Penn State students solve problems of vacant city lots

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Ten Penn State students have turned vacant lots into designer lots in four neighborhoods -- at least conceptually.

At the Connelley Learning Center in the Hill District yesterday, the landscape architecture students displayed solutions to blighted lots, stormwater run-off and underused existing green spaces in Beltzhoover, Hays, the Hill and Lincoln Place. Two designs were for a white water rafting venue in the Neville Island back channel of the Emsworth lock and dam.

What was for them a semester studio was, for residents, the chance to see old problems "solved" by fresh eyes.

"I'm loving this," said a beaming Dawn King, vice president of the Beltzhoover Neighborhood Council, reacting to Erin Hollands' depiction of a vision the council has -- a re-enlivened McKinley Park and the paper street of Haberman Avenue turned into a pedestrian greenway, with water features and whimsical lighting.

"I believe it can happen," said Ms. King.

"We will initiate things to make sure it does happen," said Sam Wright, the group's chaplain. "We have worked hard to get to this point."

The presentation was the first public event of the Penn State Center Downtown, which was established in August. The students' project was the first in which the center helped the university link resources to the Pittsburgh area, said Deno DeCiantis, director of the Penn State Center,

He met initially with the mayor's office and the URA to find out how students might get projects out of the city's vacant land needs and give back solutions.

"We came up with 20 to 30 locations we could have worked with, then one day professor Ken Tamminga and I drove around town and looked at different areas" and chose five whose characteristics best fit the students' learning needs, intending those five to provide the students' the best variety of experiences.

Throughout the fall semester, each student traveled to Pittsburgh from the main campus in State College to enlist the help of community groups to define their projects.

Loralyn Fabian's Hill project incorporated pieces of metal from the Mellon Arena as sculptures in a pedestrian green space that would connect Downtown and the Hill.

Travis Flohr tackled the large land tract of Hays Woods in creating an urban wildland and a Web-based system for the conservators of such a place to monitor the success of environmental corrections he calls for in his plan.

"My case study was Rouge Park in Toronto," he said. "There are not many places that have urban wildlands so close to a city."

Regarding the idea of white water rafting at the Neville Island back channel, James McCarville, executive director for the Port of Pittsburgh, said, "It's intriguing, as long as it doesn't interfere with navigation."

When the two students on that project interviewed him, he said, they were looking at several sites. If any were to work, the Neville Island site would be better than others, he said. As of now, it's just "an exercise of imagination, and we'd have to determine if it's practical or not, but we're interested in accompanying their studies."

Mr. DeCiantis said the Penn State Center, with a small office at the Westin Convention Center hotel, does not have funding to help these designs come alive.

"The intent is to give communities some alternative ways of looking at green spaces. In terms of implementation, we do have consultation resources" that community groups can draw on. "You never know where some of these connections might go."

Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at or 412-263-1626.


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