City's Largest Public Park To Be Formed From Hays Woods

Jun 9, 2016

A stream courses through a wooded area of Hays, a south Pittsburgh neighborhood where a real estate developer is selling 660 acres of land to the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority at a large discount.
Credit Noah Brode / 90.5 WESA

After a real estate company's bid to redevelop a 1-square-mile swath of forest in the southern Pittsburgh neighborhood of Hays fell through in the early 2000s, the landowner has now decided to sell Hays Woods at a vastly discounted rate to the city for use as a public park.

Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority voted Thursday to pay $5 million to Pittsburgh Development Group II for the “whole bundle of sticks,” URA board chair Kevin Acklin said – including land ownership and mineral rights on a property once slated for strip mining and a racetrack and casino complex.

Even after paying for closing costs, insurance and environmental studies, the cost to the city is expected to remain well below the property's estimated $16-20 million value.

The 642 acres of hilly forest and streams in Pittsburgh and 18 acres in Baldwin Borough just south of the Monongahela River would rival the size of Frick Park, currently the city's largest public open space at 644 acres.

A stream tumbles down a wooded hillside in Hays, where a developer is selling one square mile of forest land to the city at a large discount.
Credit Noah Brode / 90.5 WESA

“We’re not taking over Baldwin Borough. We’re merely taking ownership of some land there,” said Acklin, who also serves as Mayor Bill Peduto's chief of staff.

Roy Kraynyk, vice president of land protection for the Allegheny Land Trust, said city leaders are putting an environmental easement on the property with his group and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in order to prevent future city officials from developing the land.

“About 50 percent of the ridgelines and slopes along our major rivers are developed. The other 50 percent is still natural, so we’re at this tipping point,” Kraynyk said. “If this site would’ve been developed, we could have seen that tipping point go beyond the balance that it is today.”

Kraynyk said the site had too many environmental challenges to be developed easily.

A stream runs through a wooded embankment in Hays, where a developer plans to sell $16-20 million worth of forest land to the city for only $5 million.
Credit Noah Brode / 90.5 WESA

“There’s steep, steep slopes. There’s some abandoned mine drainage there. There’s high-powered tension lines,” Kraynyk said. “It’s undermined, so you’ve got voids under there, so stable foundations would be challenging.”

“This is the Mon Valley, where you’ve got pollution issues, air pollution issues,” Kraynyk added. “This landscape is sequestering a lot of carbon from the air. It’s also sequestering a lot of rainfall.”

In a declining neighborhood of the city perhaps best-known for its bald eagle nest and former Army ammunitions plant, the acres of soon-to-be parkland would outnumber residents nearly two to one.