The Run

PWSA Fields Questions on Stormwater Project Delays

On Oct. 19, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) held a meeting via Zoom to update the public on its Four Mile Run Stormwater Project. The project, announced in 2017 as a way to address severe flooding in the Four Mile Run neighborhood (The Run), has come under fire from skeptics who say it is designed around the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) plan. The MOC, announced in 2015, calls for building a road for university shuttles on the same land as the stormwater project. During the Q&A period after their presentation, PWSA officials made several false statements related to the MOC.

Shuttle road more integral to design than previously shared

Asked if PWSA is providing space in its stormwater plan for the MOC, Mallory Griffin of construction firm JMT (which is involved in the PWSA project) answered no. Yet PWSA senior group manager Tony Igwe asserted that removing the MOC from the watershed plan would require PWSA to start over, which would cause significant delay and cost millions of dollars in changes.

“PWSA has always said the stormwater project will still move forward whether the trail is there or not,” Mr. Igwe explained. “But what we never said was how much additional cost and time would be required if the trail isn’t there… To suddenly shut down one piece of that project, take it off the table, and then ask us to do a project, the first thing that’s going to happen is now we have to redesign the project to take that Mon-Oakland [Connector] out of the equation.”

The public has been told repeatedly at public meetings that the watershed plan and MOC are “two separate projects.” PWSA’s own notes from its Sept. 2020 public meeting on the stormwater project state:

“We are going to do the stormwater project no matter what. If the roadway stopped being planned, we would have to amend our permit, which would result in a paperwork review for [the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP)] and some timing changes, but we would still do our project. For the stormwater project, the money is committed, the PWSA board has approved it, the design is essentially complete, and we are moving forward with it.”

In several earlier public meetings, former stormwater project manager and current PWSA Board Chair Alex Sciulli had assured residents that the stormwater project takes precedence and that removing the MOC would not cause a significant delay because they are two separate projects.

New mayor, MOC opposition portrayed as obstacles

Ms. Griffin said that the PWSA hopes to have the permit approved by this winter, but warned of consequences if the MOC is removed as residents have been requesting for years. Slide 21 of PWSA’s presentation reads, in part: “If the new City Administration changes or removes the Mon-Oakland trail design, permitting will need to start over causing significant delay.”

Outgoing mayor Bill Peduto introduced the MOC plan to advance university and foundation goals. Mayor Peduto became Pittsburgh’s first incumbent mayor to be unseated since 1933. Mayor-elect Ed Gainey, by contrast, has clearly stated that he opposes the MOC. According to his campaign website, “Ed will stop the buildout of Mon-Oakland connector and prevent the construction of other privatized or quasi-privatized mass transit systems designed to support luxury development at the expense of existing residential communities.”

Community members at the meeting reminded PWSA of this, but Mr. Igwe said, “Up until that is done officially, all we’re really dealing with is people giving us their ideas and opinions on where they stand, and until someone puts something in writing formally that says it’s from the office of the people who can make the decision, that’s where we have to assume the project is going until it’s absolutely clear that it will not.”

Run residents have suffered a total of 10 major 25- to 75-year flood events in the last 15 years. They say a 10-year flood event plan (per PWSA’s current design parameters) is dangerously inadequate and that addressing floods must be prioritized. Every flood in The Run is an illegal combined sewer overflow that contains raw sewage—not merely stormwater runoff—which independent stormwater management consultants have labeled a public health and safety crisis.

Budget numbers continue to fluctuate

PWSA will spend $42.65 million on the stormwater project, according to their latest presentation. In a June 2020 meeting, another public presentation revealed that only about $14 million is going directly to flood relief in The Run. Asked why, PWSA acting senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito responded in an email on Aug. 24, 2020, “The remaining funding can go towards future projects in the upper portions of the watershed, provide opportunities to collaborate with the universities and other community organizations on future stormwater projects, or revisit some of the original green infrastructure projects planned for Panther Hollow Stream and Phipps Run.” (emphasis added)

Excerpt from Nov. 10 PWSA letter in response to resident statement at Oct. 22 PWSA board meeting

Subsequent presentations between then and now have added items that were not previously considered part of the “core” project in the Junction Hollow section of Schenley Park. It is unclear whether the money set aside for opportunities to collaborate with the universities has been diverted to these new items, including “Construction Management / Inspection” (which presumably was always needed to complete the project).

In a letter responding to a resident’s statement at PWSA’s Oct. 22 board meeting, Mr. Igwe included the information from the budget slide and said the budget “does not contain $26 million ‘being held back for future projects.’”

Good news break: Sidewalks restored

The Oct. 19 presentation included photos of sidewalks in The Run that were dug up in the process of moving gas lines in advance of the stormwater project. One community member commented that the strip of rocks filling the trench down the middle of the sidewalk looked like “a tripping hazard.” A Run resident said they had been told the sidewalks would not be replaced until after the stormwater project is completed.

Ms. Griffin said the sidewalks were “100% in Peoples’ scope to replace” and pledged to “follow up with them tomorrow first thing to see what their schedule is for replacing the sidewalks.”

About two weeks after the meeting, construction crews returned to The Run. As of Nov. 12, they were putting finishing touches on the new sidewalks.

PA DEP concerns downplayed

PWSA received a technical deficiency letter from PA DEP dated May 27, 2021, in response to their permit application filed for the project in August 2020. Ms. Griffin and Mr. Igwe both mischaracterized this letter during the Q&A session, stating that the deficiencies identified were unrelated to the MOC. Ms. Griffin said that in a subsequent PA DEP letter “they had no questions on the trail’s impact to the flooding.” This point is debatable, but PA DEP’s concerns in the May 27 letter regarding the MOC are not incidental. Of 35 items listed in the 8-page letter, 13 specifically mention the MOC. For example, environmental comment 26 refers to additional permit requirements associated with the MOC:

Since PWSA is the applicant, will PWSA be responsible for the operation and maintenance of this section of DOMI’s project? Alternately, please consult with DEP, regarding additional permit requirements, if PWSA will not own or have primary responsibility for this section of DOMI’s Mon-Oakland Mobility Project.”

On Oct. 29, PA DEP sent PWSA a second technical deficiency letter. They identified remaining “significant technical deficiencies” and requested a meeting with PWSA to discuss and explain them. Comment 17 in this second letter asks PWSA to “confirm that the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project is the same as the DOMI trail” and clarify that the full scope of the project is shown in a drawing called the “Boundary Street Concept North of Junction Hollow.”

“If there are additional components and/or sections of the overall DOMI Trail/Mon-Oakland Mobility Project,” the comment continued, “please note that a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment may be requested.”

After the Oct. 19 meeting and before receiving word of the second letter, residents asked the PA DEP to delay their decision to approve or reject the dual permit until at least February 2022.

Hazelwood, Run Residents React to Announced Playground Funding

On Sept. 2, Four Mile Run resident Barb Warwick found Department of Public Works [DPW] workers at the neighborhood’s playground. “[They were] replacing a lot of the old and rusted parts,” she recalled. “My kids are super happy to have their playground back.” 

OnePGH will rehabilitate playgrounds in The Run and Hazelwood 

For more than three years, neighbors in The Run had pleaded with city officials to repair and reopen their playground. It was plagued by hazards, including deep holes left by missing benches and tables. Concrete chunks had fallen from the Parkway East during PennDOT repairs, and a broken play structure had injured a child. But the sudden appearance of DPW workers was not quite what the community had asked for. 

A Sept. 3 City of Pittsburgh press release announced that “Carnegie Mellon University [CMU] and the City of Pittsburgh have partnered to provide support for the rehabilitation of Four Mile Run playground in Greenfield and improvements at Lewis playground in Hazelwood as part of the OnePGH community investment plan announced earlier this year by Mayor William Peduto.”

The press release characterized DPW’s work on The Run’s existing playground as “short-term repairs” while the new playground is being planned. But residents of The Run say no one was lobbying for a brand-new playground, and that it should be unnecessary once their playground is fully repaired. 

Plan does not include specifics for reflect neighborhood input

The press release did not say how much CMU planned to donate for each playground. OnePGH is a partnership between the city and outside nonprofits, including CMU. District 5 Councilman Corey O’Connor said there is “no set number” for the CMU donation “because we want to do a neighborhood process to see what people want at both playgrounds.”

“For The Run,” Councilman O’Connor added, “[these current repairs were] City money. We requested the repairs last fall, but there was a backlog due to COVID.”

“It’s exciting to see the work happen,” Run resident Ziggy Edwards said, but added, “We learned about these plans the same way we learned about the CMU- and Pitt-proposed Mon-Oakland Connector [MOC]: through press coverage. It’s disappointing that—once again—major decisions affecting our neighborhood came from a partnership between our elected representatives and monied interests that excluded residents.”

Hazelwood and Run residents, along with dozens of social justice and community groups, churches, and others have rejected the MOC—a proposed shuttle road between the Hazelwood Green development and Oakland campuses championed by the public-private partnership formed between CMU, Pitt, and Mayor Peduto’s administration for that purpose. Residents say building a new road through the Junction Hollow section of Schenley Park and The Run will permanently degrade the park and one day erase the neighborhood. Affected communities including The Run, Panther Hollow, Greenfield, South Oakland, and Hazelwood created their own plan for how MOC funds should be spent instead: Our Money, Our Solutions (OMOS).

The city did not seek input from Hazelwood residents on restoring Lewis Playground 

James Cole of Hazelwood said he was unaware of CMU’s playground funding commitment until contacted for this article. “How is it that no one asked the people in the neighborhoods what they want?” he asked. “I have 150 kids up [at Burgwin Field for youth programs] every day, and this is the first I’m hearing about it.”

Three Rivers Village School [TRVS] is planning a move from the Spartan Center into the former YMCA across Chatsworth Avenue from Lewis Playground. Staffer Jason White-Weidow said he had not heard about the plan to improve the playground either. 

“It would definitely be great for TRVS to have an updated park there and it would get a lot of use by our kids, including the Hazelwood residents,” Mr. White-Weidow said. “We agree though, that it is strange that the community wasn’t consulted.” He added that if other parks or community resource priorities would serve more residents, especially kids, then neighbors’ voices should be heard and respected. 

Councilman O’Connor said the community has expressed itself extensively about both playgrounds. “We’ve heard from people for a number of years,” he said, naming the Greenfield Community Association, Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., Center of Life and other community groups. He said other feedback came from community and budget meetings and 311 calls. 

Councilman O’Connor said there is no timeframe yet for the meetings the city wants to hold with residents, but stressed that “there will be opportunities for community input.”

Residents say Greenfield K-8 needs a playground 

In a similar spirit to the OMOS plan, residents are already identifying and proposing alternatives for the Four Mile Run playground funds. Ms. Warwick says a playground is desperately needed at Greenfield Elementary School. 

“Greenfield is a K-8 school with a special needs program and a Pre-K program. Right now, all they have is a field that’s often too muddy to use and a big parking lot,” Ms. Warwick explained. A group of parents from the Greenfield Community Association and the Greenfield School PTO are working together to raise funds for a playground. “We should build a playground that will improve the lives of kids from all over Greenfield,” she added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PWSA Pushes Ahead on Four Mile Run Stormwater Project Without Permit

Despite receiving a Technical Deficiency Letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) in response to their dual permit application for the problematic Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road and Four Mile Run Stormwater Project, PWSA shows no sign of reconsidering its plans. The current stormwater project is inadequate to address the flooding issues, in part because it was designed around the MOC. On top of that, existing flood protection benchmarks do not account for worsening conditions caused by overdevelopment and climate change.

May 27: The PA DEP sent the Technical Deficiency Letter. Its engineering and environmental comments contained numerous references to the MOC and requests for clarification on its impacts. Here is a small sampling of problems from the 8-page letter.

Engineering comment 5d: Was the area as a result of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure proposed trail and road incorporated into the flood analysis inundation limits study for proposed conditions. Provide evidence that the impervious area will not contribute additional flow increasing water surface elevations detailed in Figure 01 & Figure 02 of Project 2018-GI-102-0.

Environmental comment 25: Per Module S1, in the EA, “The purpose of the Project is to manageand/or remove direct stream inflow to the existing CSS within the Junction Hollow valley of Schenley Park and to improve the CSS system from Junction Hollow to the Monongahela River, by repair, replacement, and/or separation of the CSS and stormwater lines. The goals and benefits of the Project are to reduce CSOs; reduce flood risks and basement backups; reduce sediment transport; and leverage resources for regional benefit, including align with the Parks Master Plan.” Describe the relationship between PWSA’s project and the City of Pittsburgh’s project, in terms of the project purpose.

Environmental comment 26: The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) is identified as the applicant, on the application form; however, the Project Description identifies the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project as a City of Pittsburgh project, led by the City’s Dept. of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI). 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.

Environmental comment 29: Since this application only includes a section of DOMI’s Mon-Oakland Mobility Project, identify and describe, to the extent possible, any and all potential impacts to aquatic resources, including watercourses, floodways, floodplains and bodies of water, from the overall Mon-Oakland Mobility Project. Please note that based on your response to this item, that a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment may be requested.

The letter stated that PWSA had 60 days to respond to these comments, or the application would be considered withdrawn. The deadline was July 27.

May 28: At the monthly PWSA board meeting Ziggy Edwards of The Run urged the PWSA to create a model for the stormwater project that does not include the MOC. She also asked for a report PWSA commissioned from ms Consultants that provides great detail on the Four Mile Run watershed and was funded with ratepayer dollars.

June 3: PWSA chief of project management Alex Sciulli denied Ms. Edwards’ request for the report. Regarding the dual permit application, Mr. Sciulli said he “asked staff to prepare a response to the PA DEP letter and to provide additional clarification regarding the stormwater impact of the proposed MOC, including the specifics of the ms Consultants report and previous modeling.” He added, “At the appropriate time, we will be happy to share and discuss our response to your inquiries.”

Mr. Sciulli did not clarify how PWSA would be able to address in two months the fundamental shortcomings identified by PA DEP.

June 13: Intense storms caused flash flooding in The Run that totaled several cars, damaged a garage, and caused sewage backups in basements.

June 25: At the monthly PWSA board meeting, several Run residents spoke and/or submitted statements regarding the June 13 flood. Ms. Edwards again implored the PWSA to come up with a plan to address flooding that is not designed around and hindered by the MOC.

“We need answers on how much better PWSA could address the combined sewer overflows without [the road]. These answers have life-or-death importance to The Run,” she said.

Ray Gerard of lower Greenfield recounted the flood’s aftermath in his statement. “The City again neglected to show up and remove inches of leftover fecal matter on the streets, sidewalks and limited community green space. The neighborhood literally smelled like [$#!*] for days. It’s understood that there are other areas of the city that suffered damage and flooding, but that was runoff storm-water, not raw sewage… Residents and their children are forced to breathe this toxic air in for days. Our local officials continue to ignore, at great risk, the lives and health of Run residents.”

July 9: PWSA senior group manager Tony Igwe sent a letter to Run residents informing them that although “the plans for the stormwater project are being reviewed by the [PA DEP] and we cannot move forward with construction [on the stormwater project] until a permit is issued … People’s Natural Gas (PNG) will begin construction to replace existing gas lines along Saline Street, Alexis Street, Four Mile Run Road, and Boundary Street.” The letter included a tiny image of a map with illegible text (see image above).

Stay tuned for updates on PWSA’s response to the Technical Deficiency Letter and whether PNG’s planned construction lacks necessary permits.

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.

Bill Seeks Additional Funds for Mon-Oakland Connector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two interesting takeaways from this information:

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

55M More Reasons to Defund the Mon-Oakland Connector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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