Pittsburgh's southern Hilltop neighborhoods haven't changed much in appearance in six years. Hundreds of lots and houses remain vacant. A few cultural amenities still exist but no big market drivers or institutions.
A series of steps since 2007, however, has led to a new strategy for making green improvements to lure bigger investment that for decades has eluded Beltzhoover, Bon Air, Carrick, Knoxville, Arlington, Arlington Heights, Allentown, St. Clair, Mount Oliver and Mount Oliver Borough.
With a $50,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development last year, the Hilltop Alliance commissioned a thorough investigation of the Hilltop by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and GTECH Strategies. At a recent meeting in Knoxville, they unveiled the Green Toolbox Report.
Judy Wagner, senior director of the conservancy's community garden program, and Chris Koch, who was then chief operating officer at GTECH, led the study. They assembled Hilltop residents and a technical team -- a city planner, a data analyst and specialists in forestry, streetscapes and community development.
They walked, surveyed and mapped the neighborhoods, gathered demographic data and made notes. The area had no greenways or designated trails, no viable community gardens and just one full-service grocery.
A list of projects took shape. Some would take one or two years and cost less than $10,000 each; others are long-term and costlier: commercial agriculture, a solar power enterprise, green pathways connecting the neighborhoods.
The report includes a timeline for each project based on scale, cost and amount of effort. It recommends starting with quick and affordable projects: adding hanging baskets and tree pits on commercial corridors, clearing city steps, turning vacant lots into small gardens and parklets, planting trees in cemeteries and altering surface parking to catch stormwater.
Malik James, a member of the Beltzhoover Civic Association, has been involved with the toolbox committee since it started and is particularly interested in bringing a food garden to Beltzhoover. "I believe we would be considered a food desert," she said. The association is eyeing an empty lot next to a church, "so with their permission, we could use their water."
Rick Hopkinson, an intern for Mount Oliver Borough, has participated in the project. He sits on the board of the Hilltop Economic Development Corp., a member of the Hilltop Alliance that was founded in 2007 to serve Mount Oliver Borough and Knoxville.
"While we wait for investors, I'd like to green our vacant lots to take the edge off," he said. "Until other people see the opportunities up here, we should keep these places up."
"The green toolbox is a real positive way for us to start," said Pat Murphy, executive director of the Hilltop Alliance. "The group had the ability to gather massive amounts of data. Borders don't really exist, and I think more people here have gotten that message."
But there are geographical obstacles.
Maps show numerous small parks, but Ms. Koch, now director of programs for the Design Center, said many people cannot walk to them.
"Existing maps don't tell you that you might be separated from a nearby park by an impassable ravine," she said.
As a remedy, some of the vacant lots that dot 15 percent of the Hilltop could become small parks.
"There are opportunities to do short-term projects as holding patterns" while waiting for investment, Ms. Wagner said. "But there are permanent green projects that are their own investments. One of the surprises was the number of cemeteries with few trees but acreage enough that if you planted a variety that could grow to glorious size, it becomes a place you might want to go walking."
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development owns the two largest patches of vacant land -- the former public housing sites of Arlington Heights and St. Clair. When Arlington Heights was razed, a flat meadow of almost 84 unshaded acres with extraordinary views resulted.
The report recommends its reuse for large-scale agriculture and solar power generation.
Ms. Murphy said a couple of funders are interested in supporting plans that come out of the toolbox, but she said she could not reveal their names yet.
In 2007, the Coro Center for Civic Leadership, with a $25,000 Birmingham Foundation grant, led a year of research, outreach, meetings and surveys that resulted in a brainstorming session of the Hilltop's nine city neighborhoods. The consensus then was that they needed an umbrella organization to act on their behalf.
The Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development provided the money to form the Hilltop Alliance in 2010.
When the green toolbox study began, the alliance represented those neighborhoods and Mount Oliver Borough but has since included the South Side Slopes and Mount Washington. The Mount Washington Community Development Corp. already has ties to Allentown through an earlier collaboration.
Jason Kambitsis, executive director of the Mount Washington CDC, said recently that "Allentown is becoming quietly interesting," citing restaurants including Alla Famiglia, a few new stores and a Carnegie Library pop-up branch that was established in October for 18 months.
"I think these communities are poised for a turnaround because of the infrastructure," he said. If a T line could be established on existing tracks along Warrington Avenue, "it might attract people who are moving to transit-oriented places."
The Hilltop's development is a challenge due to decades of disinvestment. Involving residents in the process has been a challenge because they can't see the progress in the groundwork that's been laid.
"It's a common issue in community development that it's hard to show the impact of time and energy spent on organizing, outreach, building capacity and leadership," said Talia Piazza, marketing and program coordinator for the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development. "But the visible steps don't get taken without that early work."