Last week, nearly 60 people gathered in the Ormsby Avenue Cafe in Pittsburgh’s St. Clair neighborhood to hear from the Hilltop Alliance about how their neighborhood could be transformed.
The Hilltop Alliance is a nonprofit that serves St. Clair, as well Allentown, Beltzhoover, Knoxville, Bon Air, Carrick, Arlington, Arlington Heights, Mount Washington, the South Side Slopes and the independent borough of Mount Oliver.
It presented its latest version of the Hilltop Farm Master Plan, which would add a number of amenities to a broad section of Pittsburgh, some areas of which are far from grocery stores.
Among the assets planned for the site of the former St. Clair Village housing project are several community garden plots; an indoor farmer’s market with a café; an orchard; indoor/outdoor education spaces; and the plan’s most recent addition: an events barn and an adjacent housing development.
“Anybody from the community could join the community garden from anywhere in the hilltop,” Sarah Baxendell of the Hilltop Alliance told the crowd. “The houses themselves will have spaces where they can do their own gardening. This is really going to be a public garden for the broader community.”
At its peak, St. Clair Village housed thousands, but the Pittsburgh Housing Authority, which managed the housing project, gradually closed the development and finally dissolved it in 2010. (The Housing Authority did not return media inquiries from City Paper, but according to a 2009 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report, the housing project was to be completely razed due to budgetary concerns.)
Pending approval — the Housing Authority will need to transition ownership of the land to the Urban Redevelopment Authority — the Hilltop Alliance (with local contractors) will begin converting the 40-acre site into 17 acres for farming and 23 for housing. An additional 60 acres of wooded hillside will be owned and maintained by the conservation nonprofit Allegheny Land Trust.
The URA did not respond to a City Paper inquiry on the status of the transition.
The farming portion will include 16 quarter-acre plots for farmer incubation.
“It’s a big issue that people who want to start farming, the cost of doing so is so high and very prohibitive,” said Baxendell.
There will be 60 community gardening plots, as well as bigger lots for larger crops, such as corn. All spaces will require applications from community members. An orchard of 176 fruit trees is planned for the site. Gardeners can sell their produce at a year-round farmer’s market; an on-site community-supported-agriculture (CSA) farm would also sell goods.
The education areas will include a 76-tree youth orchard and an edible forest full of paw-paws, persimmons and quinces. (Pittsburgh Public Schools has decided to re-open the Philip Murray School adjacent to the site.)
“I know some of you in the room talked about how there used to be apple orchards on this site, and elderberry trees, and grapevines, and I heard you, and we have fruit trees,” Baxendell said, recounting the several community meetings that led up to the master plan.
Community members at the recent meeting still expressed concerns, including those about parking, deer, construction hours and mosquitoes (in the rain-water collection and ponds that will manage stormwater runoff). However, most of the concern was focused on one thing: the housing.
In order to subsidize the initial nearly $400,000 price tag of the nonprofit farm operations, the projected 120 single-family homes and 200-person events barn (think weddings) will provide the revenue, says Aaron Sukenik of the Hilltop Alliance.
Half of the two- and three-bedroom homes would rent for about $1,100 per month — Sukenik says that’s 80 percent of the area median income. The other half would be available for purchase with prices ranging from $235,000 to $285,000.
But residents expressed concerns about the rental units — citing violence and drug activity in the former St. Clair Village.
“When you say it’s open to whoever can afford it, that concerns me,” Beatrice Bush, of South Side, said during the meeting to some applause from the crowd. “The housing project that was there, we as residents do not want a duplicate of that in our neighborhood.”
Sukenik says the plan right now is not to accept housing vouchers from low-income residents.
(The city is currently being sued by the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh for a recently passed law that would require landlords to accept vouchers.)
When asked if the selling price for the new houses would be unaffordable for area residents, Sukenik said that considering the cost of building new housing, the price is fair. Tax abatements will most likely apply for residents for the first 10 years, he said during the meeting.
Other residents are excited about the entrepreneurial opportunities.
Elisa Beck, owner of Schwartz Living Market in South Side, said she’s looking forward to a farm and enterprise opportunities so close to her business. “I would love to cross-pollinate the Hilltop with the South Side through what we’re doing. It’s like a dream come true,” she said.
At the meeting, Sukenik said if all goes well with the Housing Authority, soil rebuilding and re-seeding could begin as soon as this spring, with any building construction waiting until next spring. However, he made it clear that a solid timeline is not in place yet.