Pittsburgh Botanic Garden endures long, bumpy road to success
It was in the late 1980s that movers and shakers in Pittsburgh's gardening community met to formulate a plan for what they thought would be easy enough to do: get an outdoor botanic garden started for the city.
Frank Pizzi, who is now curator of horticulture and grounds at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, smiles as he thinks about those monthly meetings a quarter of a century ago that eventually led to the creation of Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.
“We were young and foolish,” Pizzi says with a laugh. “We've learned so much since then. We literally thought in our horticultural naiveté that the city, the foundations and the politicians would rally at the idea and say, ‘Let's do this.'”
Of course, it didn't work out that way. They all needed lots of cajoling and persuading. One thing the committee was determined to do was create a garden that would stand out from others in the country.
“As we started to establish the core values of the garden,” Pizzi says, “all of us from the very beginning wanted it to be different from other botanic gardens, not unlike the way Pittsburgh is different from other cities of its size and approaches problems in a different and often rather creative way.”
One of the critical issues they wanted to address was making a garden with wonderful plant collections, but the major thrust would be using horticulture, plants and nature to help people reconnect with natural systems and to show them how these systems could in fact help mitigate some of the industrial problems left behind.
“The industry that made Pittsburgh great, made the country great, won the war, all that good stuff, left a lot of baggage,” Pizzi says.
Little did they know the group would be thrown into an environmental nightmare brewing underground where the garden would eventually be established.
After investigating almost 100 sites, a renewable 99-year lease for $1 annually was reached with Allegheny County for land at Settler's Cabin Park to build Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.
“Everybody lined up for a picture, we have the big signing, everybody goes home,” Pizzi says, “and then one thing after another.”
Devastation and heartbreak
Lindsay Bond Totten was in on most of those early meetings, too. She helped search all those sites to find the perfect one and was recruited as the botanic garden's first president in 2002.
“I put my business on hold,” she says. “It was with a great deal of reluctance. As I recall, I declined twice. They said, ‘Lindsay, if you don't do this now, I don't know if we're going to make it.'”
They knew the site they selected had some issues because it had been mined for decades back to the early 1900s. But no one could have anticipated what the land would reveal in September 2004 as Hurricane Ivan descended on Pittsburgh.
The entire site was flooded and, as she stood there, Totten realized this was a huge turning point for the garden.
“It just knocked us back. We had been searching for this site for eight years,” she says. “We were just absolutely devastated. It came down to saying, ‘Is this land fixable?'”
The water coming out of the mines was more acid than vinegar, and every time a major rain event came through, the results would be the same. She thought they would have to return the land or proceed. After much consternation they chose the latter.
That's when Totten first heard about mine reclamation — clearing off the top layers of earth, removing the valuable coal left below and then recovering the land, packing it down so the buildings and roads would be on solid ground and the flooding problem would be eliminated.
Totten and the board even figured out a way the coal would not only pay for the reclamation, but also fund some of the garden's infrastructure. It was a well-meaning plan. Then the price of coal plummeted and the original mining company left the project, crushing their dreams.
In 2008, Totten left her official role with the garden, but just like Pizzi is still working to help the project reach fruition.
“Physically and mentally, I'd been doing a lot of heavy lifting for 20 years, and I was just not able to do what it took, and what it took was 110 percent,” she says. “You had to live and breath and just everything had to be about the garden. They needed to find some new energy, somebody who could give to the garden what I had given for that time.”
Greg Nace had already retired once from a career creating and growing gardens in North Carolina and Hawaii when he got a call from a recruiter wondering if he'd be interested in running the botanic garden.
“Really, what attracted me to the position was the fact that there was this reclamation component to it,” Nace says. He had just finished a master's degree in environmental management at Duke. So sustainability, reforestation, brownfields and remediation were right up his alley.
Nace started on March 1, 2010, knowing from the start he had his work cut out for him. Nothing could be built at the garden until reclamation was completed. At his first board meeting, everyone showed up, excited to see the new president, but Nace felt something troubling during that meeting.
“I could really sense that they didn't believe it was going to happen,” he says. “It was not just about building gardens. It was about taking a piece of land that was basically considered just junk and turning it around.”
A month and a half later, he set up a table at an Earth Day event to promote the garden and overheard two women talking. “I heard one say to the other, ‘Don't give them any money. I gave them money; they never do anything.' I thought, this is just a huge credibility problem we had with the community,” he says.
A master plan had been commissioned years earlier from Marshall Tyler and Raucsh Landscape Architects for $350,000. It was the template for how the garden would be built and in what order.
“I kept looking at that, day after day and saying what on this plan can we do now, and I just kept coming up short,” Nace says.
Public perception wasn't helped when some wild expectations of revenue from the coal remediation made it to the media and county government. A figure of $10 million was thrown around, which made the garden's fundraising difficult — who would donate and why should the county help when that kind of money is pouring in? Last year, the garden earned less than $4,000 from remediated coal.
Then, when the price tag for Phase 1 came in at $32 million, Nace knew it would be nearly impossible to raise that kind of money. “It was sort of frustrating in the beginning,” he says.
He studied the master plan and hiked the 460 acres. He would cross areas off his short list of where work might start. The center ridge wouldn't work, another had steep hills and high wall mine subsidence, but when he walked the northern ridge of the property, he found a place that had the right topography and a stream with good water.
The problem was, this ridge was part of Phase 5 in the master plan, and another six acres had to be acquired from the county to access it. Now Nace had to convince the board to forget the plan they had been married to for more than 20 years.
“We have to do something,” he told them. “Either you start doing something now or it dies on the vine.”
“It was a huge risk,” he says now. “But where there's risk, there's also opportunity. I think you have to be an optimist and see the potential.”
It took six months, slowly gaining allies on the board, until finally it was decided. Phase 5 was now going to be Phase 1.
“It took someone to come in from the outside who wasn't so enamored by the master plan,” Nace says, “to look at it and say, ‘We're not doing that; we're going to set it on the shelf.'”
Building on a new beginning
In late 2010, trail-building began, covering three miles. Then, after three years of negotiating, the county's six acres were secured, which became the entrance. Sixty acres of the garden were opened to the public in 2014. In its first year, the garden received 13,000 visitors.
A barn built in 1870 was renovated and now is the welcome center, open for weddings and other events. A farmhouse was razed and rebuilt on the same foundation as an administration building. A renovated log house adjoins an orchard with chickens and sheep. An eco building is located behind the administration building. There have been more than 6,000 plants added to the landscape, with planting still continuing.
Work has begun on the Japanese garden along with the Children's Garden for Five Senses, which has half of its funding in place. Four exploration stations greet visitors on the trail along with other things to see.
Membership has risen from 500 members to 1,300 over the past six years. The garden relies heavily on volunteers to help the staff of 14, working 4,000 to 5,000 hours per year. Reclamation of mines continues, preparing the other phases for development.
Nace, who is retiring in May, will remain on an advisory committee, returning a couple times a year to weigh in on the progress. He's thrilled to still be involved, albeit in a lesser role.
“There's a lot of nostalgia when you put your heart into something,” he says. “You just want to see it continue to grow and do well.”