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Group produces Nine Mile Run greenway proposals

Monday, August 09, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In 1910, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., commissioned by the city to study Pittsburgh roads and parks, saw the Nine Mile Run valley as Pittsburgh's most striking opportunity for the creation of a large park:

"Its long meadows of varying width would make ideal playfields; the stream, when it is freed from sewage, will be an attractive and interesting element in the landscape; the wooded slopes on either side give ample opportunity for enjoyment of the forest, for shaded walks and cool resting places."

Twelve years after Olmsted's report, the U.S. Steel Corp. began dumping slag into the Nine Mile Run valley: 12 trains per day, 280 tons per train. Trucks later replaced the trains, and the dumping continued for a total of 50 years, from 1922 to 1972.

"The bottom line is we have 20 stories of slag" in the valley, said Tim Collins, one of the leaders of the Nine Mile Run Greenway project, designed to return the valley and its stream to nature and to recreational and aesthetic uses -- realizing, at least in part, Olmsted's vision.

The 100 or so acres of parkland will complement a major new housing development that will be built atop the slag pile. Summerset at Frick Park will be built over the next 10 years, starting next spring.

At a three-day workshop held last month, city planners, artists, engineers, landscape architects, environmentalists and East End residents -- about 70 people in all -- finalized recommendations for landscape treatments and activities at each of five "nodes" along the stream.

Polluted by human waste from antiquated sewage systems in Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Swissvale and Wilkinsburg, the stream also suffers from destructive and dangerous flows and subsequent erosion during storms.

The Army Corps of Engineers is considering a $6 million improvement to stop the erosion, but only if city officials prevent sewage from entering the watershed, Collins said. He said the city and the other three municipalities are working to correct the problem.

Nine Mile Run begins just below the former Foodland building on Braddock Avenue in Swissvale, where the stream's underground tributaries converge in a culvert.

To slow down the storm water, solutions at this site include terracing the grassy area above the culvert and creating below the culvert an artful sequence of cascading curves. Steps would lead down to the stream and to a nearby entrance to Frick Park, now gated and locked. The restored entrance would lead to the mile-long Greenway Trail, which visits the park's ball field and picnic pavilion, passes under Commercial Avenue and along the slag slopes before ending at Duck Hollow, where Nine Mile Run meets the Monongahela River.

At Node Two, the ball field, the recommendation is to restore the stream to a more natural flow and re-create its flood plain. Baffles (concrete projections) would be built into the concrete channel that carries Nine Mile Run, again to slow down fast-moving water. The stream then would be restored to a natural meander within its original flood plain.

At Node Three, the greenway trail and stream's midway point at Commercial Avenue, a meadow would be turned into a field for soccer and baseball and an adjacent parking lot. The existing greenway trailer would be refurbished with a greenhouse, propagation area and small display garden for educational purposes. A boardwalk would extend into the cattails of an existing wetland area.

The workshop group was divided on this solution, Collins said, with about half the members wanting to retain the meadow. But the group felt it had to put a ball field there to replace the one lost at Node Two.

At Node Four, the slag site, the workshop members supported temporary environmental art installations and a rebuilt pedestrian bridge over the stream, as well as the revegetation of the slag slopes.

"This is the most challenging site in a lot of ways," Collins said. But for artists, it's also one of the most exciting, presenting possibilities for reshaping the land for ecological and aesthetic purposes.

Nine Mile Run ends at Node Five, otherwise known as Duck Hollow. Last week, ducks, Canada geese and a great blue heron shared the delta with two fishermen perched on a picnic table. Ideas for this location center around enhancing its attraction to wildlife. A butterfly garden, bird nesting structures and a fish ladder for upstream migration are all possibilities. People amenities include a viewing platform and duck blind -- for seeing, not shooting -- and a sidewalk and benches for those who like to fish.

Cost estimates and a business plan are in the works, and will be included in the project's final report, to be published in January. The work done to date has been funded with a $250,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments.

An exhibit about the greenway project, which also explores the history, flora and fauna of the valley, is on view through Friday at the Wood Street Galleries.

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