A walking tour of Pittsburgh's future biggest park
June 11, 2016 1:04 AM
A view of the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning as seen between some of the trees in the area known by locals as Hays Woods.
A pathway that is shown on maps as “West Agnew” at the Hays site.
A view of the wild flowers at the Hays site.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At the sight of a human, a wild turkey vanishes into brush at the bend of a rutted trail. Suddenly, a bunny, flushed from a thatch of wild daisies, skitters across the path.
The occasional beeps and grinding of trucks at the Almono site across the Monongahela River in Hazelwood are the only sounds except the rustling of trees.
This one little moment of furtive wildlife is part of the “before” on a huge piece of land in Hays that the city expects, in years to come, to develop as its largest park in one of its most obscure neighborhoods.
The “after” images lie many years in the future. The Urban Redevelopment Authority took the initial step Thursday in accepting 660 acres for $5 million from the Pittsburgh Development Group II — 642 acres in Hays and an 18-acre bulb of Baldwin Borough between Hays and Arlington Heights.
Known to locals as Hays Woods, it’s a wild, overgrown uphill, downhill of deep woods, meadows, cliffs, views, deer scat, darting birds, dragonflies, butterflies, knotweed, old trees, junk trees and wetlands of reeds, rushes and cattails.
City officials described the land as a gift because of the much greater market value of the mineral rights and the $15 million the owners already have invested. But the city stated its ownership assures the minerals will remain in the ground.
PG graphic: A look at Hays (Click image for larger version)
Hays, with about 360 human residents, is best known for the family of bald eagles whose lives play out on PixController’s webcam. It is sprawling and skinny, with a foot up against Lincoln Place, a leg along New Homestead and a torso that arches along the Monongahela River’s horseshoe curve.
The property being acquired is most of Hays — from the Monongahela River to Baldwin and almost from Becks Run Road to the Glenwood Bridge. It is roughly the size of Shadyside.
It has no urban infrastructure except a system of old roads, possibly from long-ago mining, that have become foot trails. There are only two, maybe three, trailheads where you can park a car. Some of the paths are one car wide and easy to walk, with gravel as fine as cat litter, and some are rutted by erosion, with rocks that jut. Some paths are suggested by grasses that have been parted from regular use, maybe by humans, more likely by deer.
One path plunges into the deep cool of densely wooded hillsides with seemingly thousands of birds competing for the highest notes. Then steeply upward on a sweeping meadow redolent of honeysuckle, a transmission line tower looms over knee-high foliage on one side of the trail. The other side, lined with large trees, provides a view of the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.
At this spot, you are standing near a cliff.
The trail continues, plunging again before rising to offer a view of the Glenwood Bridge. The distant sound of traffic is the sound of low tide.
This is still private property until the sale is final, and nobody has yet determined what this park will look like or how much investment will be needed to develop and maintain it. The city will ask the foundation community and multiple other sources to help it begin the process.
“It will take months to come up with studies for the site’s public usage,” said Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto. But “the intention is to preserve it as much as possible.”
That this park would be larger than Frick Park, now the city’s largest, doesn’t mean it would be as rich in amenities. But it has many natural amenities, including “some incredibly old trees in some of those valleys,” said Heather Sage, director of community projects for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.
She said flood control will be part of the plan as it moves forward. The valleys at the foot of much of this land, including Becks Run Road, flood frequently.
Surveys have identified 5,825 linear feet of perennial streams, 2,899 linear feet of intermittent streams and 5,780 linear feet of natural beds that are usually dry except in heavy rains. One stream reportedly has a waterfall, but an hour of hiking turned up neither a waterfall nor the sound of water.
Mr. Peduto said this land represents “a monumental addition to our urban forests and hillsides. What a thrilling present for our 200th birthday.”
A portion of the site could become a housing development, according to the city’s statement.
Once the property of J&L Steel, the land was assembled in a series of purchases as of 2003 by the Pittsburgh Development Group II, of which the Charles J. Betters family are majority owners. They planned a mixed-use development that included a racetrack and casino, but the casino license went to the Rivers Casino on the North Shore.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection had previously denied a permit for the land to be strip mined.
Ms. Sage worked at Penn Future in 2003 when that nonprofit campaigned against a mining permit. DEP’s denial had to do mostly with the health of the streams, she said.
Bill Newlin, a minority owner in the Pittsburgh Development Group, said some of the land could have been substantially developed. “We talked about keeping a portion of the mineral rights and a portion for development,” he said, “but we decided to make a gift to the city and to make it a complete gift.”
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.
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