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Officials to move forward with renovations to bridge near North Side park

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Alida Baker, Allegheny Commons project director, stands along the railroad tracks in West Park on the North Side on Tuesday, October 1, 2013.

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Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, 11:45 p.m.

Pittsburgh officials are finished negotiating with supporters of North Side's Allegheny Commons who say a $5 million bridge renovation will damage the historic integrity and character of the oldest green space in the city's park system.

“We've been round and round with them to the point we just have to agree to disagree,” said Pat Hassett, assistant public works director. “There's nothing more we can do. Time has run out.”

Engineers are moving ahead with plans to overhaul the West Ohio Street Bridge by raising the bridge deck 3 to 5 feet to at least 22 feet above the railroad tracks so it will comply with state bridge height requirements.

They'll try not to ruin the aesthetic appeal of the National Register of Historic Places-eligible park built in 1867, but Alida Baker, project director of the Allegheny Commons Initiative, a nonprofit neighborhood group working to restore and rehabilitate the park, doubts that will be possible.

“It will alter the historic landscape,” Baker said.

A modern bridge built to code would disrupt the open sight lines that distinguish the park, Baker argues, adding that it would further fracture a space that development has whittled from 110 acres to 64.

Baker's group wants a study done on other options, noting three other bridges over the railroad in or near the park do not provide a 22-foot clearance.

“If this were the only possible solution, we would listen,” she said. “But we aren't convinced there aren't other alternatives.”

The city lost a court battle years ago against Norfolk Southern Railroad to keep the 19-foot clearance on the bridge.

Hassett said the poor condition of the more-than-a-century-old truss bridge and the potentially fleeting availability of federal funding for the work demands swift action.

Final designs for the bridge could begin in November, pending approval from the federal government of an environmental assessment that takes into account the impact of the work on the park and its historic nature. Both were heavily considered throughout the process, Hassett said.

Construction could begin in spring 2015, he said.

The matter could end up in federal court, Baker said.

“But we have precious little money,” she said, “and we'd hate to spend it that way.”

The bridge would be built largely with $5 million in federal funding, a rarity for park-related projects in Pittsburgh. Public funding is scarce for the 180-park system, and nonprofits often fill in the gaps.

Since 1998, the private nonprofit Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has raised more than $60 million for park improvements as the city's partner. Public Works sets aside an average of $5.5 million a year for parks and green space. The Allegheny Regional Asset District has tentatively budgeted $5.2 million next year in sales tax revenue for city parks. Pittsburgh allocates about $4 million a year.

This week, the conservancy will award a contract to revamp Cliffside Park in the Hill District, where clumps of crab grass spread far into the faded playground and a defaced sign stands above a dirty water fountain.

The project involves building an entry trellis, pathways and play areas as well as an overlook, picnic areas and a basketball court. Work should be completed by spring.

“It's been neglected for a long time,” said Marvin Coates, 40, a truck driver who visits the park he helped restore in the early 1990s as part of a neighborhood crew hired by the city. “It's not even really safe for kids to play down here.”

Bids ranged from $712,242 to $1.03 million. Funding will come from a mix of nonprofit and public sources.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or

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