Green planners to rack brains with South Side in mind

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Pittsburgh is awash in streets that become rapids of rain rushing to storm drains. The optimal corridor to try to alter that course may be 21st Street on the South Side.

Toward that end, the Green Infrastructure Network is calling on engineers, architects, ecologists and artists to commit to a three-day charrette in April to help design a green infrastructure template for 12 blocks -- from South Side Park at the top of the hill to the Three Rivers Heritage Trail at the Monongahela River.

"The goal is to create a model on an urban planning scale to guide policy forward," said Joel Perkovich, chair of the South Side Green Infrastructure project and the sustainable design and programs manager at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. "This is also a reflection of our efforts to be competitive with cities that are pursuing strong water management strategies."

Friday is the official registration deadline but participants won't be turned away if spaces are available, he said. The planning-and-design sessions are April 10-12 and begin and end with public presentations. For more information and to participate, visit

Dan Sentz, the city's environmental planner, proposed 21st Street when the network requested proposals last year. His project beat out nine other sites for several reasons: 21st Street is unusually wide, with notable green spaces on either end; the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy already had targeted it for a grant for more trees; and the city planning department specified its potential as "a complete street, everything you want a 21st century street to do," Mr. Sentz said.

"It is significant in providing connections, with room for traffic [and transit], curb lane parking, a bike lane and a significant stormwater management feature."

What it wouldn't have room for is the renegade parking down the middle, where an old trolley line used to be. A 21st-century 21st Street would more likely catch stormwater in a median strip of plants.

PG graphic: Stormwater runoff
(Click image for larger version)

The 2008 federal consent decree that requires Alcosan and local communities to reduce stormwater overflow has spurred several green infrastructure plans and projects regionally. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Alcosan until 2026 to comply with the Clean Water Act by eliminating sewage overflows into waterways.

Alcosan had begun studying green infrastructure's role when last month the EPA judged its $2 billion "gray" plan for larger underground pipes and tanks insufficient. This month, the federal decree was modified to give Alcosan a chance to phase in green infrastructure.

The committee planning the 21st Street project is hopeful about the timing of the leniency.

"The opportunity is historic to include [in rate payers' investment] green space that cleans air and water, increases property values and improves neighborhood development," Mr. Perkovich said.

"Everybody and their brother wants to do a rain garden demonstration project, but demonstrations are the past," Mr. Sentz said. "We know green infrastructure works and we need real projects. I think the [meeting] will provide the detail and documentation funders like to see."

The Green Infrastructure Network is made up of design, academic, community and environmental groups and institutions. Many have created "a robust demand for green solutions" since the 2008 consent decree, Mr. Perkovich said.

Those solutions include rain-slowing street design, street and parking lot garden swales, green roofs, permeable pavement and rain barrels.

Arthur Tamilia, director of environmental compliance for Alcosan, said the April planning meeting, of which Alcosan is a sponsor, "will be an intense discussion, design and planning process. Alcosan is encouraged by opportunities like this, and certainly any of these projects will provide information and opportunity for us to incorporate into our plan. The results of green infrastructure planning can help Alcosan determine how much we build or what we build."

Mr. Sentz said city officials like the idea of a 21st Street model and that the results "could be transformative. Probably the only people who won't like it are the renegades who are getting free parking."

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at

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