Diana Nelson Jones’ Walkabout: Opportunities grow in old St. Clair Village
July 14, 2014 11:40 PM
The map shows the layout of a proposed urban farm at the city’s former St. Clair Village public housing site.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
You almost have to be lost to find yourself on Cresswell Street. It’s a deserted, looping road to nowhere in what used to be St. Clair Village.
When I found it the other day, children riding in plastic cars and on bicycles watched with expressions of disbelief as I maneuvered a big car gingerly past them on what clearly is now their right of way.
Cresswell is a ghost road, and a U-shaped street off Cresswell called Bonifay is another. They share a 46-acre meadow of tall grass and smallish trees that could one day be one of the country’s largest urban farms.
The Hilltop Alliance is working with Grow Pittsburgh, the Penn State Cooperative Extension and the Allegheny Land Trust to make that happen. The alliance is a nonprofit umbrella whose staff organizes projects with advocates from organizations in nine southern neighborhoods.
The St. Clair Village public housing site, which contained 465 units at its peak, was fully demolished by 2010. What’s left of the neighborhood — 209 people in privately owned homes — needs everything a farm would provide: fresh food, a chance for enterprise, and youth training and education.
St. Clair has a 13 percent unemployment rate, with 50 percent of its population younger than 19 and one social beacon, the Lighthouse Church.
A hilltop farm of the proposed scale “would be significantly larger than anything we’ve been involved with so far,” said Julie Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh. Of its current sponsored farms, Braddock Farms is the largest at 1.5 acres, she said.
The alliance and its partners got combined grants of $70,000 from Neighborhood Allies and the PNC Bank Foundation to develop a preliminary plan. They vetted the idea in public meetings and created a steering committee that includes residents.
A master site plan is the next step, for which the group has a commitment of foundation funding. The master site plan will be the document the group pitches to the property owner, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Allegheny Land Trust is poised to buy the property, said its executive director, Chris Beichner. HUD review will be the big hurdle.
“We have had quite a few productive talks with the Housing Authority,” said Aaron Sukenik, executive director of the Hilltop Alliance. “In August, we will have more clarity on whether there needs to be a housing component” to the plan.
“If there is a new housing component, that would provide immediate bank comps” for people to get loans to make repairs and renovations to older homes, he said. “Between 2001 and 2011, those homes have hemorrhaged half their equity. Some values aren’t high enough to refinance for a new roof.”
Mr. Sukenik said the investment of dollars necessary to get the farm up and running would be “hundreds of thousands and possibly close to one million, but thinking in terms of what this kind of project can do to increase property value and support the neighborhood, it will pay for itself.”
Building up the health of the soil will be among the costliest portions of the start-up investment, but that is most critical for the farm’s success, Ms. Pezzino said.
The site would provide space to house small farms as business incubators, a youth farm, a revenue-producing Community Supported Agriculture farm and small plots for residents who just want to grow some vegetables. A rainwater harvesting feature is included in the preliminary blueprint, along with a farmers market stand and an orchard.
Marisa Manheim, Grow Pittsburgh’s director of community projects, said there are “examples of HUD-owned property used for agriculture but none that’s analogous to this site.”
Ms. Pezzino said the incubator would also offer residents a chance to earn income as farmers.
“The farmer development program is a fairly tested model around the country, and it’s gaining in popularity because of the loss of family farms,” she said.
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.
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