Hazelwood Green
Photo courtesy of Environmental Planning & Design.

The Monongahela riverfront at Hazelwood Green stretches 1.3 miles, sloping and overgrown in places, pockmarked with abandoned industrial structures. An active rail line runs through it.

Yet once reclaimed, it holds promise for recreational use, says Todd Stern, managing director of U3 Advisors in New York City, development advisors for the site.

“The riverfront plan is something we’ve long set our sights on, and we want to open that space to the public again as we anticipate future private and other mixed-use development on the site,” says Stern. “We feel that this is the time to begin to figure out the riverfront.”

That effort begins after Labor Day with a master planning and public input process, led by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council — which received a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) — and landscape architect Environmental Planning & Design (EPD) of Pittsburgh.

“The mantra of Hazelwood Green is being a place of innovation. The 1.3 miles of riverfront present an opportunity to blend engineering, technology, ecology, culture and recreation in innovative ways,” says Andrew JG Schwartz, studio director with EPD. “This creative fusion will celebrate the riverfront’s legacy while developing a meaningful, soul-satisfying and funky public space that is uniquely Pittsburgh.”

When completed in summer 2021, the master plan will guide the development of land along the river and decisions about the use and preservation of industrial heritage pieces along the river’s edge, including a pump house, mooring cells, platforms, coal loaders and catwalks.

Industrial use of the riverfront property — about 21 acres that vary in width from 55 to 200 feet — has created a barrier between the neighborhood and the river for more than a century, Stern says.

“This master planning process is founded on the view that the riverfront is common ground. The project team will be asking for public input and feedback at each stage of design, to ensure that we create an inclusive place that users of all abilities and interests can enjoy,” he says.

Gathering public input begins on September 8 with a presentation by EPD at the Greater Hazelwood Monthly Community Meeting, hosted by the Hazelwood Initiative. Then a design charrette is scheduled for October 15-17, at a time and place still undecided. During these three days, technical experts will present maps and models to help solicit input from the public.

“We do hope to do this in person and are figuring out ways that people can come together in small groups safely” because of the pandemic, says Stern. “It’s almost going to be like we’ll have office hours, where people will be able to drop in at different times and we’ll try to manage the flow of people so that it’s not too crowded.”

Additionally, the organizers will distribute surveys and engage with people through social media to familiarize them with the site. Public engagement activities will be posted online throughout the fall and the duration of the project.

An advisory committee of neighborhood, city, regional and site representatives has toured the riverfront and hopes to allow others to do so at some point, Stern says. The committee will lend guidance to the design process.

“It’s an amazing location that offers everything from city views and connection to the river to economic opportunity,” says Terri Shields, a committee member and chair of the Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative. “The community process will be critical to ensuring that neighborhood input is not only heard but integrated throughout the entire design phase.”

The Hazelwood Green Riverfront Master Plan will ultimately be presented to the DCNR for review.

Part of the restoration is to address environmental impacts of past industrialization on the ecosystem. Any use of the property will follow Hazelwood Green’s pledge to do sustainable development.

“We don’t want anything we do to change the nature of that landscape materially, other than providing access,” says Stern. “And we’ll have to manage access, in terms of volume; we don’t want hundreds of people at one time, so lower-impact uses that manage traffic flow and the programming that we put on there is one way we manage sustainability. The other is plantings and other landscaping for stormwater runoff.”

Additional challenges include the riverfront’s steep grade, and the railroad tracks and fencing. There are different easement rights and ownership conditions along the track, Stern says, so the group will work with rail partners.

“There’s no simple ‘convert it all to a trail,’” he says, “so the existing rail ownership and easement rights have to be factored into our ultimate solution.”

Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, says restoring the community’s connection to the river is a longstanding goal of the development that until recently was called Almono.

“This master planning is the first step in activating the riverfront to support outdoor recreation, public health and local businesses along an extensive trail system that extends all the way from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.,” Reiman says.

It’s too soon to put a cost to the project, Stern says. Much of that depends on the scope of the master plan and the degree to which existing physical and legal constraints restrict whatever development ideas come from the effort.

“I assume that will be low-impact activities that provide recreational access to the Monongahela,” he says.

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.