South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

HA one step closer to farming St. Clair Village


The former St. Clair Village could become an urban farm with components including an incubator farm, community garden, youth farm and a CSA.

When St. Clair Village public housing community was demolished in September 2010, few people thought it would be repurposed for anything meaningful in their lifetimes.

That could all change with a Hilltop Alliance proposal to use much of the land for an urban farm. The project is still in the discussion phase.

Named for Arthur St. Clair, the housing project was completed in 1953 after two years of construction. St. Clair fought in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution and presided over the Continental Congress for a one year term beginning in 1787 and was appointed governor of the Northwest Territory.

At its peak, St. Clair Village was occupied by almost 1,100 families.

Utilizing a committee of local stakeholders, government representatives and urban gardening experts, the Alliance worked to gain a consensus on what was wanted for the site. Funding for the planning process was provided through Neighborhood Allies and the PNC Foundation.

Aaron Sukenik, executive director of the Hilltop Alliance, explained the process that brought more than 60 people to the second community meeting at the Lighthouse Cathedral in St. Clair neighborhood.

In 2012, the Hilltop Alliance released the Green Tool Box Assessment, a report outlining problems in the Hilltop neighborhoods with vacant land and offering solutions. The assessment recommended activating the green spaces in a more "piecemeal" manner, mainly through volunteer efforts with community gardens, pocket parks and similar projects.

Mr. Sukenik noted GTech Strategies ReClaim South program, currently underway, trained 11 neighborhood ambassadors to address smaller vacant parcels in their neighborhoods. The ambassadors are presently each working on a project in their neighborhood.

However, he noted there were two large pieces of vacant land on the Hilltop that had yet to be repurposed: St. Clair Village and the portion of Arlington Heights which was also demolished. Which, when coupled with the lack of first line access to grocery stores for people in many of the neighborhoods, provided an opportunity to do something innovative.

The idea to create something that would not only increase Hilltop residents' access to fresh produce, but also act as an attraction to draw neighbors into the space in addition to people from all over the city.

The process so far has included a neighborhood assessment, site assessment, community feedback in the form of two open meetings and seven months of work by a steering committee.

Julie Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh, took over the presentation to explain the work that has been taking place over the last several months.

Grow Pittsburgh, along with the Penn State Extension, were engaged to look at options for the St. Clair site.

"We thought about what this means for the entire Hilltop neighborhood, not just St. Clair Village," she said.

The demographics of the current St. Clair neighborhood includes 209 people, racially mixed at 50 percent white and 50 percent African American. Percentagewise it has the third highest concentration of elderly people in the city, but is also made up of 50.3 percent age 19 and under.

Of those living in the neighborhood, 76.5 percent are living below the poverty line and have children under the age of five.

There's currently about a 65 percent vacancy rate in the neighborhood.

They mapped the demographics to look at the best opportunities for the site going forward. Also taking a look at how it related to access to fresh and healthy foods.

According to data provided by Just Harvest, St. Clair residents are "fairly removed" with little access to fresh foods.

The needs and opportunities for an urban farm on the site are varied. There would be employment and job training opportunities; it would provide community building activities; and, provide better access to nutritious food.

During the site assessment, it was noted the land has good access to major traffic arteries and is in close proximity to the now closed Phillip Murray School and the Lighthouse Cathedral. The terrain and set-up of the site includes steep hillsides around the perimeter that wouldn't be good for farming. The portions of the site more suited for farming are those which formerly had buildings on them.

Ms. Pezzino also noted the swimming pool was still there and could be viewed as opportunity to possibly capture rain water.

There is quite a bit of fencing currently on the site with an eight-foot perimeter fence and a six-foot fence around Cresswell and Kohne streets. She said the existing fencing could be used to section off the site and create a more functional farming enterprise.

Ms. Pezzino pointed out there is still quite a bit of buried rubble on the site, but there are also some areas with decent top soil. Although there will still need to be soil building in many areas.

The good news was preliminary soil testing showed there isn't a significant amount of lead in the soil.

It was a positive the site still has paved roads and utilities although she couldn't be sure how much of the utilities are still functional or what it would take to make them functional again.

As part of the community process, the steering committee held a brainstorming session to come up with ideas for a vision and goals for the site. Some of the things they came up with included an environmentally restorative approach using rain water capture, wind/solar power and non-chemical agriculture.

She said it was a community driven process with a focus on education and transparency.

The guiding principles behind the process included: youth involvement; an attractive neighborhood investment; easy access to produce with retail distribution; job and skills training and public education with gardening, health and wellness.

Factors that will go into the potential success of the urban farm are varied. Ms. Pezzino said the first thing was financial sustainability. The farm will have to be able to pay its bills for it to be a success.

They will have to consider what the management and oversight of the farm will be, along with other factors including security, liability, what kind of traffic will be generated and the soil quality of the site.

The community meeting in February gave the steering committee a diagram of what area residents wanted for the site. The things that rose to the top included a youth farm, community green space, farm incubator, something with agritainment, an orchard or nursery and composting.

The Hilltop farm proposal includes a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) component, incubator plots, a youth farm and community garden/green space along with an orchard.

"This is kind of the large-scale vision for the farm," Ms. Pezzino said.

The farm development program or incubator farm will be made up of 19 individual one-quarter acre plots which would be offered to individuals interested in exploring some kind of farming enterprise. It would offer farmers the opportunity to test out their ideas in a financially non-straining way.

The youth farm will be on one-half to a full acre of ground.

"You don't need a significant amount of land to run an effective youth farm, but you do need an individual or individuals who have an affinity or a desire to work with young people," she continued. They found a partner in the Lighthouse Cathedral with their close proximity and existing youth programs.

"It could bring life skills, food production education, business management education, and teamwork to the youth of the Hilltop, St. Clair specifically, through a hands-on experience at the farm," Ms. Pezzino added.

The CSA Farm would encompass five acres and five "high tunnels" (unheated greenhouse like made of plastic sheeting). A CSA farm would be a revenue generator for the overall farm project. It makes money by selling boxes of fresh produce which families agree to purchase in advance on a subscription basis.

The revenue would pay for a farm manager who would also be responsible for growing the subscription base to approximately 200 families over four years.

"An average CSA box can feed up to four individuals for up to a week," she said.

The community greenspace could include trails through the wooded hillsides of the site. It could also include a small park along with children's play space and a community garden.

"It's a passive area to enjoy nature, which could also be a great gathering space for community residents as well," Ms. Pezzino said.

"Just because we have this big farm incubator idea and a CSA farm doesn't mean a lot of residents are going to be interested in renting a quarter acre and jumping in feet first to farming. But a lot of folks are interested in growing just a little bit of their own food and might not have the space to do it," she continued.

A large portion of the site will be held back for future plans the community may want to see in the future.

According to Mr. Sukenik, next steps in the project will be to engage the City of Pittsburgh Housing Authority in a more serious way with concept meetings. The discussions will include lease or sale options and will require an environmental review, zoning changes, traffic studies and more outreach to the community.

"In an ideal world we can present this to the Housing Authority board this fall," he said.

From there a HUD review will be required for the project to continue.


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