Upper Garfield. Landsat photo via Google Earth.

Garfield, tucked between Lawrenceville and East Liberty and home to 300-400 vacant parcels of land in a much-desired part of town, is crafting a transformative solution to urban blight. Not to mention thwarting the chances for sudden, unsustainable redevelopment.

The Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC), along with neighborhood residents, will meet with Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning on May 5 to pitch a neighborhood vision for a community-owned, community-wide green zone. This follows eighteen months of consultations with, and studies by, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and evolve environment :: architecture, along with four public meetings in the community.

“There is a large space in the upper part of Garfield that could accommodate passive recreation,” says Rick Swartz, Executive Director at the BGC, “that would allow people to get out and walk the neighborhood more so than they do today, get kids connected back to nature, and provide opportunities for gardens and orchards, to overlook the neighborhood, and really spark something very different for Garfield than it has ever had.”

The plan, still in its infancy, calls for rezoning large swaths of vacant parcels in upper Garfield as greenways, a designation which would prevent the land from being developed in the future. Larger parcels, including wooded areas and a ballfield adjoining the former Fort Pitt elementary school, as well as a forested bluff above Garfield Commons development, would be cleaned up and connected via trails and city staircases to smaller parklets and existing green spaces, creating a looping path that would span much of the neighborhood.

EvolveEA drawing of a proposed Garfield green zone, Vacant parcels are pink; the proposed green zone is green.

“One thing that was really appealing about approaching this, is it’s a rarity for a city to have so many contiguous lots that are vacant—not just vacant, but long vacant,” says Gavin Deming, Community Specialist at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. “You have this contiguous green space that you don’t usually see [in cities].”

Beyond transforming the land into usable parklets, the community proposes that they directly steward the green zone themselves by placing the parcels into a community-owned land trust.

“We’re saying to the city, we’re not going to make you go out and raise the money,” says Swartz. “We’re willing to do that. But in exchange, we want tighter control over the future to make sure it is sustained that way, and create a permanent asset and not something for just the next 10 years.”

Most of the parcels in the BGC’s plan are owned by the City of Pittsburgh, with a lesser number owned by the Housing Authority, Garfield Jubilee, Pittsburgh Board of Education, and BGC itself.

The BGC puts forth several arguments for establishing a community land trust. They argue that:

  • A park is more likely to be tended by local volunteers if the neighborhood takes ownership;
  • Outside funders will be less likely to fund construction of a green zone that falls under the city’s control;
  • They find the city’s stewardship of Garfield’s green spaces at present to be perfunctory.

“If we take ownership, it’s our responsibility,” says Swartz. “Our problem is that the city is not caring for the property today, so what will lead us to say that the city would do it in the future?” He cites the city’s intention to decommission and naturalize Kite Hill Park as further impetus for the community to manage their own green resources.

Swartz opposes using the Adopt-A-Lot program to secure vacant lots, as community stewardship of the land can be revoked by the city at any time without cause and then sold to developers or other individuals with 90 days notice. Property that is placed in the city’s Land Bank can also be redeveloped, whereas a “greenway” zoning designation permanently prohibits future development.

“Garfield right now is very attractive, because we’re affordable and we have a lot of land,” says Aggie Brose, Deputy Director of the BGC. “I wouldn’t want, on a given day, for investors to take all that was cleaned up now—with little benches and a beautiful view—and come in and say, well, I’m going to build at market rate, and have the city give it up.”

“Admittedly, this is a bit of a new wrinkle for the city,” adds Swartz. “Even when they did a place like Emerald View Park in Mt. Washington the city retained ownership. Well, that’s a huge park. Much bigger than the spaces that we’re talking about here.”

As an alternative, or supplement, to a community-owned land trust, the BGC has spoken with the Allegheny Land Trust about transferring large parcels of land into their care. In its over 20-year history, the Land Trust protected more than 2,000 acres of green space in the Pittsburgh region, including 24 acres on Mount Washington that is now part of Emerald View Park.

“ALT looks forward to working in partnership to implement a Garfield Greenway,” says Roy Kraynyk, VP of Land Protection & Capital Projects, who notes that ALT has the experience and institutional infrastructure to protect land that a community wants to remain as green space.

Garfield residents at a April 21 community meeting. Brian Conway photo.
Garfield residents at a April 21 community meeting. Brian Conway photo.

The issue has been presented to local residents at a series of community meetings beginning in late 2014. Swartz says that a number of community members, while supportive of a green zone, worried that it was part of a larger strategy to fuel gentrification in the neighborhood.

“We had to convince people that this isn’t intended as a regional amenity,” he says. “If we create this green zone, and it’s only used by people in the community, we’re happy with that.”

The most recent community meeting, on April 21, lasted over two hours and ended with a near unanimous round of applause from the 30+ people in attendance when they were asked if residents would like to see the neighborhood pursue a green zone managed by a community-owned land trust.

Ultimately, the size and scope of the project will vary greatly depending upon discussions with Pittsburgh City Planning over land ownership, the amount of funding that can be secured from state and nonprofit agencies, the number of volunteers in the community willing to take on such an expansive project, and which parcels of land are purchased or developed by third parties in the interim. Furthermore, Garfield residents must submit a petition if they wish to see any vacant parcels rezoned as a greenway.

Despite so many obstacles, the neighborhood is not deterred. “It’s making people feel as though the neighborhood belongs to everybody,” says Swartz.

“We don’t have a lot right now, but you can see right here it’s a rather substantial space,” he says, gesturing toward a map of the proposal. “Can we do something to make it nicer? Attractive? Usable? I think we can.”

A PDF of a 2015 green zone report can be found on the BGC’s website.

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.