South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

Possible options discussed for St. Clair Village site

Incubator farm and agritainment rate high


Participants had the opportunity to review and comment on various uses of the former Saint Clair Village housing site. This meeting discussed what the options would be to use the site in some sort of urban agriculture project and what each would entail.

A Feb. 20 public meeting on the future of the former St. Clair Village site drew about 85 people to the Lighthouse Cathedral to hear about potential urban agriculture projects.

The purpose of the gathering was to share ideas and doubts about Saint Clair Village as a community asset, said Aaron Sukenik, executive director of the Hilltop Alliance.

"This parcel will not be vacant forever," he said.

An agricultural usage on the site is in the idea stage as there is no site agreement with the Pittsburgh Housing Authority or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which owns the property.

Mr. Sukenik said there are three possible scenarios for usage of the land: it could be bought outright for a development or for personal usage; there could be mixed income housing; or there could be a negotiated sale or lease with a non-profit or multiple non-profits.

An urban agriculture project would fall into the last category.

The former 556-unit St. Clair Village housing project was demolished in 2010, and has sat vacant since.

In relaying the history of the project, Mr. Sukenik said it is an outgrowth of the Hilltop Alliance's 2012 Green Toolbox Assessment in which all green space in ten of the Hilltop communities was inventoried.

Those communities are: Allentown, Arlington, Arlington Heights, Beltzhoover, Bon Air, Carrick, Knoxville, Mt. Oliver Borough, Mt. Oliver City, and St. Clair.

The upshot was the identification of three major features of the area: not enough access to fresh fruits; numerous vacant parcels on the Hilltop; and massive green spaces in the former St. Clair Village and part of Arlington Heights.

In response, the Alliance began Fresh Fridays on the Hilltop in which fresh produce is brought into the area and made available to Hilltop residents once a month from April to November.

To reclaim the vacant parcels, 14 "ambassadors" are being trained to plant and maintain community gardens on the sites.

The third major feature involved the vacant land created by the demolition of the buildings on the Arlington and St. Clair properties.

It became viewed as a potential opportunity by the Alliance to activate the green spaces.

To that end, the Alliance applied for funding from the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development and the PNC Bank Foundation to determine what would be feasible on the site.

Grow Pittsburgh was enlisted to aid in conducting an assessment of the area. Its executive director, Julie Pezzino, said Grow Pittsburgh walked the site and found 30 farmable acres.

The other 75 acres is wooded and hillside, for which trails could be added, species cultivated, and more.

Ms. Pezzino said the most important guiding principles in a potential project are: youth involvement; attracting neighborhood investment; easy access to produce; jobs and skills training; and public education, like in gardening and health.

The factors in success are: financial sustainability; management and oversight; security; liability; traffic; and soil quality.

Before discussing ideas for the site, Ms. Pezzino asked for feedback from attendees on distributed note sheets about what they were about to hear, such as what they were most excited about or had concerns about.

One idea is to create community greenspace. It is an urban open space that provides an opportunity for the community to gather while providing productive activities.

Specific community greenspace ideas include: a pollinator garden with plants chosen specifically for their ability to attract beneficial insects and beautify a space.

A community food garden is another option. It is a gardening project in which neighbors work together to grow safe, nutritious food.

Rain gardens and bioswales are options in which gardens are engineered to help control stormwater runoff.

Another idea is a natural playground which provides an opportunity for youngsters to play in a safe environment, and often using natural objects found on the site.

A picnic/shelter/meeting area is an option, as is a bench/park area.

To a question about keeping deer away from plantings, Ms. Pezzino said the site is largely fenced but would need repairs.

Other agricultural uses for the site include a farm incubator in which acreage is parceled out into small chunks for individual use. It is a cooperative farm space in which individuals and groups have an opportunity to test a growing practice or theory.

Farm incubators are often managed by an entity that handles the leasing of the land and offers educational support. Tools, supplies, and processing facilities are shared by lessees.

Farm incubators exist in Cleveland and Chicago, Ms. Pezzino said.

Another agricultural use would be composting as there is enough space on the site for multiple projects to be going on.

A trees and native plants nursery is also an option, as is "agritainment," in which people pay to come and enjoy a farm-like experience.

"I think this is such a great idea," city Councilman Bruce Kraus said of urban agriculture at meeting's end.

When contacted days later, Mr. Sukenik said in reviewing the written comments from attendees, most of the questions concerned logistics, which can be overcome, such as: Who is responsible for maintenance? What about labor? Vandalism?

The incubator farm was the top vote-getter for choice of usage, followed by agritainment and then composting.

Attendees liked the incubator farm for: the innovative public/private partnership; potential for partnerships with local restaurants or fresh food distributors; displaying techniques for urban farming; and involving and educating youth.

There were also concerns, however, about the incubator farm, like: cost to run? cost of training? how to deal with vandalism? traffic? There were also business planning questions.

The next public meeting on the topic will be in May or June at a site to be determined.

Mr. Sukenik said the strategy is to present a draft plan and take feedback for additional ideas and further prioritization before moving forward.


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