Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh Dreams Of A Solar Farm Built On A Slag Heap

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
One of the many informal trails that run through “the slags.” Part of a former industrial dump at the edge of Swisshelm Park once slated for homes, the slags may become a solar farm.

Pittsburgh officials hope to build a solar farm on part of a slag heap on the city’s eastern edge. However, that means moving past a longstanding agreement to use the land to build a final phase of housing for the Summerset at Frick Park development.

City Councilor Corey O’Connor, whose district includes the area, said he and his neighbors are excited to pursue green energy creation on the site instead, adding that he and Mayor Bill Peduto have long discussed the idea. Land not required for the solar farm could be dedicated to an extension of Frick Park.

“When you’re talking about a progressive city and looking at different types of resources, this is one that gives us a great opportunity,” said O’Connor.

In a Tuesday press release from the city, Peduto said he looked forward to working with the community on “an innovative project that will help create sustainable energy options.”

The solar farm would most likely be built on flat and cleared areas that already exist, a space of roughly 13 acres that could produce between three and five megawatts of power to be fed back into the local grid, said Lilly Freedman, a project manager with the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which owns the land.

The URA’s redevelopment toolkit isn’t generally designed to address the city’s environmental challenges, but “when thinking about how access to land could be part of the solution, clean energy generation came to mind,” Freedman said. “Remediating a slag dump ... which we hope will be a symbol of a clean energy future in Pittsburgh, seemed like the right direction,” Freedman said.

The project represents a new approach for the land, which sits west of the city’s Swisshelm Park neighborhood, above Nine Mile Run and across a ravine from the Summerset housing development begun more than two decades ago under then-Mayor Tom Murphy.

The first and second phases of Summerset were a success, O’Connor said: “It’s a very unique project that made a huge change to our tax base.” But plans to extend the community have been constrained by the area’s topography; crossing the ravine would have required an access road and elevated bridge that O’Connor said would cost something like $20 million.

“It’s a difficult project to do,” he said.

There were other costs to consider as well, said Brenda Smith, the executive director of Upstream Pittsburgh, formerly known as the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association.

While her organization had supported the Summerset at Frick project at one time, she said enthusiasm dimmed “in part because we didn’t realize at first how much tree canopy loss would be involved in building the access road.”

Smith said she would need more details about the city’s solar plans, but hopes any such project would be done in a way that minimizes the effect on mature trees. “There’s lots of space on the slag pile where there are not trees,” she said. “But it’s a question of how you get in there.”

Freedman said the maturity of the trees would be “a priority factor” in determining the best location for an access road to construct the solar farm.

Finding daylight

The city took a key step toward the site’s new future earlier this month, when the URA sent a letter notifying Summerset Land Development Associates -- composed of The Rubinoff Company and Montgomery & Rust, Inc. -- that its development rights were being terminated.

The URA’s chief legal officer, Nathan Clark, said the agreements that governed the first two phases of the development required the parties to negotiate an agreement for the third and final phase.

In an email, Clark said that the agency’s Sept. 8 letter to the developer “indicated that the URA and the developer were not able to come to terms and, as such, any existing development rights had expired.”

Caryn Rubinoff, the president of The Rubinoff Company, declined to comment.

The change in direction comes more than 20 years after the city entrusted SLDA with an ambitious brief: to build a new community on the remnants of heavy industry, an endeavor many consider a turning point for Pittsburgh. For years, area steel mills dumped molten slag on the land between Squirrel Hill South and Swisshelm Park, eventually creating a 238-acre mountain that the city’s newspapers frequently described as “a moonscape.” The URA bought the land for $3.8 million in 1995 and eventually proposed construction of more than 700 single-family houses and apartments over several phases. Public and private money supported the venture.

These days, though much of the land, affectionately referred to as “the slags,” is technically off-limits to the public, it can seem like an extension of Frick Park. Wildflowers and hedges bloom all over the slag heap, as do trail systems that many people use for walking and mountain biking.

O’Connor said those trails could be formalized, though they may need to be overhauled in order to meet accessibility requirements.

However, Freedman said one of the key questions they’ll ask residents is what, “if any,” trailhead access points they would like to see from the existing street grid. At least two well-used trailheads begin where Swisshelm Park’s streets leave off. Community members will also be asked what other recreational uses they would like to see on the land.

If the neighborhood opposes the solar farm, Freedman said URA officials are confident they’ll be able to address any possible concerns and move forward with the concept.

“However, there is nothing binding,” she said. “We are just starting the conversation.”

O’Connor also urged patience: “It’s not like tomorrow we’re going to wake up and it’s Frick Park.”

Any plan for the area will require permits from the city, as well as signoff from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Freedman said the URA has begun conversations with the DEP about the change of use. So far, she said it seems that repurposing the land for solar and recreation instead of housing “would actually be less complicated.”

O’Connor and the URA will hold a community meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 28 to discuss the solar farm proposal. Community members will then have until Oct. 15 to submit feedback. The URA hopes to launch its search for contractors in December.