Walkabout: Frick Park awaits environmental center as energetic boost

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About 30 people gathered around Marijke Hecht at the bottom of the Green Path in the shadow of the Frick Park Environmental Center, a vacant hulk that burned 10 years ago. It was last Thursday afternoon, when the sky was a brilliant blue, the air a breezy weave of chill and warmth.

Ms. Hecht is director of education for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. She was telling us about the city and conservancy's plan to build a new center, restore architectural and natural features around it, and create a woodland amphitheater.

"This is a natural bowl already," she said, and we moved our heads to take in the gentle up-slope encircling us. As you move through Frick Park from its entrances, she said, "you go from a formal park atmosphere to an ever more natural environment. A woodland amphitheater is an intersection of that."

A shriek and streak of gray yanked our attention skyward. "Oh look!" she cried out, pointing. "A red-tailed hawk."

As the bird swirled overhead and disappeared, I got that euphoric swelling in the chest that catches you sometimes. Sometimes it catches you when nothing you suspect has happened and you can't figure out why you just got so happy you could cartwheel over the sweeping boughs of a 100-year-old tree.

I gave that a thought. What was it? I had been thrilled by a great bird before. I was jazzed by the almost ultimate environmentalism of the plans Ms. Hecht was telling us about, but I had reported that news in May.

The center won't contribute any water to storm drains. It will be warm and cool, thanks to the sun, the water deep under our feet and good design. It will recirculate naturally treated rainwater that shoots up from a restored fountain. It will direct toilet waste to plants and microbes that can treat and process it for fertilizer. It will have permeable pavement. It will divert rooftop rainwater to a wetland. It will even make a parking lot appealing -- and shady -- with trellises and a solar collection system.

Sometimes it takes information a little time to catch up with the reality that forms the personal worlds we live in. We can hear something and even report on it, but then one beautiful day we take a tour of a woodland haven a short walk from gridlocked traffic and it hits us: Pittsburgh has enough belief in environmental striving to bring off this kind of project.

The Phipps Conservatory's Center for Sustainable Landscapes led the way when it opened in May. Its planners went beyond certification through Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design to the International Living Building Challenge, which holds its contestants to rigorous standards and evaluates their performance.

The Environmental Center's project team is also pursuing LEED certification and the Living Building Challenge.

(You can learn more about that at http://www.ilbi.org/lbc)

Construction is expected to start next year, after the conservancy negotiates a long-term operating agreement with the city, similar to the agreement it has for Schenley Plaza in Oakland.

About $6.7 million has been raised -- $5.2 million from the Frick Trust to the city and $1.5 million from the Eden Hall Foundation. Another $5.3 million is needed for construction, and in addition the conservancy wants to raise $3 million for ongoing maintenance, Ms. Hecht said.

"If all the stars align, we should begin construction by summer," she said.

After the tour, Jack Solomon, whose business card announces his affiliation with the 3 Rivers Birding Club as a "full time birder," said, "I've been coming to Frick Park for 40 years, and though I begrudge every square inch that isn't woodland, I'm thrilled there's going to be an educational program that magnifies the experience."

Mary Alice Drusbasky,an eco-steward in Schenley Park, said she moved to Squirrel Hill 20 years ago "and my boys and I took walks here. I've always loved nature. This is where I saw my first red-tailed hawk."

neigh_city - environment - intelligencer

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


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