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A planned Pittsburgh solar farm generates continued interest with neighbors

Land with a small creek in the middle on an overcast fall day.
Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority plans a 15-acre solar farm on a former industrial dumping ground between Squirrel Hill South and Swisshelm Park.

Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority will hold a meeting Wednesday night to update community members on plans for a 15-acre solar farm between Squirrel Hill South and Swisshelm Park, as well as a possible extension of Frick Park.

This summer, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection finally approved the URA’s $8.25 million plan to clean up the brownfield site. Affectionately referred to as “the Slags,” the land for decades served as a dumping ground for material cast off from the steelmaking process.

DEP approval is “the big milestone in the last year,” said Lilly Freedman, the URA’s manager of development projects: A green light from the agency allows the URA to move forward with remediation.

The overall site, once envisioned as a third phase of housing as part of the Summerset at Frick development, is roughly 70 acres. But the URA and DEP determined that only about 21 acres required remediation to ensure that heavy metals in the slag are no longer exposed to the air, Freedman said. URA officials expect to trap those pollutants in place by covering those acres with two feet of “clean fill” – soil without contaminants – and a thinner layer of topsoil.

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Much of the remediation area overlaps with the planned solar farm, which is expected to cover two large, open fields: one directly off of Love Street in Swisshelm Park, and the other just southwest of there.

Freedman joked that those areas are “pad-ready,” for the project. Because the soil contamination largely prevents plant growth, the site is already cleared.

“It’s a kind of serendipity of sorts, making it the perfect south-facing site for solar,” she said.

Freedman said the URA has most of the money it needs for the cleanup, thanks to federal pandemic aid and tax financing that’s a holdover from the planned Summerset development. (The city, Allegheny County, and Pittsburgh Public Schools agreed to the change in use.) However, the agency will soon apply for $2 million in grant funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Once cleanup is complete, the URA will put out a call for a solar developer, and eventually, dedicate the remainder of the site, between 50 and 55 acres, to the City of Pittsburgh to be added to Frick Park.

A network of well-used hiking and mountain biking trails already crisscross the slags. Though the land is technically private property and there are posted signs forbidding trespassing, those are universally ignored. At the last public meeting about the solar project, several people advocated on behalf of the existing trail network, said City Councilor Barb Warwick, whose district includes the area.

“There are definitely folks who would like to see those left alone,” she said.

Freedman said the URA’s intention is to “maintain the work that has already been done and make them more safe.”

Two access roads will be built as part of the agency’s remediation and solar farm work, and both will remain open to rangers and safety professionals. “If there’s an accident on the site … [they can] get to the depths of the property at a much faster rate,” Freedman said.

Freedman added that trail development would be one of the last phases of the project, and done under the auspices of the city once the land has been transferred.

While the URA once considered additional development options for the site, including housing, the solar development and park extension are the only avenues the agency will now pursue, Freedman said.

Warwick is excited to see a former industrial site used for green energy, as well as the prospect of enlarging Frick Park. However, the city, and even District 5, have a lot of other park spaces that “need some love and attention,” she said. “Adding onto Frick Park is fine, but what the plan for that, in terms of budgets, actually means … will need to be a conversation that we have with the rest of the district, as well as the rest of the city in mind.”

Wednesday night’s meeting will be held at the Swisshelm Park Community Center, located at 1050 Windermere Drive. The meeting is set to begin at 6 p.m. Public comment on the URA’s grant application to the EPA will remain open through Oct. 26.