Swinburne

Greenfield and Greater Hazelwood Pushed for Safer Streets in 2022

Greenfield and Hazelwood residents made progress toward safety improvements in their neighborhoods last year—but it wasn’t easy. As 2022 drew to a close, yet another accident on Greenfield Avenue highlighted the need to prioritize fixing dangerous traffic conditions in the area.

Uneven sidewalk prevents a New Year’s Eve tragedy

Around 7 p.m. on December 31, a westbound car jumped the curb in the 200 block of Greenfield Avenue. It balanced atop a steep hill and may have barreled toward houses in The Run, but its underside caught on the sidewalk’s edge. As tow truck operators on the scene struggled to remove the vehicle, police officers alerted affected residents.

According to Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI), Greenfield Avenue qualifies for the Neighborhood Traffic Calming program, but will not receive funds for construction this year. Despite increasingly frequent and severe accidents along the 200-300 block of Greenfield Avenue, nothing will be done until at least 2026, after the anticipated replacement of Swinburne Bridge. At a July 14 meeting about that project, project manager Zachary Workman said, “It’s definitely something that’s on DOMI’s radar for improvements in the future but it’s in the long-range plan as resources become available.”

When Mayor Ed Gainey held a community meeting in Greenfield last month on January 14, residents identified conditions all along Greenfield Avenue as a top concern.

DOMI promises traffic calming on Hazelwood Avenue

Newly elected District 5 City Councilperson Barb Warwick brokered a major milestone in traffic calming along Hazelwood Avenue. At a December 14 City Council meeting, DOMI director Kim Lucas committed to completing “spot improvements” on the upper part of this narrow, busy street in 2023.

In addition, Councilperson Warwick said during a January 6 phone call, “[DOMI] will do comprehensive traffic calming along the whole street long term.”

DOMI’s promise of larger-scale improvements shows they recognize hazards that have plagued residents and travelers along Hazelwood Avenue for decades. These include constant speeding, faded pedestrian crosswalks, and oversize trucks using the street as a shortcut.

However, DOMI only agreed to begin the work now in exchange for support of the Sylvan Avenue repaving project.

Adjustments to the Sylvan Avenue Trail project

This relatively quiet side street is slated for raised pedestrian crosswalks, repaving, and new sidewalks between Hazelwood Avenue and Home Rule Street. When DOMI introduced the project at an April 26 public meeting, attendees expressed concerns about its potential effects on Sylvan Avenue residents and its limited scope—especially considering neglected infrastructure and dangerous traffic patterns in the same area.

DOMI responded to these concerns by adding a pedestrian refuge island on Hazelwood Avenue at the Sylvan Avenue intersection, DOMI project manager Michael Panzitta said at a second public meeting on November 30. In addition, DOMI changed its plans for street markings to show bikes and cars are sharing the road. Instead of advisory bike lanes, this entire stretch of Sylvan Avenue will have a Neighborway design that may be more familiar to local drivers.

The project is part of a future pedestrian/cyclist trail along the route of the rejected Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road. Landslides and water runoff issues complicate work on the next leg of Sylvan Avenue, which will connect Hazelwood Avenue to another busy, dangerous street: Greenfield Avenue.

A map of the area around Greenfield Avenue shows the location of the New Year’s
Eve accident. Image by Ray Gerard

Irvine Street sidewalks completed

Thanks to state and federal funding, an existing connection between Hazelwood and Greenfield avenues got long-overdue upgrades last summer. Replacement of Irvine Street’s disintegrated sidewalks wrapped up in mid-November, City of Pittsburgh press officer Emily Bourne confirmed in a January 17 email. Soon after, crews finished the signs
and signal work.

“Several minor, weather-dependent, pavement markings are outstanding,” Ms. Bourne added. “These are anticipated to be completed in the spring.”

A terrible loss draws attention to Johnston Avenue

After a 6-year-old Glen Hazel boy was hit and killed by a car on July 26, neighbors pointed out that they had been requesting traffic-calming measures such as speed humps for years.

Mayor Gainey held a community meeting on October 5 and later committed to safety improvements along Johnston Avenue. Crews finished some minor work, such as street markings, before winter. No date was given for speed humps and other uncompleted items. But municipal traffic engineer Mike Maloch said during the community meeting, “When weather breaks in 2023, [speed humps] will be implemented quickly.”

Working toward safer streets in 2023

It should not take a tragedy as horrible as the death of a child to get simple, even temporary, traffic-calming measures—especially in the midst of major construction projects improving access to the Hazelwood Green development.

In 2019, surrounding communities created the Our Money, Our Solutions plan to identify their needs. The plan prioritized traffic calming on both Greenfield and Hazelwood avenues, as well as safer pedestrian crossings on Second Avenue.

As Hazelwood and Greenfield residents continue advocating for traffic safety measures, the Gainey administration seems to be listening. Deputy mayor Jake Pawlak told attendees at the Greenfield community meeting that Pittsburgh’s 2023 budget includes increased funds for traffic calming, which is in high demand all over the city. This year should bring clarity on if and how the city will make these key improvements in 15207.

DOMI Has a Bridge to Sell Residents Affected by Swinburne Replacement

residents and friends gathered at Zano's for 7/14 meeting

On July 14, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) hosted a virtual meeting about plans to tear down and rebuild Swinburne Bridge in lower Greenfield. The bridge, built in 1915 and rehabilitated twice, is in poor condition and had its weight limit lowered to 21 tons in 2014. According to the Swinburne Bridge project page on Engage PGH, it serves the communities of Four Mile Run (“The Run”), Greenfield, South Oakland, and downtown. The bridge connects Swinburne Street in South Oakland to Greenfield Avenue in lower Greenfield. DOMI said the city is working with the Federal Highway Administration and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) on the project.

About 65 attendees logged in to the meeting, plus an in-person “watch party” of 20 on the deck at Zano’s Pub House. Barb Warwick, who lives in The Run and is running for Pittsburgh City Council’s District 5 seat, facilitated questions from the group at Zano’s.

Representatives from DOMI, PennDOT, and private construction firm Alfred Benesch & Company all acknowledged that work on Swinburne Bridge will profoundly affect The Run. A significant portion of the neighborhood—and the only street providing vehicular access to it—lies directly beneath the bridge. DOMI painted a rosy picture of plans to minimize disruptions to the community while completing the project. But several aspects of the meeting fueled continuing mistrust among residents, who have years of experience with the city treating them as roadblocks to development projects that serve private interests.

A double standard for safety

DOMI project manager Zachary Workman responded with unequivocal commitment to unspecified comments in the chat about bridge safety concerns. “We are absolutely not going to have another bridge collapse,” he said, referring to the January 2022 collapse of Fern Hollow Bridge. “That can’t happen, and we’re not going to let it happen.”

Mr. Workman had more guarded answers to concerns raised by affected residents. He said DOMI is aware of dangerous traffic conditions along Greenfield Avenue that led to repeated requests for traffic-calming measures. “It’s definitely something that’s on DOMI’s radar for improvements in the future but they are going to be—it’s something that we’ll—it’s in the long-range plan as resources become available … It’s going to be a little while still and beyond the scope of this project.”

Project plans include a traffic signal at the intersection of Swinburne Bridge and Greenfield Avenue. When asked if a traffic signal could be installed sooner than the projected fall 2026 bridge completion, DOMI chief engineer Eric Setzler told residents, “Unfortunately, I think, it’s being constructed as part of this project. I certainly understand your desire to see it as soon as possible. I could definitely see that being beneficial, but it’s part of the project so it’s going to have to come at the same time as the rest of the project.”

“Property takes” not ruled out

Also in contrast with DOMI’s commitment to never let another bridge collapse, they went out of their way to avoid firm promises concerning homes and businesses beneath Swinburne Bridge.

Dana Provenzano, who owns two affected properties including Zano’s, asked, “You’re saying you’re not taking any properties, correct?”

“Our preliminary investigation into the demolition and construction is that this bridge can be demolished and rebuilt without taking homes,” Mr. Workman responded. “We’re in preliminary engineering, but that seems to be feasible.”

Mayor Ed Gainey emphatically promised residents that the city would not take anyone’s home (see video) at a February 17 meeting in Hazelwood where he announced an end to the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle project. Affected communities including The Run heavily opposed the MOC, which lives on as a purported bike and pedestrian trail that still enjoys a substantial yet murky budget. DOMI has long envisioned Swinburne Bridge as part of the MOC shuttle route.

Asked whether Mayor Gainey’s promise changed plans for the bridge, Mr. Setzler said it “did help us clarify what we were doing for this project … Once we knew [the MOC shuttle] was no longer part of the equation we could home in on bikes, peds, and vehicles.” He did not specify what kind of vehicles.

Mr. Setzler explained that a couple of years ago, DOMI was considering new alignments that would eliminate the sharp turn on the northern end of the bridge. “However, as we were looking at it we realized pretty quickly that any different path for the bridge would require right-of-way, require property takes—by definition, because you’re going over a place where there wasn’t a bridge before.”

Pittsburgh’s 2023 capital budget includes $100K for right-of-way acquisition associated with Swinburne Bridge, but Mr. Setzler said that setting aside funds for this purpose is standard procedure on this type of project. “We believe we can avoid taking property, and that is our goal,” he added.

A shared-use path to nowhere?

Many MOC critics believe profiteers who dreamed up the plan are regrouping to use this bridge replacement as cover for an eventual revival of the community-erasing shuttle road.

Mel Packer of Point Breeze said he has ridden his bike across Swinburne bridge and appreciates “how dangerous it can be once you get onto the Oakland side.” Although he welcomed the “shared-use path” in DOMI’s presented design, Mr. Packer questioned why the path suddenly stops in that treacherous location.

slide 14 of DOMI's 7/14/22 presentation shows current and proposed sections of Swinburne Bridge
Slide 14 of DOMI’s July 14 presentation shows current and proposed sections of Swinburne Bridge.

“I’m old enough to remember we had a bridge to nowhere once,” he said. “I feel like this is the bike path to nowhere … What are you not telling me? Why would we build a path that wide across the bridge when it’s impossible to widen Swinburne [Street]? We know it’s impossible—I mean, it would cost many millions of dollars; you’d have to buy properties up on the hill, build a wall 50 feet tall. No one’s going to do that.”

Mr. Setzler responded, “The shuttle has been put aside; that is done. But we’re really looking at the bike-ped connection, and a couple of things we showed on the screen [slide 13 of the presentation]—just to be clear, they’re not part of this project.”

He described a desired off-street connection between the Eliza Furnace trailhead and Swinburne Bridge where the path ends. This could allow cyclists and pedestrians to travel “into the heart of Hazelwood” without navigating the five-way intersection at Greenfield Avenue/Second Avenue/Irvine Street/Saline Street.

Slide 13 of DOMI's July 14 presentation shows "future connectivity."
Slide 13 of DOMI’s July 14 presentation shows “future connectivity.”

An additional connection was not listed in the slide’s text. “There’s also a potential to maybe get on a trail on the other side of the road [where the path ends on Swinburne Bridge] and get back down into [Schenley] Park and go up through the park past the soccer fields and get into Oakland,” Mr. Setzler said.

This route corresponds exactly with the “Swinburne connection” referenced in DOMI’s October 2020 presentation as “phase 2” of the MOC. The projected 16-foot-wide road was to traverse the same landslide-prone hillside with fragile soil conditions that prevent Swinburne Street from being widened.

Slide 22 of DOMI's October 2020 presentation shows "Swinburne Connection"/"phase 2" of the MOC.
Slide 22 of DOMI’s October 2020 presentation shows “Swinburne connection” listed as “phase 2” of the MOC.

DOMI’s presentation on the Swinburne Bridge did not include a slide with ideas for future traffic-calming measures on Greenfield Avenue, even though residents must face speeding traffic every time they walk between their houses and cars.

Rushing past design, community input

Rob Pfaffman, a prominent local architect, called the Swinburne Bridge project “a hidden opportunity to celebrate the Hollow, the community, the natural environment, and the trail of course running through it.” But he said that based on what he saw in the presentation, planners are disregarding that opportunity.

“You can’t have a design process where you’re already through preliminary design and you haven’t engaged the community,” Mr. Pfaffman commented. “[Design is] integral to a great project, and right now what you’re showing us is not that. It’s a Fern Hollow Bridge—which is basically expediting a project as quickly as you can and saying screw the design.”

The next public meeting is not scheduled to be held until 2023 or 2024—during “final design.”

Pittsburgh “Community Engagement” Needs More of Both

bad governance and good governance

Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) held a public meeting on July 14 about the Swinburne Bridge project. Mayor Gainey’s neighborhood services manager, Rebekkah Ranallo, debuted as a co-facilitator.

Ms. Ranallo seemed genuinely excited to learn that about 20 residents of Four Mile Run (“The Run”) and their friends had gathered at their local pub to participate as a group in the Zoom-only meeting. “I think it’s great that folks are getting together for civic engagement opportunities like this,” she said.

During the Q&A session, attendees brought up a list of community demands (listed below) for a transparent public process. Ms. Ranallo assured them on behalf of DOMI and the mayor’s office, “We want to let you know that improving the way all of our departments do community engagement with our residents is a top priority.”

As the City of Pittsburgh begins “engaging” communities about this project, it’s important to understand why getting involved is a matter of survival for affected residents—and how they lost trust in local institutions tasked with serving the public interest.

A long history of deceit

Residents of The Run, along with their neighbors in Hazelwood and Panther Hollow, have so far prevailed in a seven-year battle against private interests’ attempts to erase existing communities in support of the Hazelwood Green development using city funds and authority.

In August 2015, Run residents learned of Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle plans from a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article touting an already-submitted grant application that turned out to be fraudulent. DOMI, created in 2017, initially claimed they were pushing the restart button on the MOC concept. But the restart got off to a bad start when DOMI organized a January 2018 public meeting to “share the potential alternative routes” for the MOC. Attendees reported that the exercise seemed designed to herd them toward a conclusion that only the Schenley Park route could work.

Over ensuing years, DOMI continued pushing the MOC on affected communities in a dishonest and non-transparent way. These are just a few examples:

  • On April 13, 2018, DOMI filed for a $1 million grant for work on the Sylvan Avenue trail, part of the MOC route, to make the trail suitable for MOC shuttles. At a public meeting the following month on May 22, DOMI did not mention the grant at all. When the grant was approved in July 2018 by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, DOMI still did not inform affected residents. Asked about the grant and why DOMI kept it secret from residents, former DOMI director Karina Ricks said, “Well… we could have handled that better” and “It’s not possible for there to be some conspiracy—we’re just not competent enough for that.”
  • In August 2020, residents on Acorn Street near the Swinburne Bridge received a letter from DOMI and AWK Consulting Engineers citing eminent domain. When asked about this at the October 2020 MOC meeting, Ms. Ricks responded, “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.”
  • Residents obtained a 2018 request from DOMI to Pittsburgh’s Office of Management and Budget for funding. That document is mostly blank, but DOMI was nonetheless given $9 million of taxpayer funds. 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 checklist item within that section. DOMI checked off this item and commented: Depends on which community!
Ranking criteria for Mon-Oakland Connector from 2019 budget application
A section of the City Budget form shows DOMI’s response to whether the project has community support. 

Additional information received through resident-filed Right-to-Know requests, sources in city government, and expert independent consultations revealed the true “vision” behind the MOC and the nature of Hazelwood Green’s relationship to surrounding communities. Private interests have a long-term plan that calls for erasing The Run off the map so universities can expand from Oakland campuses to Hazelwood Green. And it includes using eminent domain to acquire resident homes and business.

A 2009 study from the Remaking Cities Institute of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Remaking Hazelwood, makes this intention clear:

“The urban design recommendations proposed in this document extend beyond the boundary of the ALMONO site. The end of Four Mile Run valley, the hillside and Second Avenue are all critical to the overall framework. Some of these areas are publicly-held; others are privately-owned. A map is in the section Development Constraints. The support of the City of Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) will be critical to the success of our vision. The ALMONO, LP could try to purchase these sites. Failing that, the URA can support the project by purchasing those properties that are within the scope of the recommendations and making them available for redevelopment in accordance with the proposed strategy.”

Remaking Hazelwood, page 45

Unfortunately for existing communities seen by the authors of this report as “development constraints,” there is no evidence that underlying goals have changed for development in the area.

Another “restart button?”

Ms. Ricks left DOMI after Ed Gainey, who vowed to stop the MOC, won Pittsburgh’s 2021 mayoral race. Mayor Gainey announced the end of the shuttle road during a February 17 community meeting in Hazelwood, but DOMI has continued prioritizing MOC-related projects above longstanding infrastructure needs and dangerous traffic conditions in Greenfield and Hazelwood.

Public meetings about these projects have not shown improvement, either. DOMI originally scheduled the Swinburne Bridge meeting for June 16, but residents pushed back after finding out only 10 days in advance. The extent of DOMI’s outreach for that original meeting was a letter sent to a few residents, which those residents received on June 6. The rest of the community learned of the meeting through their neighbors who received the letter.

During a month-long lead-up to the rescheduled meeting, several residents asked DOMI to make the presentation (which they presumably would have prepared for the June meeting) available so the public would have time to review it in advance. None of the residents received a direct response from DOMI. About four hours before the start of the July 14 meeting, project manager Zachary Workman posted a statement in the Q&A section of the project’s Engage PGH webpage that DOMI would not honor the request.

Community demands shaped by experience

Residents have learned from years of MOC public meetings designed to check a “community engagement” box while minimizing the community’s effect on predetermined outcomes. The whole time, they were communicating ideas for better public engagement to DOMI—but DOMI ignored them. Residents have called for the following:

  • All meetings must be posted with a minimum of 14 days’ notice to allow working people to arrange their busy lives to attend and have their voices heard. The meeting information must be widely advertised on social media, sent to email lists, and communicated by any means necessary to community members who lack internet access.
  • The meeting presentation must be posted at the same time the meeting is announced. The public must be afforded sufficient time to review and understand the information being presented so they can come to the meeting prepared with questions. If you do not yet have the presentation ready, then you should postpone the meeting to give people a chance to review the presentation after you have posted it.
  • All meetings must include a Q&A session where every attendee is able to hear all questions asked and all answers given. The Q&A session itself should be expected to last at least an hour, if not two hours. All answers to questions should be thorough and truthful, with a clear plan for following up on information DOMI doesn’t have. The Q&A session must not be curtailed because of time constraints, especially if the presentation has taken up more than half the allotted time for the meeting. There is no reason the presentation should require so much time, especially since the public will have already had a chance to review it. Dialogue with the community should be the main focus of all meetings. 
  • Meetings must offer an in-person option so that no community members are excluded. 
  • Meetings with a virtual component must provide space for at least 300 virtual attendees so that no one is unable to access the meeting at any time.
  • After the meeting, a recording of the Zoom meeting and the chat transcript must be made available on the Engage PGH website.

Ms. Ranallo said at the July 14 meeting, “While I can’t speak to each item on your list of demands, we do want to build trust with you … We have a new administration, we have new leadership at DOMI, and we ask that you give us a chance to try to earn that trust.”

The community’s demands were compiled as a road map the city can follow to do exactly that.

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

car wreck on Greenfield Ave. June 23, 2022

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

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

Flipped car on Greenfield Avenue

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

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

Photo courtesy of Will Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Multi-vehicle crash on Hazelwood Avenue

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

Photo courtesy of Greenfield Livable Streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qualified, but not prioritized for traffic calming

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

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

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

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

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

Major construction supporting Hazelwood Green

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

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

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

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

Kevin Dole

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

Safety of residents should come first

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh’s RCO Ordinance Caters to Developers While Stifling Grassroots Voices

In late 2018, Pittsburgh City Council passed an ordinance that is birthing a system of Registered Community Organizations (RCOs). According to the City of Pittsburgh’s website, this new system gives RCOs “a formal role in the current development projects [taking place in a neighborhood] as well as neighborhood planning processes.”

Community organizations that want to become RCOs must meet criteria that include:

  • Being a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit.
  • Maintaining a website and posting public meeting agendas, minutes, and decisions.
  • Holding two public meetings each year in an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible space.
  • Submitting a signed letter from their City Councilperson.

Critics point to the financial and political resources needed to satisfy these requirements. Obtaining 501 (c)(3) nonprofit status can take months or even years. Although recent updates to the process allow some organizations to file a shorter form, the IRS will reject forms with any mistakes. Filing the form requires an online payment. Organizations may lack the funds to maintain a website or secure an ADA-accessible meeting space. And, critically, organizations at odds with their City Councilperson may find themselves shut out of RCO status.

According to a Dec. 3, 2018, Public Source article, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation Marimba Milliones described the required letter from a city council member as “an infringement of free speech.”

“Anyone who’s done any level of community organizing knows that a core part of community organizing is being able to go and articulate your issues to whomever, however…without retribution,” Ms. Milliones said at a community meeting. “And to give any elected official or any person the power to essentially endorse you as the voice for your community is unacceptable.”

The City speaks from both sides of its mouth on the issue, insisting that it “values the contributions that community organizations bring to our city and holds each in equal regard” while also saying “RCOs will receive certain benefits, not favoritism” compared to non-RCO groups. The benefits in question, obtainable only by jumping through the above-referenced hoops, lead to elevating well-connected professional community organizers above grassroots organizations with fewer resources or with interests that go against those of developers.

Outcomes of this new layer between average Pittsburghers and civic participation could prove dire in neighborhoods slated for big development projects by powerful interests. The proposed Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road through The Run is a prime example.

The Run, technically part of the Greenfield neighborhood, is geographically isolated from the rest of that community. Neither the MOC nor severe flooding in The Run affect upper Greenfield. One Greenfield Community Association (GCA) board member told GCA meeting attendees that the organization “does not represent the people of Greenfield.” Yet the GCA is currently in the process of acquiring RCO status and will become the de facto representative of the entire neighborhood—including The Run—in matters of community development.

This leaves Run residents in a tenuous position. The GCA, which includes a tiny minority of Run residents, can easily ignore or compromise on issues concerning the MOC and combined sewer overflows to avoid ruffling feathers in city government. Run residents cannot afford to do so. A 2017 City-mandated survey of Run residents showed overwhelming opposition to the MOC roadway and unanimous demand for effective flood relief. Furthermore, part of the MOC plan calls for seizing several Acorn St. properties through eminent domain to widen Swinburne Bridge and make a dedicated lane for MOC shuttles.

Residents of The Run and surrounding communities created the Our Money Our Solutions (OMOS) infrastructure/transportation plan to address the needs of existing residents. The group identified the needs of each community together rather than acting as individual neighborhoods in a void. In this way, they avoided “solutions” that could harm surrounding communities.

The OMOS plan is an example of how communities can unite to address their own needs—as opposed to the top-down, chainsaw development approach Pittsburgh has historically favored.

Requiring developers to address the community with their plans makes sense; however, the devil is in the details. Putting a nice face on rubber-stamping, bulldozing on behalf of outside interests, and rigging the game further entrenches these same old techniques of destroying healthy communities for profit. There are fairer ways to ensure that developers pass through a community approval process.

If you are concerned about the role of RCOs, start by finding out if your community has one. If your research or participation shows that the local RCO does not serve the interests of your community, you have a lot to consider. You may wish to form your own RCO—or work toward replacing the RCO framework in Pittsburgh.

55M More Reasons to Defund the Mon-Oakland Connector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.