Concentrate on riverfront, Verona sustainability study suggests

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In the spring, students from Carnegie Mellon University performed a sustainability needs assessment for Verona.

The purpose was to define what needs to be done to make the community more sustainable for the future and how to do it.

Matthew Mehalik teaches the sustainable community development course at the H. John Heinz III College School of Public Policy and Management, where students were enrolled. He also is a program director for Sustainable Pittsburgh, which promotes maintainability through the integration of economic prosperity, social equity and environmental quality. He said that over the past few years, there has been substantial interest in redeveloping small towns and a renewed interest in smart growth.

The course teaches students sustainable and green development practices and how to integrate them into community strategies; the impact of public planning; and engaging communities in revitalization strategies.

Dr. Mehalik said students get to apply what they learn on a major community project, meeting the needs of a real community with real people, where they "make a difference."

The student team -- Emil Dinu Popa, Kathy Hrabovsky, Iyabo Lawal and Srnithya Lavu -- met with borough officials and residents and toured the community throughout the semester. The results of their study were presented to borough council last week.

The team determined that the focus of the assessment "should capitalize on Verona's greatest strength -- the riverfront location." It was believed that enhancing riverfront access and recreational activities would lead to a sustainable future.

Economically, this would increase local job opportunities as well as funding for grants and loans for projects to enhance revitalization of the community image and services offered. In addition, tax revenues would be increased to maintain long-term community services.

Environmental goals are to improve environmental quality overall as well as quality of life for residents and generate revenue through increases in outdoor activities and in attracting new residents to those activities.

Social goals include an economically diverse population for revenue and employment, access to community services for all and a celebration of cultural differences to add interest and attract new residents and visitors to the area.

Students worked on the project with members of Verona in Progress, a group of residents concerned with revitalization of the community, whom Ms. Hrabovsky called "a great group of people who do think out of the box." She said these individuals had a lot of energy and were very committed.

In many instances, she explained, the students did not have time to write recommendations into the proposal because the projects had already been completed.

The most important issues facing the borough were determined to be development of a multipurpose walkway, development of the riverbank, revitalization of Riverbank Park, procurement and cleanup of a scrap metal yard near the viaduct and relocation of the borough salt pile and vehicle storage area.

Council member Rhoda Gemellas-Worf said the community was grateful to have the students come in. She said it got the residents to start thinking outside the box and achieve different goals. She called it "a priceless gift" because the borough could not have afforded such a study.

A project time line in the presentation includes developing a Verona trail system, with increased community support in the first year, trail development in five years, and additional trail/bike routes in 10 years.

For riverfront revitalization, access to the riverfront as an attraction would take place in the first year, building of additional public docks in five years and building green space along the river in 10 years.

Finally, regional trail connections would include commuter rail stops in Verona in the first year, additional trail/bike routes connecting to the Pittsburgh Heritage Trail in five years and increased regional access -- including a Park n' Ride and Verona train stop -- for commuters in 10 years.

A major factor in the proposal is the development of a commuter rail line for the Allegheny Valley, which has been under discussion for several years.

Dr. Mehalik said it was interesting to learn that a significant amount of riverfront property is residential, rather than industrial, as most people might think. He said that should be played up, encouraging people to move in and take advantage of the riverfront.

Looking at other trail towns to see how they are reinventing themselves can provide Verona with guidance, Dr. Mehalik said. Although the focus is on the riverfront area, and how even something like a Park n' Ride can be designed to encourage people to interact with the business district, he said it is really a holistic approach to reinventing the community.

It is also an opportunity for his students to "hopefully make a difference," Dr.?Mehalik said. They get to "create something and have an impact," applying what they have learned in the real world.

After the students have provided a helpful resource through their work, he tries to continue to follow-up through Sustainable Pittsburgh.

Along with various grant opportunities, the report recommends partnerships at the local level (i.e., school district, businesses, organizations) and county/state level (i.e., Allegheny Land Trust, Friends of the Riverfront).

The issues facing Verona as it progresses fall into four major categories: lack of access to financial resources, image improvement, and community (transit, zoning, services, etc.) and regional disconnections. The goal of the students was to define strategies to address these issues within the context of work already being done in the community.

Ultimately, the study determined that a sustainable future for Verona means cashing in on the riverfront, forming viable partnerships with stakeholders and building/sustaining community involvement.

"Enhancing riverfront access and recreational opportunities can significantly contribute to a sustainable future for the Borough of Verona," Ms. Hrabovsky said. She sees Verona as having an encouraging future.

Ms. Worf, who calls Verona a "diamond in the rough," said that it is important for people to know that the borough is there and what it has to offer.

Teresita K. Kolenchak, freelance writer: .


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