Pittsburgh

Hazelwood Forests Play a Key Role in Pittsburgh’s Future

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

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

Links between forests protect more than trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our forests are receiving funds and recognition

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

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

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

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

Let’s take Hazelwood forests to the next level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving forward together

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

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

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

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

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

Our new plan needs a new name to reflect new priorities

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

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

Photo courtesy of Juliet Martinez for The Homepage

New Mayor Delays Oakland Crossings Hearing

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

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

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

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

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

A major change to Oakland’s landscape

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

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

Fast-tracked bill worries Pittsburgh residents, community groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

PWSA Delays Stormwater Project, Declines Request to Model Improvements Without Shuttle Roadway

On June 18, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) held a Zoom meeting to discuss the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project and its revised schedule. A May 18 email from the PWSA stated in part, “Additional modeling and design effort have caused a delay to the overall project construction schedule. We originally anticipated starting construction this fall, but it is now anticipated to begin in 2021.”

Chief of Program Management Alex Scuilli began the meeting by acknowledging that “people are waiting for stormwater relief.” He assured attendees, “We think we have the solution [and can provide] a level of storm protection that will be very good for residents.”

However, further discussion of the updated model revealed an apparent scaling back of protection: According to slide 17 of PWSA’s June 2020 presentation, “Designing for a 10-year event was determined to be a cost-effective solution for reduced flood risk.” Notes from a February 22, 2019, meeting at the mayor’s office (obtained via Right-to-Know request) recorded Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff Dan Gilman “wonder[ing] if instead of a 25-year storm, which is what current development designs for, should we be designing for a larger storm event.”

PWSA’s presentation calls out two previous floods in The Run: one 25-year event in 2011 and one 75-year event in 2009. It does not mention other events, such as a 2019 flood that included higher elevations in the neighborhood and a 2016 flood that trapped a resident and his son on the roof of their car.

Run residents have asked the PWSA Board to create a model for the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project that excludes the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) road through Schenley Park. MOC opponents contend that the MOC—a development project designed to lure corporations to Hazelwood Green—should not take precedence over the stormwater project. The core project in Schenley Park has long been considered “technically challenging” even without incorporating a new road.

Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) director Karina Ricks commented, “We firmly support [PWSA’s] decision to take the time needed to ensure the massive stormwater investment we are making is the right one to best address the stormwater impacts that have affected The Run for so many years. The Mon-Oakland project will proceed concurrent with the PWSA green infrastructure project, thus our timeline is adjusted accordingly as well.”

Asked whether the PWSA has created a model without MOC or intends to do so, PWSA acting senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito responded, “The mobility project is a planned project and our model has taken into consideration that it would be constructed. Not including it would set false expectations and provide an unrealistic assessment for advancing the stormwater project. We appreciate that residents from the Run took the time to address the Board in March about this project. The Board heard your request to commission a model for the stormwater project without the mobility corridor project, unfortunately, we were not directed to do so.”

Five of PWSA’s six current board members were nominated by Mayor Peduto, a longtime proponent of MOC who faces an estimated $150+ million budget shortfall this year because of COVID-19. In contrast to PWSA’s stormwater project, which addresses a clear public safety issue and will be financed by the PWSA itself, the City-funded MOC project demonstrably fails to benefit residents in the neighborhoods it affects. By all appearances, Mr. Peduto’s priorities are the only reason the PWSA would view cancelation of the MOC as “an unrealistic assessment.” 

Contact the PWSA

412-255-2423
www.pgh2o.com/report-an-issue

Right-to-Know Request Documents Provide Answers

bad governance and good governance

And Some Answers Raise More Questions

Since 2018, residents of Four Mile Run (The Run) have filed several Right To Know requests with the City of Pittsburgh regarding the proposed Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) project. City government eventually gave residents documents that were inadequate in fulfilling the RTK requests. Missing information includes up-to-date engineering documents and large portions of City departments’ correspondence with all private partners in the project. In the city’s response to the requests, they stated that they are not required to share any information, but would do so selectively. Furthermore, they added, “We are prohibited from forwarding records that reflect the attorney-client privilege or the attorney work product privilege.”

But a section of the PA office of Open Records Right–to-Know Law states:

Section 708 of the RTKL places the burden of proof on the public body to demonstrate that a record is exempt. In pertinent part, Section 708(a) states: “The burden of proving that a record of a Commonwealth agency or local agency is exempt from public access shall be on the Commonwealth agency or local agency receiving a request by a preponderance of the evidence.” Preponderance of the evidence has been defined as “such proof as leads the fact-finder … to find that the existence of a contested fact is more probable than its nonexistence.”

The City’s position raises the question: Who is the attorney and who is the client in this case? This is the very same claim that city government made while conducting its infamous secret Amazon deal. The details of that plan, now available after Amazon turned down the bid, reveal the reasons for the secrecy. Pittsburgh promised the world’s richest man one of the most generous corporate welfare giveaways of land and taxpayer money of any city in the U.S. Those promises included the MOC.

At the suggestion of the City of Pittsburgh, residents also filed RTK requests with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), the agency tasked with constructing the Four Mile Run Watershed Plan. The scope of this crucial and technically challenging project was to include fixing The Run’s worsening chronic flooding. But the City is forcing the merger of the MOC with PWSA’s plan. PWSA failed to respond to a resident appeal and the Office of Open Records in Harrisburg ordered PWSA to hand over all documents requested. Those documents contained crucial information including:

A portion of Mayor’s office meeting document listing who attended and Mayor Chief of Staff Dan Gillman’s remarks about the MOC project.

There is more evidence of non-transparency and duplicity by city government regarding the MOC project. Throughout the process, residents have demanded they be informed of what DOMI was planning and when DOMI would be filing grant proposals or other requests for funding. DOMI has refused to do so. They applied for a 1 million dollar grant for the MOC through the Southwestern PA Commission in 2018—while DOMI was holding a series of public meetings about the project. The money was approved, but DOMI failed to notify residents beforehand and afterward. Only dogged research and policing of the project by opponents flushed out the information.

Residents more recently received another document: a 2018 request from DOMI to the City Budget office for funding. That document is mostly blank, but DOMI was nonetheless given 9 million dollars of taxpayer money. One section of the document DOMI did fill out was the section reading: Please identify the source of external funding and how the project adheres to the funding source’s rules and regulations. “Demonstrated support of the public” was a question within that section. DOMI’s response: Depends on which community!

 A section of the City Budget form shows DOMI’s response to whether the project has community support. 

What else are city officials hiding and why? Why are they so determined to bulldoze through two vibrant neighborhoods and Schenley Park when they admit their proposed shuttle road is not a transportation solution and does not serve the affected communities? University expansion through a slow-motion land grab could be the answer.

Opponents of the MOC recognize this issue as much bigger than any individual neighborhood. Our growing coalition of residents, park protectors, neighborhood organizations and other concerned citizens is committed to protecting Pittsburgh’s communities from erasure.

(This article was previously published on February 1, 2020 in the Hazelwood Homepage)

DOMI Memo Leaked to Junction Coalition

This January 7 memorandum from Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) director Karina Ricks to Pittsburgh City Council shows a sea change in the battle for (as the memo puts it) “COMMUNITY GENERATED TRANSPORTATION SOLUTIONS.”

For the first time, DOMI has named specific components of the Mon-Oakland Connector project and attached dollar amounts to some of those components. Whether or not the information proves trustworthy, Pittsburghers can count its emergence as a win for accountability. Previously, DOMI refused to provide these details even in public meetings. Such details existed in a nebulous “magic bag” that constantly morphed, defying scrutiny.

The memo shows DOMI responding to our call for public infrastructure improvements listed in the Our Money, Our Solutions plan. Reluctantly—and perhaps dishonestly—but directly, and point by point. Thanks, DOMI!

Stay tuned as the fact-checkers get to work. If you want to contribute data or effort, please leave a comment on this post or email us.