Grassroots effort begins to revitalize East Carson Street
South Side stakeholders, residents and business owners, have been meeting with city and state officials for the past five months to explore revitalization strategies for East Carson Street.
The group was encouraged by PennDOT’s plan to repave East Carson Street and improve pedestrian safety with bump-outs and better signaling. East Carson has been identified as one of the most dangerous streets in the state for pedestrians.
“The mayor loves the idea of South Side getting the respect that it deserves,” said Grant Gittlen, from the Mayor’s Office. He said one of the “pinch points” on a revitalization project for new sidewalks in the business district to occur at the same time as the PennDOT project was PennDOT’s timeline and it “was not going to happen” that quickly.
Guy Costa, chief operations officer for the City of Pittsburgh, said the PennDOT project will not only pave East Carson and improve the signaling, but also redesign some intersections, specifically in the area of 22nd Street and the Birmingham Bridge. He said PennDOT is currently in the design phase and expects to do the work in 2018-19.
Mr. Gittlen said they don’t want to hold up the PennDOT project while other possible projects are just in the discussion stage.
As a comparison, he said the reconstruction of Brookline Blvd. where the street was milled and paved, sidewalks replaced, light poles, trash cans and street furniture were added at a cost of about $5.5 million and took years to become a reality.
The city wouldn’t be looking at the same scope of work for East Carson because of the state is doing the work from “curb to curb.” Instead, they would be exploring new sidewalks, light poles and street furniture, anything where people may be walking.
Mr. Gittlen said to get grant money for the project could take years and that wasn’t abnormal and shouldn’t stop them from talking about a project.
Two things the city officials said was needed to proceed were: buy in from the property owners along East Carson Street and a larger community conversation on what they would like to see.
“I don’t think either of those things are prohibitive,” Mr. Gittlen said.
“We need that process before we go to our legislators and ask for that kind of money to happen.”
He added once it happens, the mayor will sign letters of support for getting the funding.
“The mayor wants to see this happen. We want to be realistic about what we see is the timeline. We want it to be something that not only results in a better walkway for the public and new lights, but also brings everyone together,” Mr. Gittlen said.
As a first step, he suggested surveying the business property owners to “see where they are at,” if they are interested in a sidewalk project and if so, what are they interested in contributing to making the project a reality. After the survey is completed, the community conversation should take place.
Concerns from the group included how the survey could be conducted since the South Side Local Development Company is no longer in business, the Chamber of Commerce has limited staffing and the Community Council is an all-volunteer organization.
Mr. Gittlen said there is funding through the city and URA, each paying half, to pay a business district manager in South Side for two years. However, he was unsure when the position was going to be filled.
He added he didn’t think it had to be a “40 question” survey, but one that asked general interest about the project and what the property owner would be willing to contribute toward their own sidewalk. The survey could be done by volunteers using data on a cost per square foot for new sidewalks provided from the city.
In similar projects throughout the city, the ones where a survey of the property owners was completed were the ones that went more smoothly, Mr. Gittlen said.
Mr. Costa explained the cost will depend on what the businesses owners and community want to see and what they are willing to contribute. There could be a project where the owners pay for their own sidewalks and the city looks for funding to put in decorative street lights and street furniture.
He cautioned if they decided they would like explore underground electric lines, it could get very expensive. He noted many of the buildings on East Carson, particularly from 17th Street up, currently have electric coming in from poles in front of the buildings.
Depending on the final plan and what is included, such as upgraded sidewalks, light poles and underground wiring, the cost could be up to $5 million, Mr. Costa said.
He told the group there’s uncertainty about state and federal money for projects and suggested the group work on creating a “wish list” of what they would like to see for East Carson in the future.
“We’d like to see it happen,” Mr. Gittlen said. “But we don’t want to make any decisions, frankly, for the community on how big it should be, what the standards should be.”
Mr. Costa noted if they are considering new sidewalks, it will be necessary to follow ADA guidelines and be handicapped accessible. Each individual owner will have to take look on what will be needed to make their property compliant.
Next steps for the group include determining what the target area is and surveying property owners in that area what they want and what they are willing to contribute toward that goal. The city will provide a baseline cost per square foot estimate for new sidewalks to be used in helping determine what each individual property owner is willing to contribute.
A greater community meeting of property owners, business owners and residents will be held to present scenarios from basic to extensive for the streetscape. All the community stakeholders will then have the opportunity to express an opinion on what they would like to see.
After compiling the input from all the stakeholders, a unified vision for Carson Street will be used to pursue funding to assist in making the project a reality.