At the beginning of this year, the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association (SSSNA) gathered to strategize and set priorities for the organization in 2010.
The March meeting of the SSSNA drew more than four dozen people to discuss and present ideas for the 65 acres of green space that sits in the middle of the South Side Flats, South Side Slopes and Arlington neighborhoods that is South Side Park.
"There was overwhelming support for doing something with this 65 acres," Brad Palmisiano, president of the SSSNA, said.
In focusing on the park, Mr. Palmisiano said for so long in their discussions they had hit a roadblock in what to do with the abandoned Neville Ice Area at the end of 21st Street. Something would have to be done with the former ice rink to make the park something special.
February brought near record snowfall and the collapse of the metal roof covering the ice skating surface, facilitating the need to demolish the vandalized building and getting what many residents considered an eyesore out of the park.
Judy Dyda, Elm Street coordinator with the South Side Local Development Company, began her presentation about the park with a brief history of what is now a six-year planning process for South Side Park.
Ms. Dyda likened each step in the process to "little links in a bracelet" on the way to a beautiful finish.
She said the first "Master Study" of the park was performed about six years ago. And while the study was not an over-arching master plan, "it got people thinking."
Several years later, as part of the Elm Street Program, there was a study of all the public steps in the Elm Street District. The study resulted in $50,000 worth of infrastructure improvements to the steps.
A third study focused on 18th Street, the major corridor through the South Side Slopes which runs along side of the park and improvements to the corridor, Ms. Dyda said.
In the discussion, she mentioned the gateway garden at Monastery and Brosville with the award winning scrim designed by SSSNA board member Peter Kreuthmeier. A second gateway garden at Josephine and 18th Street is awaiting its own signature artwork made of the same cor-ten steel as the Brosville garden's scrim.
The solar powered back-lighted pylon when completed at 18th Street will feature a cut out of the houses cascading down a hillside.
"It will be a really big wow factor for the neighborhood," Ms. Dyda said.
Getting back to the park, a comprehensive study was undertaken in 2008 and includes a complete analysis of the park and its condition. The study included cost estimates for the suggested improvements. The plan is available on the SSLDC's Website at www.southsidepgh.com.
"This isn't just about ‘we love green space,'" Ms. Dyda continued. "It's about increasing your real estate values."
She explained the property values are increasing at a greater rate than the city's median average, while the property values in the Slopes are increasing at a lower rate than the city's average. One way to increase the property values in the neighborhood is to make improvements to the park.
Ms. Dyda took the opportunity to segue into discussing the past present and possible future of the Neville Ice Area. Closed now for about 10 years, the facility was leased by the city to a private manager.
She said under initially under the lease agreement the ice area was well run, however a change in the management resulted poorer performance. The new management stopped paying the water bills and eventually the city began the eviction process. Eviction took two years and in the meantime the property managers began holding rave parties.
When the city was finally able to regain control of the facility, the former management left a "huge" water bill. A bill the Pittsburgh Water Authority wouldn't forgive and preventing development opportunities.
Ms. Dyda said the building was still in good condition in 2006, but "midnight plumbers" removed much of the plumbing. The clubhouse was still in good condition at that time but not for long. Vandals soon destroyed most of what was left.
She said that in walking through the clubhouse to view the extent of the damage, it seemed odd the vandals had destroyed everything except the ice skates. The skates were left lined up in the same manner they were when the building closed.
More recently, the city issued a Request For Proposals for use or reuse of the building. As city property the ice area could be leased, but not sold.
Ms. Dyda said while there were proposals, the proposals didn't include financing.
In the meantime, the ice area was getting "worse and worse" each year. Last year, the city had to come back and secure the building at least five times from vandals breaking in prior to the G-20 Summit.
"Mother Nature has [now] taken care of the problem for us," Ms. Dyda said of the snow collapsed building. "It's an opportunity to do something. The longer it sits there, the less we have to work with."
Mr. Palmisiano opened the meeting to public comment. Suggestions included, in light of the recent Olympic games, to reopen the ice rink for ice skating, hockey and possibly a curling center.
Another suggestion was to remove the ice rink portion of the building leaving the clubhouse intact and creating a water feature such as a pond that could be filled with the natural streams and brooks coming down off the hillside. The clubhouse or surrounding grounds could be used for concession stands and picnic areas to help finance the upkeep of the area.
A third suggestion recommended more comprehensive signing of the park with maps in key places to direct visitors to the entrances and assets in South Side Park.
Chuck Half, from the Mayor's Office, said there has been a lot of "brainstorming going on" about the extensive parks and recreation facilities in the city. He said city officials are trying to look at the changing demographics of the city to learn if the way parks and recreation facilities are managed to their fullest potential.
"The city is looking at the way things are used and how they should be used," Mr. Half said.
City councilman Bruce Kraus, chair of the city's Public Works Committee, offered to have a definitive answer to when the ice area will be demolished by the next SSSNA meeting on April 13.