Schenley Park

Hazelwood Forests Play a Key Role in Pittsburgh’s Future

map of Hazelwood Park

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

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.

Mayoral Candidate Visits The Run, Hazelwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo from Gainey mayoral campaign social media post

55M More Reasons to Defund the Mon-Oakland Connector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first group has already received letters from DOMI implying the City may use eminent domain to take property for the bridge replacement. The second group is some or all of the “affected properties” listed in PWSA documents concerning their Four Mile Run Stormwater Project. These internal documents, obtained through Right-to-Know requests, also reveal that the stormwater project was designed around the MOC and will not adequately protect people’s homes. One proposed solution involves a “discussion regarding property acquisition and other discussions that will not be widely popular.” The stormwater project, for which the PWSA secured $40 million, was billed as a solution to The Run’s flooding problem. But less than half of those funds are being spent on stormwater work in Schenley Park. According to PWSA acting senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito, “The remaining funding can go towards future projects in the upper portions of the watershed, provide opportunities to collaborate with the universities and other community organizations on future stormwater projects, or revisit some of the original green infrastructure projects planned for Panther Hollow Stream and Phipps Run.” (emphasis added)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly Swinburne

Schenley Park, Swinburne Street. Why don't we have both?

Proposed shuttle expansion route threatens homes

Developers of the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) aren’t deterred by years of setbacks—including widespread community opposition and City Council passing a 2021 budget amendment that shifts funds away from building the new shuttle road through two Pittsburgh neighborhoods and Schenley Park. If anything, plans presented by the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) and Almono Partners at their last public meeting show a stronger resolve to eliminate all obstacles in the MOC’s path.

Slide 11 maps the proposed phase 1 MOC route, which ends abruptly as it enters The Run from Schenley Park. Residents were left in the dark about the path of shuttles through their small neighborhood.

Slide 11 from October 2020 MOC meeting

Although this meeting marked the first time an Almono Partners representative was on hand to answer questions about the shuttle service they plan to run on the road, they did not show The Run in their presentation, either (see slide 37).

Slide 37 from October 2020 MOC meeting
Slide 37 from October 2020 MOC meeting
The slide refers to “trails” (plural) and “public streets” with no indication of which streets in The Run will be used.

The “Swinburne connector” (slide 22) climbs a landslide-prone hillside and merges with Swinburne Street for access to Swinburne Bridge. An FAQ on DOMI’s website says this additional road would “have a path width of 16 feet with 2-foot buffers on each side.” Longtime followers of the MOC debacle and Run residents find this phase 2 plan equally troubling for several reasons.

Slide 22 from October 2020 MOC meeting

For context, we revisit a January 2018 public meeting DOMI organized to “share the potential alternative routes” for the MOC. Run residents had no trust after learning of the plan from a 2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article touting an already-submitted grant application that turned out to be fraudulent. DOMI, created in 2017, claimed they were pushing the restart button on the MOC concept and seeking input from affected communities.

Michael Baker Corporation presented six routes at the meeting, including five community suggestions that left Schenley Park undisturbed. Attendees reported that the exercise seemed designed to herd them toward a conclusion that only the Schenley Park route could work. Alternatives included Swinburne Street.

DOMI director Karina Ricks later expressed a preference for the Swinburne route, but said it was not feasible because of landslides. Landslides have plagued Swinburne Street for decades; one in the 1980s caused damage in Junction Hollow that led the city to close Boundary Street to motorized vehicles. This section of Boundary Street eventually became a popular bike and pedestrian trail through Schenley Park that forms a critical link in the only car-free path between Oakland and downtown.

Given the ongoing landslides, MOC critics questioned Ricks when subsequent designs showed the inevitable Schenley Park shuttle route running along the hill beneath Swinburne Street. How could Swinburne be deemed unsuitable for small shuttles yet frequently accommodate cars, trucks, UPMC shuttles, emergency vehicles, and school buses? And since Swinburne must be stabilized to prevent a collapse onto the proposed road, why not make Swinburne the route instead of spending millions of additional taxpayer dollars to build a new road?

Ricks responded via email, “The mobility path is to be an exclusive pathway suitable for both light shuttles and other e-powered vehicles such as e-bikes and, when categorized, e-scooters and other such vehicles as may evolve over time. There is insufficient width on Swineburn to provided this dedicated path. The street cannot be widened due to the fragile soil conditions.” (emphasis added)

Swinburne Street is 19.8 feet wide on average at its narrowest point. This is significantly wider than the proposed road, which forces cyclists into close contact with shuttles. But the width is still insufficient to accommodate both existing traffic and a new “exclusive pathway” that is “16 feet with 2-foot buffers on each side.” Whatever happened to the fragile soil conditions that prevented Swinburne Street from being widened?

According to minutes from a February 2019 meeting in Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, Ricks “noted the mobility trail can’t support future traffic loads so additional transportation alternatives would be needed for future traffic loads.” DOMI first proposed widening Swinburne Bridge to accommodate a dedicated lane for MOC shuttles in February 2018, presenting an option that featured a vehicle elevator from Four Mile Run Park below. Since then, serious consequences of the Swinburne route have come into view.

2018 DOMI illustration of vehicle elevator concept
Owners of houses near Swinburne Bridge received letters referencing eminent domain.

In August 2020, 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 has been neglected over many years and needs repair, so residents are required to allow surveyors on their property. Although repairs could be completed with no need to acquire properties, replacing Swinburne Bridge allows DOMI to widen it for the purpose of accommodating a dedicated MOC shuttle lane.

Ricks addressed resident concerns by stating, “It is a letter written by a lawyer and, unfortunately, they do reference the right of eminent domain. The City has absolutely no intention to take properties [as part of the bridge construction]. There is a possibility there might be some slivers that will be needed to create new footings for the bridge.”

Within a week of property owners receiving the letters, an AWK Consulting Engineers team arrived in The Run. One affected property owner noticed a surveyor working in Four Mile Run Field (The Run’s only community green space). Asked why he was so far from the bridge, the AWK employee said it was because they might need to widen the bridge.

Residents throughout The Run face harm from still more asphalt surfaces and permanent tree canopy loss upstream from their homes. Phase 1 of the MOC has already compromised the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s stormwater project in the area because accommodating the shuttle road is a design requirement. The stormwater project enjoys nearly universal public support because it was sold as a solution to The Run’s chronic flooding problem. But building the half-mile road through Schenley Park would generate about 295,000 gallons of additional runoff.

DOMI calls the MOC a “mobility trail” to avoid admitting it is a road—and if the MOC can be called a trail, its shuttles can run on any trail. An additional leg of the “Swinburne Connection” extends into the UPMC shuttle lot toward Second Avenue, which also happens to link to the Eliza Furnace Trail, another crucial part of Pittsburgh’s car-free network.

The MOC is a reiteration of an old idea. And it continues to shamble forward, powered by $14 million from previous budget years. The “Swinburne Connection” reveals MOC planners deceiving residents yet again, feinting away from an “alternative” route they planned to use in addition to rather than instead of Schenley Park. Communities should not be asked—let alone forced—to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a development project that serves private interests.

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

Pittsburghers Speak Out Against Shuttle Road

As promised, we are gathering statements from DOMI’s public meeting concerning the proposed road through Schenley Park. Below you’ll find quotes from residents of affected communities, activists, transit advocates, university students, and others—along with links to their full statements. We’ve also included those who didn’t get a chance to speak or could not attend the meeting. If you fall into any of these categories and would like us to publish your statement here, please email junctioncoalition@gmail.com.


“As a campus spiritual advisor I often talk with students about their responsibility as members of an institution that wields considerable power and influence over the neighbors who make their homes here. That they should amplify the voices of neighbors whose opinions and needs sometimes been cast aside for the sake of development.

And in this case I have yet to hear from any Hazelwood, Greenfield, or Oakland residents who are demanding a private shuttle between Oakland and Hazelwood Green. What I do hear loudly from my neighbors is a need for increased bus service.”
Mike Holohan, The Run
Read more »

“No matter what you would offer in money for my business, it wouldn’t be enough to start over somewhere else.” —Dana Provenzano, Zano’s Pub
Read more »

“Who’s going to really benefit if the capacity is 1,000 riders a day—if that’s the ultimate capacity and you’re going to displace 20,000 cars a day? The math does not figure…When I say this, I say this as an 81-year resident of Hazelwood. I get calls every day from gentrifiers who want to buy my property.”
Homer Craig, Hazelwood
Read more »

“During this fight, we have won some major improvements to the City’s original plan. These include a flood mitigation project in Four Mile Run, park enhancements, and bike and pedestrian improvements—none of which were part of the original concept. We also won weekend service on the 93 bus starting next month—connecting residents of Hazelwood and Greenfield to Oakland, Squirrel Hill, Bloomfield, and Lawrenceville—actually improving mobility for our communities while the City and DOMI have done nothing but waste millions in consulting and design fees.” —Barb Warwick, The Run
Read more »

“Our city is facing a massive budget shortfall and unless you live in Donald Trump’s fantasy world, you know it’s likely to get worse. But despite the clear need to redirect a vastly reduced budget to human needs, my city insists on spending almost $20 million on a boondoggle that no community favors.”
Mel Packer, Point Breeze
Read more »

“The project does not benefit the people who live here and is a blatant attempt to destroy our community and give the land to universities and developers.” —Susan Cohen, The Run
Read more »

“If I’m wrong and this is a mass transportation project, well, you guys should fund the Our Money, Our Solutions plan instead because it does everything that this could hope to accomplish—better, faster, cheaper and without any of the associated harms.” —Laura Chu Wiens, Pittsburghers for Public Transit
Read more »

“Every justification put forth for building the road has been proven false. Proponents are now at a loss for any argument other than, ‘We have to build it because we’ve been secretly planning this for years!'”
Ray Gerard, Lower Greenfield
Read more »

“The City recognizes the seriousness of Climate Change, does not dispute the science behind these issues, yet continues to adhere to the model of development that is driving these issues. The Climate Action Plan states unequivocally, ‘HALT the conversion of forest canopy to development’ and such a conversion is exactly what is being proposed here.”
Matt Peters, Hazelwood
Read more »

“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.”
Ziggy Edwards, The Run
Read more »

Who Is Bending PWSA Backward to Accommodate the Mon-Oakland Connector?

The answer may not surprise you

Per usual, a number of disturbing revelations floated to the surface at PWSA’s September 15 public meeting about the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project. Highlights include:

  • The plan calls for removing 900 trees from the Junction Hollow/Panther Hollow section of Schenley Park, according to Tim Nuttle of Civil & Environmental Consultants (CEC). Most of the trees slated for removal, Mr. Nuttle said, are located at the north end of Schenley Park in the Panther Hollow neighborhood. Presumably, this total does not include trees that would be cut down by the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) road through Schenley Park.
  • Part of the project attempts to address the large amounts of runoff from the Parkway East overpass that cuts through The Run, but despite talks between PWSA and PennDOT there is currently no plan for PennDOT to share any of the costs.
  • The MOC and the foot path have both been moved since the previous PWSA meeting on June 18 of this year. PWSA representatives said they heard that people didn’t want the walking trail right next to the MOC, which is designed to accommodate motorized shuttles between Hazelwood Green and the university campuses in Oakland. The foot path, in the latest PWSA presentation, has been moved to the other side of the soccer field. The MOC has also changed course, but in the presentation a photo covered a critical turn in its path. Before reaching the southern entrance to Schenley Park, where they diverge at the soccer field, the two paths are still side by side. Twitter user @Bram_R recalled, “When [residents] asked about the safety of that, were told there’d be ‘a piece of wood or something’ separating [the MOC and foot path].”
  • PWSA has spent months telling concerned residents that no model of the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project exists that excludes the MOC. But during this most recent meeting, PWSA representatives divulged that such a model does exist. According to this new narrative, the MOC was added to the stormwater models after initial public meetings where residents expressed concerns about how a new asphalt road (and associated removal of trees) would affect the project’s ability to address the flooding issue in The Run.

    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.

    PWSA continues to withhold the MOC-free model from residents, and did not use it in their chart where they showed a net benefit in flood control. The presentation implied that this positive result is because of MOC, rather than despite MOC. Without an MOC-free model, the road’s true impact on flood control cannot be measured.
  • Discussion of “BMPs” (best management practices) revealed that the BMPs in question were “swales,” or ditches, to hold runoff from the MOC road. These deep ditches are placed directly next to the youth soccer field.
  • After the June PWSA board meeting, PWSA executive director Will Pickering responded to resident concerns over undue influence over PWSA by Mayor William Peduto and the private interests that define his administration’s agenda. A resident had stated that all except one board member were nominated directly by Mayor Peduto. Mr. Pickering clarified via email, “Ms. [Margaret] Lanier’s initial term on the PWSA Board was prior to Mayor Peduto’s term(s) as Mayor, but all appointments to the PWSA board are nominated by the Mayor and approved by Council. Ms. Lanier’s most recent nomination was indeed put forward by Mayor Peduto.”

    At the September stormwater project meeting, PWSA Chief of Program Management Alex Sciulli elaborated that a committee formed by Mayor Peduto chose the latest round of PWSA board nominations. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the committee is “chaired by Mark Nordenberg, University of Pittsburgh chancellor emeritus and chair of the Institute of Politics. The other members…include Community College of Allegheny County President Quintin Bullock, former Regional Asset District Executive Director David Donahoe, Women for a Healthy Environment Executive Director Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis and Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant.”

    The Heinz Endowments is one of three foundations that comprise Almono Limited Partnership, which owns the vast majority of the Hazelwood Green site—the development of which MOC is intended to bolster.

    Mayor Peduto, a longtime proponent of MOC, faces an estimated $100 million budget shortfall this year because of COVID-19. The City’s capital budget includes $23 million for MOC over the next few years—$9 million for 2021 alone. Approximately $2 million has already been spent on “community outreach”—marketing efforts to convince residents of affected communities they should abandon efforts to stop the road from being built.

    Mayor Peduto’s chief of staff, Dan Gilman, tweeted on September 15: “Today, City Council approved the Mayor’s 3 appointees to the @pgh2o board. These three women – BJ Leber, Rosamaria Cristello, and Dr. Audrey Murrell are going to be tremendous leaders in helping PWSA continue to modernize and provide a safe and reliable water system.”

    When @Bram_R commented that “it’s going around that these 3 new board members came off a list given to the Mayor by Pitt & CMU, and that they’re ‘their’ appointees. W Almono nearby as well, [residents] have a lot of concerns that their neighborhood is being slated for gentrification,” Mr. Gilman responded, “This is completely untrue. The names came from suggestions by the PWSA Board Nominating Committee that was publicly announced and part of the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Panel.”

    The panel Mr. Gilman mentioned includes Jared Cohon, former president of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

    Twitter user @BarbWarwick2 replied to Mr. Gilman with background on the three new board members: “Looks like Ms. Cristello works at CMU and Dr. Murrell at Pitt. Ms. Leber is CEO at adagio health, which is associated with UPMC. All very accomplished women indeed, but the ‘eds and meds’ comment is not wrong. PWSA board could use at least one or two resident advocates, no?”

Asked why the PWSA’s June presentation accounted for only $14 million of the $40 million project budget, PWSA acting senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito responded in an email, “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)

After decades of steadily worsening floods in The Run and avowals from city officials that they lacked funds to fix it, residents have every right to demand that the $40 million secured for the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project addresses their dire public safety need rather than accommodating a project to benefit The Heinz Endowments, the University of Pittsburgh, CMU, and a handful of other private entities. Yet these very entities have been tasked with overseeing the PWSA and its execution of the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project.

You can view the PWSA’s June 18 presentation on their website, and PWSA has promised to post a recording of the September 15 meeting and accompanying presentation soon.