South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

S.S. Forum discusses fire, Zone commander and Esser plaza lights


Last updated 2/17/2021 at 8:13pm

Candice Gonzalez

Reflections on the fiery demise of a historic South Side building the prior day headlined the Feb. 9 Zoom meeting of the South Side Planning Forum.

Other highlights included introduction of the new Zone 3 commander, and a lighting proposal for Esser's Plaza involving PED funds.

The four-story building in the 1100 block of East Carson St. destroyed by a massive fire housed the South Side Chamber of Commerce offices (including Welcome Center), barber shop, and six apartments. Everyone escaped safely.

The 150-year-old structure is being demolished.

"It's been a long day, and a lot of people are stepping up," an emotional Mark Bucklaw, president of the Chamber, said.

"We're a family down here, and we handle our problems internally," South Side Community Council (SSCC) President Barbara Rudiak said.

"We lost a beautiful building, and a beautiful visitors center.

"We're all here for you," she said.

"We're rooting for you and Candice [Gonzalez, executive director]," Blake McLaren, of the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association (SSSNA), told Mr. Bucklaw.

New state Rep. Jessica Benham said her office would help with fundraising or whatever else was needed.

City Councilman Bruce Kraus said he spent much of this day with a couple who lived on the third floor, and who lost everything, including family mementos.

"It was heart-wrenching," he said.

The couple's cat also died in the fire.

A brief history provided by James Hill of the mayor's office stated the structure was built in 1870 when South Side was known as Birmingham before it was annexed to Pittsburgh.

In the early years the building housed a grocery store, bar/restaurant, and an illegal speakeasy during Prohibition in the 1920s.

In 1930 there was Wade's Tire Store, followed by a bar/restaurant again.

In 1974 it was restored as it was prior to the fire.

The meeting began with the introduction of Commander John Fisher, who replaces the newly-retired Commander Karen Dixon.

This was his first day in his new role.

Commander Fisher has been a Pittsburgh police officer for 34 years. Prior to that, he spent one year on the Mt. Oliver police force.

He has worked in all three city police branches: operations, investigations, and administration.

His Zone 3 focus will include: public safety issues, quality-of-life matters; mentoring of the young Zone 3 officers by himself and other police veterans; addressing the speakeasy problem; and more.

In questions-and-answers, Mr. Bucklaw said bike officers are a good evening resource, especially for the 1-3 blocks off Carson St. 

He also said "lesser" crimes, like noise issues, should not be ignored.

The commander said unacceptable behavior, like vomiting on sidewalks and noise at night, should not be tolerated.

"The South Side is a neighborhood," he said.

Mike Clark, of the SSCC, cited the problem of ATVs on Carson St. and the back streets. He also wants visitors to the trail and South Side Park "to feel safe."

House parties with college students can also be disruptive, he said, and hopes there will be written reports by police with the names of the offenders so their universities can get involved.

Ms. Rudiak said the SSCC's South Watch has worked very well the past three years with police and Duquesne University. The written reports of disturbances have been very effective, she said, especially when Commander Dixon contacted Duquesne and the Pitt police.

"It is a quality-of-life issue," she said.

Commander Fisher said another effective tool regarding disruptive properties is the Disruptive Properties list in which legal action is taken once a property receives numerous complaints.

He said if you call 911 for a problem and are not happy with the response, you should call back to talk with a supervisor.

He concluded by stating if he cannot attend every community meeting, he will send someone in his place.

Next, Kitty Vagley spoke about the Esser's Plaza renovation project. It began almost 10 years ago with $50,000 handed over to the SSCC from the defunct South Side Local Development Company for the project.

Fundraising and grants followed until, today, the project has $175,000. The estimated cost is $330,000.

A $115,000 request to the state Dept. of Community and Economic Development's greenways funding is under review.

Ms. Vagley asked if the Planning Forum would donate $20,000 for lighting. After interim chair Tom Smith told her the Planning Forum does not have money to donate, city Councilman Bruce Kraus said he told her to make the request as there are strict guidelines on how to use PED funds.

The PED is the enforcement of South Side Flats parking meters from 6 p.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. The funds must be invested back in the neighborhood for public safety, cleanliness, and infrastructure improvements. 

He said he would like to use $15,000 from PED funds, and have discussion on the matter at the Planning Forum to foster an open PED process.

He said he was only there to be transparent and not for Planning Forum support.

He and city nighttime economy coordinator Allison Harnden said lighting for Esser's Plaza would constitute a safety issue.

Mr. Kraus said Block by Block, the two-person Clean Team which maintains the E. Carson St. corridor and is paid through PED funds, has one less worker from Jan. 13 through March 31, resulting in a savings of about $13,500.

The savings can be used for the lighting, he said.

Ms. Harnden also reported the PED fund balance will rise to about $300,000 this month, so funding is available.

"I think the lighting is more than an aesthetic thing – it is for safety. 

"I think it's a good idea," she said.

Mr. Kraus said his plan is to start at $15,000 and try to get the other $5,000 from someone or a group.

Next, in the PED update, Ms. Harnden reported revenue for January, 2021, totaled $6,599.30. The total revenue since the PED began in 2017 is $685,398.

The two alcohol license changes are: a new brewery license application for Smiling Moose, 1306 East Carson St., which currently is an "R" licensed business; and a "return from safekeeping" for the Polish Falcons Gymnastics & Literary Association, 60 S. 18th St.

The Polish Falcons had been totally shut down due to COVID.

Ms. Harnden said while the Clean Team operated with its two employees for only half of January, it was a busy month.

During January, the team removed 5,800 pounds of trash. They also removed 35 graffiti/stickers, and lent hospitality assistance eight times.

There was a 14 percent increase in trash collected from December to January. There was also a 25 percent increase in graffiti tags.

Next, on the East Carson St. construction project update, Mr. Kraus reported the overall completion date for the project is spring, 2022.

The $16.31 million project includes milling and resurfacing, signage and signal upgrades, concrete pavement patching, drainage, guide rail, ADA ramps, curb and sidewalk, pavement markings and other construction along the 2.5 mile stretch of East Carson St. between the Smithfield Street Bridge and 33rd Street.

Pedestrian enhancement accommodations, including bump-outs, high visibility crosswalks, and pedestrian countdown signals, will also occur.

According to the latest Penn DOT update, single-lane restrictions will continue on East Carson St. between Arlington Ave. and 22nd St. weekdays from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through late August.

Traffic will be maintained in each direction throughout the work zone, and parking spaces may temporarily be blocked in various locations, as needed, while work occurs.

Also, through late August, parking and sidewalk restrictions will remain on East Carson St. between Fifth and 22nd streets, and will continue around-the-clock while crews install ADA ramps, curbs, sidewalks, drainage structures and pedestrian crosswalk pole foundations, along with associated electrical work.

In mid-spring, crews will begin work to install median areas and curbs, replace sidewalks and curbs along with associated drainage work, installing new signal heads and rewire at various intersections.

Next, in the update of DAMs, Ms. Rudiak said the SSCC recently reviewed two proposals that are headed to the Historic Review Commission.

A DAM, or Development Activities Meeting, provides an opportunity for citizens, property owners, business owners, and stakeholders to learn about the proposals that affect them and to resolve concerns at an early stage of the application process.

The two presentations at the Jan. 21 DAM were: to move the ATM closer to the Dollar Bank entrance; and for signage at the former Coen Market in the 2400 block of East Carson St.

The latter project may also need to appear before the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA).

The next DAM will be at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25, during which three projects will be presented: Phase 3 of the Riverside Mews; the installation of a garage and door to the rear of 2009 East Carson St .; and the interior renovation of the first floor of 1321 East Carson St. to create a residential entry to the second and third floors.

In the South Side Neighborhood Plan update, Mr. Smith reported the committee met with City Planning on the procedure for a new neighborhood plan.

The consensus was it should be a plan for all of the South Side, meaning, the Flats and Slopes.

City Planning crafted a standardized process that takes 18 to 24 months, and includes an involved public process.

Mr. Smith said City Planning recommends in addition to a volunteer committee, that some professionals be hired for all of the data gathering and analysis.

Ms. Rudiak said city planner Anthony Kobak suggested committee members start thinking about "What are the neighborhood needs?"

"It can sound daunting, but it is teamwork," Mr. Kobak said.

In reports, Ms. Rudiak said the SSCC developed a survey on the organization's last five years that asks questions like: Should we continue with what we have done? Other ideas to move forward?

Ms. Rudiak said the responses will also help in thinking about the neighborhood plan.

In Chamber updates, Mr. Bucklaw said with COVID closures, and now the fire, "our membership has been suffering over the last year."

The annual summer golf classic, and Mittens & Mingles, were cancelled. The annual South Side Soup Contest has been postponed.

The latter especially hurt The Brashear Association, he said, as it is a fundraiser for their food pantry. The new campaign is entitled, "It's not just about the soup."

In the UPMC report, Lynn Kurhan reported UPMC continues to administer COVID-19 Phase 1A vaccines at the UPMC South Side ambulatory center at 2000 Mary St. 

When Governor Wolf authorizes it, and UPMC has access to the vaccine, UPMC will administer the vaccines for Group 1B, which includes people in congregate settings not otherwise specified as long-term care facilities, persons receiving home and community-based services, and others as specified in the group. 

COVID-19 testing drive-up service continues at the old UPMC urgent care center and in the UPMC employees' parking lot at S. 21st and Josephine streets.

The next Planning Forum meeting will be on March 9.


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