As planning continues for Hazelwood’s new Almono development, city officials are expecting an uptick in commuters traveling from the neighborhood to Oakland, the heart of the city’s eds and meds economy.
That’s why the Urban Redevelopment Authority sought a $3 million grant to build a transit corridor through Pittsburgh’s Four Mile Run neighborhood in lower Greenfield, commonly known as “the Run.”
Although the Almono development is expected to boost the area and provide hundreds of mixed-income housing units, some residents of the Run said they’re worried the redevelopment will pass them by and the working class neighborhood will be overlooked.
“Well, we're pretty much forgotten down here,” said Ellen Gula. “We're a small community. … You see the condition of the roads. We haven't been paved in 30-odd years. We've had the flooding issues for a number of years. They're very slow to address it."
Councilman Corey O’Connor, who represents the Run and Hazelwood, said he was unaware of the URA’s grant application for the transit route until after it was submitted.
Since then, he said he’s heard from mostly angry constituents.
“The city applies for grants all of the time,” O’Connor said. “This one was particularly an issue, because there wasn’t a lot of heads up with it. And when you’re doing such a major project and it affects two neighborhoods, it’s great to have a head’s up.”
At a community meeting on the proposal last fall, residents were particularly troubled by one possible element: privately-operated shuttle buses that some fear would be off-limits to the public.
Some also voiced frustration that the city had backed off from earlier plans to improve bike-pedestrian infrastructure as part of the project.
O’Connor said it’s all but certain that the existing bike lane will be maintained – but beyond that, it’s still too early to say exactly what the project will look like.
He said he does see it as an opportunity, though, to address some of the infrastructure problems, like water, that have plagued The Run for years.
“We’re talking about a road,” O’Connor said. “But there’s an entire watershed that needs to be looked at in this process. And when we got involved and started talking to our planning department, everybody realized that you can do a lot of good by fixing the watershed first.”
That would go a long way toward reassuring the Gulas that the transit project could ultimately benefit the neighborhood, but they’re not convinced yet.
And there’s another, arguably more complicated problem in play. Property values in adjacent neighborhoods are up, and as Almono is developed, they’re only expected to rise. While many families in the Run have been there for three or four generations, up the hill in Greenfield, people are moving in from out of town and out of state to work in Pittsburgh.
Matt Burton, a University of Pittsburgh postdoc, is one of them. He said getting to campus is a daily ordeal.
“Going the 2 miles that it would take can take upwards of 30 to 45 minutes in a car even,” he said. “And that’s just to get to Oakland from Greenfield.”
Burton said parking for his building has a three-year waitlist and biking is made difficult by the closure of the Greenfield Bridge. He said he likes the idea of a shuttle, as long as it’s open to everyone – a view held by many in Greenfield.
But despite generally positive relations between new arrivals and longtime locals, the specter of gentrification looms.
“It also affects housing, the affordability of housing,” said Helen Gerhardt, who serves on the Coordinating Committee of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. “It affects employment. Is such a private transit system going to really be able to provide high-quality employment?”
She said transportation issues go hand-in-hand with economic disenfranchisement. It’s not hard to see those anxieties reflected in the public reaction to the proposed Hazelwood-Oakland connector.
In online discussions, it’s been compared to Google’s controversial commuter shuttle program, a private shuttle system built to ferry tech-industry workers between expensive San Francisco home sand high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley.
The so-called Google buses are seen as a symbol of the region’s extreme economic disparities. Gerhardt said it’s not a bad analogy.
“That comparison can be seen here too,” she said. “UPMC has its own transit system.”
In fact, UPMC already operates an employee-only park-and-ride lot and shuttle service, just across the railroad tracks from the Run. Gerhardt said the tax-exempt hospital system uses a lot of public infrastructure, but doesn’t give much back.
“They’ve built a private transportation system that serves only their own particular needs,” she said. “They’re not paying for what they are to the public, what they are receiving from the public.”
Gerhardt said any shuttle system through The Run should be part of the Port Authority. But the proposal refers to “public-private partnerships.” She said she sees it as something to serve the needs of Pitt, CMU and the for-profit economy they anchor.
O’Connor said that change may be inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be destructive.
“If you’re going to start seeing changes in your quality of life, let’s make them good, positive changes,” O’Connor said.
Updated 6:30 p.m. March 3, 2016: The grant has not yet been awarded, but the shuttle service would be available to the public, according to URA Project Development Specialist Kryn Hoyer-Winfield. URA Chairman Kevin Acklin declined to comment on the status of the proposal.