Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Grant program helps give vacant lots a future use
July 7, 2015 12:00 AM
Photo courtesy of GTECH Strategies
GTECH staffers Gavin White, left, and Lydia Kramer clear weeds in new Propel Northside charter school lot.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A weedy lot near the Propel Northside charter school will become a classroom when students return, thanks to the owner’s donation of its use for the benefit of children.
It’s just a small lot, 24 by 40 feet. You can’t see it from the nearby thoroughfare, Brighton Road, because it’s behind a house. It’s one weedy lot among thousands in the city.
But a vacant lot that eases so generously to a higher purpose is notable. It could serve as an inspiration to other owners of vacant land. If the property’s just sitting there and you aren’t doing anything to elevate its presence in the neighborhood, let someone else. Land deserves to be valued.
The family of David Spence was looking to donate a lot it owns on Columbia Place when a connection at the YMCA suggested Propel Northside as a recipient. Propel happily agreed, thinking it could be a garden, said Rosemary Anderson, the school’s director of after-school programs.
At an event for the Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time, GTECH Strategies announced it had a grant from the Heinz Endowments to develop five vacant lots in the city as classroom and play spaces.
Propel found its match.
“Propel fell into our laps,” said Ian Brown, project manager for GTECH, a community development group with an environmental focus.
“GTECH fell into ours,” said Ms. Anderson.
They and Eddie Willson, co-principal at Propel Northside, met with me at the site Monday morning. It’s on the corner where Columbia Place makes a 90-degree turn as it leads up to the school.
Volunteer days have been scheduled for July and August to get the site ready for Aug. 30.
The design included the ideas of Propel students, except the proposal for a Ninja Garden. Mr. Brown talked to the immediate neighbors and got their feedback. The land will be cleared, graded and set up with a stage, a blackboard, landscaping and tree stumps for people to sit on.
It will be a space for outdoor learning, with a focus on environmental education, and will be open for community use as well, said Mr. Willson.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” said Jeremy Resnick, executive director of the Propel Schools Foundation. “Besides academics, it’s important to us to interact with the community.”
GTECH has until the end of next year to use its $200,000 grant to develop five lots. Two of the sites have been identified so far, with the North Side project to be dedicated at the opening of the new school year.
The second is in Homewood, where GTECH is partnering with the Bible Center Church to turn one of the lots beside the church office on Fleury Way into an entrepreneurial garden and greenhouse.
Stephanie Boddie, working for the School of Social Work and the Katz School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, has been helping the church develop several projects in Homewood.
“One of my interests has been to link interests in food security with the entrepreneurial maker movement,” she said. The Bible Center has a Makers Clubhouse, an entrepreneurial project for youth, that can tie in with a food-producing garden and greenhouse.
“With food insecurity as a challenge in Homewood, it seemed appropriate to bring these visions together,” she said.
Planning has just begun for an October completion, she said.
Mr. Brown said GTECH makes efforts when it enters collaborations like this “to have buy-in from the community so it [the lot] can be sustained.”
Otherwise, a great idea can become a weedy lot again.
So many efforts to cultivate vacant lots wane over several years. In neighborhood after neighborhood, I pass these sad reminders of how fleeting enthusiasm can be.
With a school and a church as stewards, these two lots stand a better chance over the long haul of being honored as the valuable land that they are.
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