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Councilwoman Hopes Long Awaited Floodplain Updates Will Spur West End Development

City of Pittsburgh
Efforts to reduce the floodplan in the West End neighborhood began in 2000, but aren't yet reflected on official floodplain maps.

Businesses in the West End neighborhood of Pittsburgh are paying for flood insurance they might not really need anymore.

That’s according to Patrick Hassett, Assistant Director of Public Works, who said work begun by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2000 has largely stamped out the threat of flooding from Sawmill Run.

“We dredged and put in retaining walls along the stream bed to better contain the flooding waters, and PennDOT came in and made highway improvements that elevated some of the bridges to reduce the obstructions,” Hassett said.

Now that the improvements have been made, Hassett said the city needs to perform a hydrological study in order to determine if the threat of flooding has been reduced.

“The studies themselves involve incorporating modeling for flooding activity in the area based on the new physical configuration of the valley,” Hassett said. “The results of those models are sent to FEMA and they evaluate the models and the results and adjust the insurance maps accordingly.”

Credit Google maps
Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith and Assistant Public Works Director Patrick Hassett were quick to point out that the hydrological study applies only to the small West End neighborhood, not all of the city's western neighborhoods.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith represents the city’s western neighborhoods—not to be confused with the West End neighborhood itself, which forms a C-shape and hugs Saw Mill Run Blvd on its eastern edge. She said an update to the official FEMA map will remove a great weight from the shoulders of businesses in the small neighborhood.

“They’re spending a tremendous amount of money for flood insurance,” Kail-Smith said. “This will help the business owners and it will actually help to start spur some development in that area, because people will know they’re no longer on a flood plain.”

Kail-Smith has been very vocal during her time on Council about the lack of city investment in her district, which she said is ripe for development.

“People are realizing that there’s a ton of affordable building space, there’s tons of affordable housing,” Kail-Smith said. “They’re noticing how quick and easy it is to access downtown and the parkway. There are just a lot of great opportunities in that area and I think people are starting to realize it. We’re excited about it.”

A bill to fund the study with $30,000 from the Urban Redevelopment Authority was originally introduced in City Council in December, but was continually held because of concerns from residents who said they were still experiencing flooding. Patrick Hassett said they city eventually determined that those dozen or so houses near the 1900 block of Woodville Ave. were actually outside the remediation area and that the bill shouldn’t be held up any longer. But he said the city does plan to address the issue.

“There’s a section of residences just upstream from the improvements that are not benefiting from the improvements, and we wanted to talk to them to see how we could extend some of these benefits or commit to them some benefits of reducing flooding in their section of Saw Mill Run,” Hassett said.

Hassett said the study itself will only take four to six months, but FEMA could take up to a year to review it. That means it might be 2017 before businesses in the West End would see their insurance rates drop.

But Josh Lippert, senior environmental planner with the city of Pittsburgh, said there is still a chance the changes made to Sawmill Run won’t actually change the floodplain map.

City Council gave preliminary approval to the study on Wednesday and will take a final vote next week.

Does your home or business fall in a floodplain?

Take a a look at the City of Pittsburgh's interactive map below. To show the floodplain, first hide the box on the left by clicking the X, then click on "Layers" at the top and uncheck "Zoning Districts outlines" and "Zoning Districts," then check "Current - 1% Chance Annual Flood."

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.