July 2, 2013 | Vol. 73 No. 49

Beltzhoover Civic continues work to renovate Venson Park

Calling all Beltzhoover area historians and enthusiasts—your neighborhood needs your help!

The Beltzhoover Civic Association (BCA) recently received $16,000 in competitive, reinvestment grants for the professional redesign of Louis A. Venson Community Park. But, before they can break ground, the design team needs help, and that help can come from only one source—members of the Beltzhoover community

“This is your neighborhood… What would you like to take shape here? When you look out your window, what would you like to see?”

These were some of the questions posed by Sara Thompson of Pashek Associates, the design firm assigned to revitalize the parklet with monies from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s Pittsburgh Neighborhood Renaissance and Love Your Block programs.

Joined by experts from Design Center, Ms. Thompson visited Beulah Baptist Church Monday, June 17 for a special meeting of the BCA, where she presented a comprehensive overview of forthcoming project plans and solicited community feedback and involvement.

The meeting was the first of a few that will take place over the next two months, each aimed at garnering public comment as per how the bulk of the public monies should be spent.

According to Ms. Thompson, the research, field work and drafting of the redesign will absorb $6,800 of the $15,000 awarded through the Renaissance fund. The remaining $7,700 from that fund is reserved for the brick and mortar of the project, which will be bolstered by a $1,000 Love Your Block grant (in the form of a Home Depot gift card to be spent on building/landscaping supplies and materials).

Ms. Thompson said she is confident these grants will allow the team to meet its broad goals for the parklet, which are to incorporate neighborhood history; integrate sustainable practices; accommodate multiple purposes and programs; increase safety; offer educational opportunities; and, catalyze community reinvestment elsewhere in Beltzhoover.

Located at the corner of Chalfont and Gearing streets, the parklet sits on a celebrated site and is named after a local legend; yet neither of these facts is honored by the park’s current state. All that’s there now is a lone tree, with more than a century’s worth of local history buried beneath grass, greenery and debris.

Come fall 2013, residents can expect to see significant change. The redesign is scheduled to take root in September, bringing beauty and function to an area in need of both. Ms. Thompson said she hopes to unearth some of the local history, and use it to paint a picture of the neighborhood’s past and pave the way for its future.

The parklet itself was named in honor of Dr. Louis A. Venson, beloved former principal at Beltzhoover Elementary School. Considered a visionary by his peers, Dr. Venson encouraged students to take pride in themselves and their work, and helped steer hundreds of families through the hardships of integration and economic decline in the area.

Under his tenure, students’ reading and math scores were raised above national averages, reaching levels of achievement still among the highest in the history of the Pittsburgh Public School system. He promoted art and music in the school, and was known for carrying with him a musical triangle, which he’d sound to alert students when he was walking the halls.

To acknowledge Dr. Venson’s vision and accomplishments, Ms. Thompson suggested putting up a statue, plaque or other artistic tribute. She showed images of children’s outdoor play/learning centers, including one centered around a large triangle.

“I never had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Venson,” Ms. Thompson stated, “but many of you did… And, I need you to tell me how you’d like him to be honored.”

Ms. Thompson also asked residents how they’d like to honor the history of the mini-park’s location.

Commonly referred to as “the old 49 turnaround,” because it’s where the number 49 streetcar used to turn around, the lot is known for its transit history. The city’s archives are full of photos of the area in its former glory, from pictures of horses and buggies snapped in the late-1800s to photos of young professionals in more contemporary times.

The trolley rails and cobblestone road are still visible beneath the grass. With pruning, they could be showcased, Ms. Thompson noted.

Shifting from the past to the present, and looking to function rather than form, Ms. Thompson next discussed potential uses for the park, and amenities that could be incorporated to those ends.

For instance, she said a gazebo or pergola could serve as a meeting/event venue, and would be a nice backdrop to prom and wedding party photos. A fountain or walk-through labyrinth could create a sense of tranquility, giving visitors a meditation spot.

Lighting could be used both to emphasize the park’s features and to increase safety, she said.

“What would work well in this park?” Ms. Thompson inquired before asking those in attendance to break up into small workshop groups.

Each workshop group was given a schematic of the park, cut-outs of amenities and a rainbow of markers, and was tasked to cut and paste their visions for the park. Ms. Thompson went around from table to table to discuss ideas, as did LaVerne Peakes of Design Center and Ashley Holloway from the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning.

In addition to basic ground repair and landscaping recommendations, the residents’ workshop suggestions included signage in homage to Dr. Venson; refurbishing the cobblestone loop and illuminating it with solar-powered lamp posts; and, benches encircling a serenity fountain.

One resident suggested refurbishing the loop and erecting replica bus signs along the path, each displaying hallmarks of transit history and/or tributes to Dr. Venson.

Following the workshop session, the groups openly discussed their visions, which Ms. Thompson said she will take under consideration and further develop before the next public meeting on this matter.

Though the date of that meeting is yet to be determined, Ms. Thompson asked residents to spread the word about another important date—June 29.

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