Diana Nelson Jones’ Walkabout: Opportunities grow in old St. Clair Village

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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: djones@post-ga­zette.com or 412-263-1626.

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