Hilltop Farm is largest urban farm in the country
Former St. Clair Village site is being repurposed to support urban agriculture
September 5, 2017
Walking down Cresswell Street in the former St. Clair Village for the ribbon cutting ceremony commemorating the Hilltop Urban Farm brought back memories from the early 1960s.
Then, there were more than 600 apartments and row houses. We lived in a corner unit in one of the row houses on Cresswell Street for a few years, moving out in the fall of 1964.
The site is now vacant land, all the apartment buildings and row houses having been demolished between 2006-2010.
Touring the beginnings of the urban agriculture project brought back those memories from decades ago. The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place at the intersection of Cresswell and Bonifay streets, just inside the main gates to the property.
My sister and I would walk past there on our way to Phillip Murray School. Soon, students from the now Pittsburgh Arlington PreK-8 School, will walk past an orchard of fruit trees to the youth farm where they can learn to grow their own vegetables.
St. Clair Village opened in the fall of 1953 after two years of construction and was built at a cost of $13 million by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. It was named for Arthur St. Clair, who had fought in both the French and Indian War and the Revolution.
He also presided over the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation and was appointed governor of the Northwest Territory, according to the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Atlas published by the University Center for Urban Research, University of Pittsburgh.
Historicpittsburgh.org notes the property originally consisted of two hills, separated by a ravine and surrounded by steep slopes. The Housing Authority needed to move 530,000 cubic yards of dirt to prepare for construction.
Now, the Hilltop Alliance is moving earth, adding top soil and planting cover crops in preparation for what will be the largest urban farm in the country at 23 acres.
As a child, I remember seeing the huckster bring his truck into the neighborhood, selling fruits and vegetables out of the back. The store bus, a converted school bus full of groceries, would also make the rounds.
Soon, where the huckster and school bus pulled over to sell their produce, there will be a processing facility, education center and farmers' market where the urban farmers may sell the fruits of their labors.
The farm is really a group of smaller farms starting with a larger CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, smaller quarter-acre incubator farms, the youth farm, an orchard, and a community garden section.
The CSA farm will provide consistent revenue for a farmer by selling subscriptions to a weekly box of produce. While the CAS farm is a professional farmer, the incubator plots will allow those interested in farming for a living to get their hands dirty on a slightly larger scale.
The community garden will feature residential plots along with a section dedicated to the Bhutanese community. Hilltop residents will have first opportunity to reserve a plot when the time comes.
The Allegheny Land Trust (ALT) is negotiating with the Housing Authority to purchase the 107-acre site. The 23 acres needed for the farm will be leased to the operator for a nominal fee. The site also includes other land set aside for housing and green space.
Chris Beichner, president and CEO of ALT, said about 70 acres of the site is wooded hillside and will remain undeveloped.
In addition, there will be about 10 acres the Housing Authority will be using to build new homes.
Sarah Baxendell, project manager for the Hilltop Alliance, said the site will do its own composting and plans to keep bees to help in pollination. Trees that had to be removed from the site will also be used for mulch and have retention ponds to capture rain water.
She said although they had to remove some trees, others will be planted in addition to the orchard resulting in a net gain.
Soil rebuilding efforts have begun already and will continue. Cover crops have been planted to help in the soil rebuilding effort and to prepare the soil for planting crops. It's anticipated the incubator and youth farm components may be ready as soon as next year.
As part of the extended project, an events barn is planned for the site. The barn could be used as a gathering space for weddings or other large events.
Total cost for the farm project is expected to come in at around $10 million and will be phased in over several years.
The Hillman Foundation, PNC Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, Birmingham Foundation and Neighborhood Allies have provided funding for the project.