Tearing down city steps draws ire in South Side Slopes

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A demolition project to remove most of the Monastery Street steps in the South Side Slopes has members of the Slopes neighborhood association outraged that they were not informed, but the project has been pending since 2011, when the condition of the steps made the city's list for replacement.

The city's public works director Rob Kaczorowski said the steps were in bad condition and that the people who will be most affected -- those who live closest to the steps -- were informed.

Demolition was temporarily halted Tuesday in response to outraged residents who say they were blindsided by the work, which began Monday, but it has resumed, Mr. Kaczorowski said.

Some residents question the need for the demolition and the grade of the replacement sidewalk.

"We have partnered with public works on all manner of steps improvements and we have leveraged investments," for steps, said architect Peter Kreuthmeier, a member of the association's board. "So this came as quite a shock."

The Monastery Street steps, which were built in 1950, were part of this year's StepTrek, a tour of public steps in the Slopes, on Oct. 5. Association board president Brian Oswald said there was no issue with the steps at that time. "They weren't in the greatest shape, but there were no repairs required."

Mr. Kaczorowski said the project "has been on the books since 2011 and finally made it to the top of the list. Why didn't we inform [the Slopes association]? Maybe it was an oversight, but I didn't think to seek their approval. Those steps were in such bad condition that the contractor pulled the railing out and the whole structure fell."

He said "there was concern" during StepTrek. "Probably the only reason we left them open was for StepTrek."

The project cost $177,000, he said, adding that to replace them with new steps would cost almost double. He said a railing will be built along the new sidewalk and that "some steps will be part of the new design."

Mr. Kreuthmeier said he is most concerned about the grade of the sidewalk, 17.5 percent.

"That's steep," he said. "My question to the city is what provision of the code allows something this steep."

Mr. Kaczorowski said the city engineers set a standard benchmark of a 20 percent grade.

Brad Palmisiano, a member of the Slopes association board and an architectural engineer, said a grade of 10 percent is the landscape architecture design guideline.

A flurry of word-of-mouth email made Tuesday "one of the busiest days I've had as a Slopes board member," Mr. Oswald said.

On Tuesday morning, he said he talked to city Councilman Bruce Kraus "and he was as astonished as we were," he said. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette could not reach Mr. Kraus.

Mr. Kreuthmeier said he saw partial plans for the project Tuesday morning and believes they "not only destroy the neighborhood fabric but will create hazards, particularly in the winter."

Mr. Palmisiano said he is "really disappointed and outraged that no one at the city made us aware of this project, knowing how much we love and support the city steps. We have had a great relationship with the Department of Public Works and they have done a great job of working with us and taking care of the steps, so we were really blindsided by this."

Adam Jette, a planner of StepTrek, wrote in an email that the StepTrek committee has been trying to get the city to reopen the steps on Cologne Street but that the issue has been a lack of money.

"They seemed to be able to procure funds to demolish" a set of stairs no one was alerted needed to come out. "We understand the fiscal hardships and decisions" the city must make and that "we won't be able to keep every set of stairs," Mr. Jette wrote. "But if organizations and citizens that are paying close attention ... are uninformed of large demolition projects such as this, I worry what else could happen."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

First Published November 5, 2013 11:49 PM

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