.E.
dadrake@pa.gov
Phone: 412-442-4149 l Fax: 412-442-4242

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Mike Engelhardt
Michael.D.Engelhardt@usace.army.mil
Phone: 412-395-7141

Dear Ms. Drake and Mr. Engelhardt,

This open letter concerns the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) permit application for the Four Mile Run Stormwater Project:

Pennsylvania State DEP ID: E0205220-031
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Permit ID: CELRP-RG LRP-2018-774

As you know, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) is attempting to get their developer-driven Mon-Oakland Mobility Project (also known as the Mon-Oakland Connector, or MOC) approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) by attaching it to the PWSA stormwater project.

These two projects do not belong together.

Junction Coalition joins numerous individuals, community organizations, and public representatives in calling for the PA DEP and USACE to send this permit application back to PWSA with direction to remove the DOMI project from the application before the permit is approved.

The PWSA stormwater project enjoys nearly universal public support because it was sold as a solution to The Run’s chronic flooding problem. Run residents have been asking for help to fix the flooding for more than a decade. They were told the city lacked funds as the problem worsened from combined effects of climate change and unregulated overdevelopment of surrounding higher-elevation areas.

A 2009 flood, which PWSA labels a 75-year event, caused catastrophic damage: Cars floated down the streets in 6+ feet of water and sewage, while residents watched 70+ inches of the mix breach the first floor of their homes. 

A 25-year flood event in 2016 gained citywide attention when dramatic footage showed firefighters rescuing a resident and his son from the roof of their car. Later that year, Mayor Bill Peduto tasked PWSA with finding funds and developing a plan to fix the flooding.

A city-mandated 2017 survey of Run residents recorded unanimous demand for flood relief and a large majority of residents adamantly opposing the MOC.

The MOC is a road through a public park that debuted to Run residents in a 2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article reporting the project as a done deal. It is a huge investment of taxpayer dollars in a private development plan that studies show does not meet Pittsburgh’s stated goals. Even DOMI director Karina Ricks admits that the MOC is not a transportation solution.

Instead of responding to residents’ legitimate concerns about the MOC, public employees twisted those concerns to seem like a baseless fear of progress. They tried to pit neighboring communities against each other. They filed fraudulent grant applications and applied for new grants without telling the public. They used public meetings for time-share marketing tactics rather than honest discussion, pretending to consider alternative routes for the shuttles before again settling on Schenley Park. They responded to Right-to-Know requests with claims of attorney-client privilege and a 7,185-page unsearchable PDF. They obscured and constantly changed details such as the route. And recently, several Run residents who live near one of the rejected alternative routes received letters from DOMI implying they may lose their homes and businesses through eminent domain.

These are not the actions of people with good intentions. If the MOC benefited those who live in the communities it affects, Mayor Peduto’s administration would not need to resort to duplicity and steamrolling. Furthermore, if Hazelwood Green’s powerful owners had no desire to annex Schenley Park and adjoining neighborhoods, they would drop their single-minded focus on getting shovels in the ground as soon as possible and instead support alternative plans such as Our Money, Our Solutions that offer more effective transportation for more people without causing the harms of MOC. 

Evidence shows that PWSA’s stormwater plan fails to prioritize the severe flooding issue and was designed to accommodate the MOC project. In their current 10-year flood event design, PWSA is following behind-closed-doors directions from Mayor Bill Peduto’s office. From their budget of $40 million, PWSA listed their flood mitigation efforts at $14 million. Asked where the remaining $26 million would be spent, PWSA responded via email, “The remaining funding can go towards future projects in the upper portions of the watershed” and “provide opportunities to collaborate with the universities.” All PWSA Board members are nominated by Mayor Peduto, a longtime MOC proponent. PWSA’s plan includes several wish-list items of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a private entity on whose Board of Directors Mayor Peduto sits.

Expert consultants who have analyzed the current PWSA stormwater plan tell residents:

  • The proposed Mon-Oakland Connector project would most likely harm flood control—with an approximately 1/2-mile long (39,600 sq ft) impervious surface that eliminates 7 acres of old-growth tree canopy from Schenley Park. That amount of paving would generate about 295,000 gallons of runoff. Every acre of impervious surface generates 27,000 gallons of runoff for each inch of rain and Pittsburgh has seen a range from around 36-60 inches of rain over the last 10 years. PWSA has not proven that including the MOC will not harm flood control and has refused repeated requests for all engineering plans/documents of the PWSA stormwater project for independent analysis.
  • PWSA concentrates the stormwater work in the Schenley Park/Oakland end of the watershed, which would address only 1/3 of flooding in The Run. The rest comes from the opposite end of the watershed—the Squirrel Hill/Greenfield/376 Parkway end. Although it only accounts for 1/3 of the cause of flooding, the water/sewage mix from 5,200 structures above Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park feed into a 50-inch pipe that completely bypasses the Panther Hollow/Junction Hollow area of the watershed and feeds directly into The Run. PWSA’s plan does not address this specific connection and its effects on the neighborhood. 
  • PWSA’s plan would level approximately 7 acres of tree canopy to make room for the MOC project (beginning with 900 trees in the northern end), which will never be replaced in the space the roadway would commandeer. Furthermore, replacement saplings will not equal the water absorption of 7 acres of mature trees.
  • PWSA’s 10-year event plan “makes no sense”—unless it involves changing the floodplain and eliminating properties. RTK-obtained notes from a Mayor’s office meeting show PWSA Chief of Program Management Alex Sciulli stating, “More cost-effective options may be to change the floodplain and purchase the affected properties.” The “cost-effective” plan makes sense only within a larger plan to raze the neighborhood, forcing out residents and demolishing structures instead of the promised flood mitigation.

Flooding in The Run is a serious health and safety issue that cannot be ignored to serve developers’ financial interests. Therefore:

  • The dual permit application from PWSA and DOMI to the PA DEP and USACE must be denied, and PWSA must be directed to fully separate the two projects. 
  • The PWSA plan must prioritize the flooding issue instead of merely providing cover for an unwanted, unnecessary road that will permanently degrade Schenley Park and eventually erase two historic Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
  • PWSA must present a plan acceptable to residents whose lives and properties are at risk. Such a plan would include:
    • Documentation of studies done to assess the impact of MOC on the PWSA stormwater plan.
    • An Environmental Impact Study on the overall stormwater plan.
    • A Community Benefits Agreement guaranteeing compensation to residents who suffer damage from future flooding, as many residents currently cannot acquire flood insurance.

We are disappointed in your timing of the public comment period on this joint permit application to coincide with the holiday season. We hope you will give this important matter the time and impartial consideration it deserves.

Sincerely,  

 Junction Coalition

O’Connor Budget Amendment Shifts Funds from Shuttle Road

Like many high-stakes public meetings this year, the Dec. 14 city budget hearing drew virtual crowds so large that technical glitches left some without access to public comment. Attendees expressed outrage at the priorities reflected in Mayor Bill Peduto’s 2021 budget, and several came out in support of Councilman Corey O’Connor’s proposed amendment that moves $4.15 million from the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) project to affordable housing programs and support for small businesses throughout Pittsburgh as well as infrastructure improvements in Hazelwood.

City Council unanimously passed Councilman O’Connor’s amendment. O’Connor said that “projects like [the MOC] don’t need to happen right now,” and this year the funds can instead help tackle economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

How 2021 MOC funds are redistributed

  • $1.9 million for the city’s Housing Opportunity Fund
  • $1 million for bike and pedestrian infrastructure in Hazelwood
  • $500,000 to housing in federally designated areas
  • $420,000 to the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s small business programs
  • $270,000 to the Avenues of Hope business district grants for historically Black neighborhoods, including Irvine St./Second Ave. (The program, introduced by Mayor Peduto, previously had no funding.)

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In addition, O’Connor pointed to a longstanding lack of transparency surrounding the MOC project. “The money that was put towards this project a few years ago never had line items as to where it was going,” he said.

Besides the MOC money Mayor Peduto requested for 2021, he committed a total of $14.5 million from the capital budget to the project in 2018 and 2019. The MOC is expected to cost $23 million overall.

Many residents of the communities MOC would affect, including Hazelwood and Greenfield, have opposed it since learning of the plan from a 2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article reporting on a grant the city had already applied for. The project would build a road through the southwestern corner of Schenley Park and “The Run” section of Greenfield to accommodate privately operated shuttles between Oakland university campuses and the Hazelwood Green development.

The Run faces harm from the MOC beyond losing limited resources that should go to critical needs. The small neighborhood, along with Panther Hollow on the other side of Schenley Park, has a long history of ambitious plans that exclude residents

In August, several Run residents who live near Swinburne Bridge received letters from DOMI implying they may lose their homes and businesses through eminent domain. The bridge would be widened to include a dedicated lane for the MOC shuttles, which DOMI proposed in 2018 as an option that featured a vehicle elevator.  

If Hazelwood Green’s powerful owners were not motivated by a desire to annex Schenley Park and adjoining neighborhoods, they would drop their single-minded focus on getting shovels in the ground as soon as possible and instead support alternative plans such as Our Money, Our Solutions (OMOS) that more effectively meet Pittsburgh’s stated goals without causing the harms of MOC. 

The community-driven plan has led to weekend service on the 93 bus line and forced DOMI to claim that key components of OMOS, such as Irvine St./Second Ave. sidewalk repairs, were always part of the MOC plan. It also calls for expanding the 75 bus line into Hazelwood.

With a lot of hard work, our communities are shifting the focus of our own tax dollars. This $4.15 million for citywide relief and essential repairs in Hazelwood is a significant step in the right direction.

Our Neighborhoods’ Problems Are “Connectored”

The adjoining communities of Hazelwood and The Run share more than a ZIP code: They are the two neighborhoods most directly affected by the Hazelwood Green development and its most controversial feature, the proposed Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road through Schenley Park.

Hazelwood Green owner Almono Partners commissioned the road, funded with $23 million of Pittsburgh’s capital budget, primarily to link its development to university campuses in Oakland—but says its shuttles will improve mobility for Hazelwood residents. (Almono Partners has voiced no interest in improving anything for Run residents, except perhaps their odds of moving away.)

Getting in and out of Hazelwood can be a major problem, partly because the three streets that serve as entrance/exit points suffer from decades of neglect. The stretch of Irvine Street between Greenfield Avenue and Hazelwood Avenue is a prime example. It contains just about every dangerous condition imaginable for pedestrians, cyclists, and even motorists. A fatal car crash in January 2019 involved frozen seepage from the hill above the east side of the road. This same water helps create year-round hazards on City-owned sidewalks that have disintegrated beside speeding traffic. Vehicles often block other sections of the sidewalk, forcing travelers into the road.   

Only the bravest/most desperate walkers and bikers consider Irvine Street an option—and for people using wheelchairs or pushing strollers, it’s not an option at all. Nor is the long way around through Hazelwood Green accessible to them because it involves navigating steps or crossing Second Avenue.

Irvine Street offers the most direct connection between Hazelwood and The Run. The one-mile distance would be easy to cross if not for the serious risks involved. Residents of Hazelwood could safely access Schenley Park without a car. And Run residents would find it much simpler to reach their nearest post office, library, and shops in Hazelwood.

Fixing this dangerous stretch of sidewalk has been identified as a priority by everyone involved. The Greater Hazelwood Neighborhood Plan lists sidewalk construction and improvements as a key strategy to give residents and visitors access to Hazelwood. Our Money. Our Solutions., a community-driven alternative to the MOC, calls for an “Irvine/Second Avenue sidewalk audit and replacement/install to ensure ADA-compliant width and curb cuts, from Greenfield Ave. through the Hazelwood business district.”

Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI), which is responsible for building the MOC, listed “2nd Avenue sidewalk” as a component of the MOC project in a January 2020 memo to City Council. DOMI committed $700,000 to the sidewalk (to be matched by a potential grant from the state of Pennsylvania). The memo marked the first time DOMI publicly identified certain components (including the sidewalk) as part of the project and broke down costs.

However, in DOMI’s latest budget presented at their October public meetings concerning the MOC, the sidewalk funding has disappeared. It’s unclear whether DOMI will receive the state grant they say they applied for.

Compare the ill-defined, will-o’-the-wisp accounting of the Irvine Street sidewalk funding to the single-minded focus with which the MOC has been pushed over the past five years. Even in the midst of a pandemic that has left Pittsburgh with a $100+ million budget shortfall, the MOC is the city’s single largest transportation corridor investment.

Some say budgets are moral documents. At the very least, Pittsburgh’s budget represents a statement of its priorities. Building a road through a public park for private shuttles in no way reflects the priorities of Pittsburghers, who are being asked to fund this project.

Irvine Street/Second Avenue is only one glaring example of community needs unmet in favor of funding the MOC. As members of these communities, we still have a chance to come together and advocate for the money to go toward improvements we’ve been requesting for years.   

It’s high time for City Controller Michael Lamb to audit the $14.5 million already budgeted to the MOC in 2018 and 2019. Please join us in encouraging him to do so by calling 412-255-2054 or emailing City_Controller@pittsburghpa.gov.

Furthermore, City Council must demand a line-item listing of the additional $4.15 million requested for 2021 to make sure these funds are directed first to fixing existing infrastructure—rather than creating new infrastructure of questionable value to existing communities. Our public money should prioritize solutions to our problems, not developers’ wishes.