“First ribbon-cutting for a farm in probably 100 years in the City of Pittsburgh,” quipped Mayor Bill Peduto at the future site of Hilltop Urban Farm, a 107-acre property in the city’s tiny St. Clair neighborhood in South Pittsburgh that includes 23 acres of farmland.

Upon completion, it will be the largest urban farm in the United States.

Located on the site of the former St. Clair Village public housing neighborhood, 67 acres of the property are undeveloped hillside. In addition to 23 acres of farmland, 12 acres will be used for green spaces and other future development. Another 14 acres will be retained by the URA for potential future housing.

Hilltop Urban Farm will include, among other things, a three-acre CSA farm, three-acre farmer incubation program, one-acre youth farm, farmer’s market building, 5000-square foot event barn, stormwater retention ponds, fruit orchards, public community garden and an education center.

Dignitaries at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Hilltop Urban Farm. Photo by Brian Conway.

The project has been spearheaded by Hilltop Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and community reinvestment organization representing 11 South Pittsburgh neighborhoods, including St. Clair and the three adjacent neighborhoods: Arlington, Carrick and Mount Oliver City.

Discussions for the project began in 2012 with a “Green Toolbox Report” study conducted by Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and GTECH. Next came a feasibility study by Grow Pittsburgh and Penn State Center Pittsburgh in 2014. Hilltop Alliance began a master plan and in March 2015 that included community meetings.

“Communities thrive with well-managed green space assets,” says Aaron Sukenik, Hilltop Alliance’s executive director. “Something as multi-faceted as this, that includes things like food production and youth engagement, is really an opportunity that cannot be ignored when you’re working with communities like these that have seen so much disinvestment over the past 40-50 years.”

The land is currently owned by the city’s Housing Authority and the Hilltop Alliance is beginning modifications under an expanded site access agreement. Allegheny Land Trust will eventually hold the property in perpetuity and will have a lease agreement with the eventual operators of the 20-plus acres of farmland.

To date, Hilltop Alliance and Beltzhoover-based contractors Go Supreme have cleared more than five acres of brush for farmland, laying compost and planting cover crops like rye, oats and winter peas to prepare the soil for future farming.

Sarah Baxendell, Hilltop Alliance’s project manager of greenspace asset development, leads a tour of the Hilltop Urban Farm. Photo by Brian Conway.
Sarah Baxendell, Hilltop Alliance’s project manager of greenspace asset development, leads a tour of the Hilltop Urban Farm. Photo by Brian Conway.

Sarah Baxendell, Hilltop Alliance’s project manager of greenspace asset development, led a tour of the property. She spoke of partnering with adjacent Arlington PreK-8 to allow their 665 students access to after-school and summer programming at an on-site education center.

Baxendell says a one-acre youth farm and a farmer incubation program will be among the first programs to begin. The latter will make available quarter acre plots on three acres of land where individuals will be able to learn to farm and have access to greenhouses, storage space and more.

“This is an opportunity for farmers to start to learn to farm, and for us to work with them to find long-term land in the city or within Western Pennsylvania,” says Baxendell.

Both programs will begin in about a year.

Funding for the project has come from the Hillman Foundation, PNC Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, Birmingham Foundation and Neighborhood Allies. The final estimate to complete the buildout of the project, excluding any future housing development, is about $10 million.

“What you’re seeing here today is the future: this is what urban environments look like,” said City Council President Bruce Kraus, who represents District 3. “You can live here, you can work here, you can farm here, you can shop here, and you can walk here, which is so incredibly important.”

Interested individuals can attend a volunteer workday on September 29 at the Hilltop Urban Farm located at 700 Cresswell Street

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.