Planners want a park to replace part of Pittsburgh Zoo’s asphalt parking lot

Proposal includes soccer field and trail extending to river

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City and neighborhood leaders envision a dramatic transformation of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s parking lot and surrounding areas into a park-like expanse including a soccer field and a trail that would extend from Morningside all the way to the Allegheny River.

City Council this month approved the first installment of funding for planning what would be a multimillion-dollar project, which has the backing of Highland Park and Morningside neighborhood leaders and the zoo.

The Heth’s Run Ecological and Recreational Restoration Project, more than a decade in the making, will encompass about a mile of city-owned land from Heth’s Run Playfields behind Chislett Street in Morningside to the Allegheny riverfront.

The project includes a wheelchair-accessible trail through the wooded valley adjacent to the fields into a former city Department of Public Works storage yard and abandoned dumping ground behind the zoo’s parking lot. The paved trail will hug the outer edge of the parking lot, loop under the new Heth’s Run Bridge being built on Butler Street and out to the riverfront.

The zoo will give up its parking lot adjacent to Butler in exchange for additional space in the former DPW storage yard. The front lot will be turned into a soccer field.

“This is all about expanding a park presence into what’s really an asphalt wasteland,” said David Hance, president of the Highland Park Community Development Corp. “The zoo is gaining parking spaces, but the city gets a park presence out at this new bridge. It’s a major transformation in this corner of the city.”

City council on July 9 allocated $200,000 for initial design and planning. The summary of proposed legislation presented to council estimated the total cost for design and planning will be $400,000. Public Works director Michael Gable said the project could cost millions of dollars to complete and isn’t likely to break ground until next year. The city will choose one of three consultants already under contract with the city to work on the project.

Nate Hanson, chief of staff for Councilwoman Deborah Gross, said the project is part of a citywide shift in focus to ecological sustainability and infrastructure, especially stormwater management.

“You could almost consider it an issue of public safety,” Mr. Hanson said.

Another major focus of the project is streamlining the zoo entrance, with possibilities to realign the roadway and synchronize street lights for a smoother flow of traffic.

“We see this as a huge improvement for the zoo,” Pittsburgh Zoo chief operating officer Frank Carteri said. “The bridge alone is really going to help the community and meet the mission of the zoo.”

The zoo has been included in planning discussions since the project’s origin, Mr. Carteri said. Project organizers are exploring multiple funding sources outside of council, including the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which provides grants to various public works projects, including parks and recreation and civic facilities and programs.

Mr. Carteri could not say whether the zoo would incur additional project costs.

Mr. Hance said timing the project to parallel construction of the Heth’s Run Bridge is crucial, as the two will be closely tied. “As we configure the design team and start putting costs to these improvements, a parallel process will be underway for funding sources,” he said. “Even though we live next to the river, we’ve never had access to it.”

Clarece Polke: or 412-263-1889

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