Chicken Hill Caucus members, from left, Kimberly Botticello, Beth Hanis and Denise Zurcher display a sign that signals the group's opposition to a proposed development on Springfield Street in Ridgemont.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For about an hour in 1959, the spotlight shone on Ridgemont when police chased a pair of bank-robbing brothers to what was then called Chicken Hill.
The shoot-out that ensued entered Pittsburgh history as "the Battle of Chicken Hill," and the city neighborhood -- a clutch of modest homes where kids play ball in the streets -- has scarcely been heard from since.
Enter the Chicken Hill Caucus.
Last month, Beth Hanis, a 44-year-old teacher who has lived in Ridgemont for six years, dusted off the old name and enlisted a fistful of neighbors to canvass their half-dozen streets for a battle against SouthStar Development Partners.
The Florida-based company, with Moon-based DeLorenzo & Co., bought 26 acres that include a former driving range behind Parkway Center Mall for $1.1 million last year. It is a bowl-shaped meadow that sits above Ridgemont.
In July, planning boards in Pittsburgh and Green Tree heard the plan for City Vista at Parkway: 418 housing units with a pool and clubhouse. The mix of townhouses, condominiums and lofts -- nine residential buildings, one seven stories -- would sell from $150,000 up and more than double Ridgemont's population of about 530.
Green Tree has rezoned the land from commercial to residential and is scheduled to consider tentative approval of the development plan next month.
Pittsburgh's planning commission votes tomorrow on whether to recommend rezoning of 10 acres from parkland to high-density residential. It postponed a vote Sept. 9 at a hearing at which members of the Chicken Hill Caucus pleaded for rejection of the plan.
Irving Firman, local counsel for SouthStar, described the venture as "the residential component that completes Parkway Center Mall," an early-'80s development that is nearly moribund. The developers defend the location as anti-sprawl -- a high-density city community near bus lines with walkable shopping, with a chance to re-enliven the commercial hub.
But Ridgemont, with slopes, dead ends and wooded peripheries, isn't easily woven into an urban model. According to the 2000 Census, it is 96 percent white, 75 percent younger than 65, with two parents in all but a few homes. It comes in third of 90 neighborhoods in the number of owner-occupied homes and ranks third from last in rentals. It has the least vacant housing of any neighborhood and is ranked among the 10 safest in crime statistics.
Ms. Hanis said the caucus scrambled to give Ridgemont a voice at the first meetings with developers, when its members asked to get at least a park out of the deal.
"They said 'no,' " said Ms. Hanis. "We asked for a traffic light at Hamburg [Street], and they said 'no.'
"Many neighbors think it's a done deal," she said, "but we're trying to get them pumped up to fight."
The Chicken Hill Caucus is getting its feet wet in deep water. SouthStar is noted for creating large-scale townhouse-and-condo "villages."
Making its first foray into Western Pennsylvania, SouthStar's challenge comes from about 20 people, backed by about 50 signatures on a petition.
Kimberly Botticello said she found little support for SouthStar during her door-to-door petition campaign for the caucus.
"One person didn't care and some people thought it might raise the value of their homes, but we got 50 names just on Springfield, Hamburg and McKinney," she said.
Hamburg and Springfield streets meet after rising narrowly through the neighborhood. They dead end at the chain-link fence enclosing the old driving range and its stone-lined pond. Families walk to the site in the evenings to watch deer emerge from the woods, said Ms. Hanis.
The developer has agreed to widen Hamburg by three feet and is leaving a buffer of woods.
At the Sept. 9 planning hearing, 14 people from Ridgemont spoke against the development, including Thomas McAllister, who said, "Not too many of us could afford to live in this [new] community. We're working people."
Others cited traffic, children's safety, deforestation and the loss of land for wildlife.
"We've seen turkeys, night falcons and muskrats," said Ms. Hanis, whose 8-year-old son Tre spoke to the planning commission.
"If America keeps letting developers take land, it will be a concrete jungle," he said. "If I had $1.1 million, I would buy this land and make it for wildlife, but I'm just a kid with $2 and a dream to save the wildlife."
Denise Zurcher, a resident of 10 years whose husband grew up in the neighborhood, said, "My concern is that the new neighbors [taking a shortcut] won't be watching for baseballs or little ones walking a few doors to Grandma's."
"People didn't move to Ridgemont to have mixed-use environment imposed on them," said Kathleen Walsh. "People should be able to trust zoning to protect their quality of life."
"I've been here so many times in my life," said Mary Ann Muransky of community hearings. "We have a mall and 11 office buildings and a huge Best Western. We have no more to give. Why do developers purchase land they have to get rezoned?"