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Braddock area: A region divided over expressway plans

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

By Ann Belser, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If the bulldozers were sent out tomorrow to demolish the homes in Braddock that need to be leveled to build the Mon-Fayette Expressway, 78-year-old Esther Clifton would welcome them.

On the Expressway

First of five articles on the impact of the Mon-Fayette Expressway on the East communities.

Other articles in the series:

Part Two: The Mon-Fayette Expressway is the second partitioning of Turtle Creek

Part Three: Wilkins wonders about impact of expressway

Part Four: Monroeville: Highway will have 'minimal impact' -- except for those affected

Part Five: Ramp seen as boon to area of Penn Hills


"I'm going to open my front door and tell them come on through," she said. "There ain't nothing down here on Third Street. Third Street went down to the dogs so fast. We don't even have lights on this street."

It's a common sentiment in Braddock.

"There are two trains of thought," said Evelyn Benzo, a member of borough council whose Oliver Avenue house also is right in the path of the roadway. "Some people are jumping up and down shouting, 'Take my house! Take my house!' And other people are saying, 'Don't divide my neighborhood.' "

Benzo is part of the second group.

"It's not really good the way they're dividing it up," she said.

Plans for the Mon-Fayette Expressway call for the road to split just after it crosses the Monongahela River in North Versailles. One spur will head north linking with the Parkway East in Monroeville. The other spur will be off to the west, linking the road to Pittsburgh and the Parkway East in Oakland.

The spur to the west will run through North Braddock along Braddock Avenue, then curve down through Braddock, running between Talbot and Woodlawn avenues, nearly the entire length of the borough.

At a meeting on the redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site, Dick Schmitz, project manager for the consulting firm of MacLachlan Cornelius & Filoni, which is studying the reuse of the Carrie Furnace site, said the plans call for the roadway to be built on a berm, 25 feet high and 300 feet wide.

In a booklet distributed during a series of public meetings on the proposed expressway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission stated, "After crossing the Monongahela River near the Edgar Thomson Works, the North Shore Alternative continues toward Pittsburgh along the north side of the river, passing through North Versailles, North Braddock, Braddock, Rankin and Swissvale. An interchange is planned at Sixth Street in Braddock. No localized design options are being considered for the project in this area."

That is just the attitude the members of the community advisory committee on the redevelopment of Braddock and the Carrie Furnace site are hoping to change.

Schmitz said he would like to see the roadway set below ground, as the turnpike commission has planned for Hazelwood, rather than raised above ground level.

If the road were depressed, Schmitz said, the impact to the community would be lessened because, instead of creating a wall, that option would allow the view across the borough to be maintained or enhanced. He also suggested building the highway on an elevated structure instead of an earthen berm, which would allow access across the right of way.

Turnpike spokesman Joe Agnello said the commission looked into depressing the highway, but the route through Braddock is within the 100-year flood plain, which means there is a 1 percent chance each year that the roadway could be flooded.

"If this would occur, there would be no way of draining water off of the expressway," he said.

The county Department of Economic Development supports building the highway and working with the turnpike commission on the design details.

"The access is the most important thing," said Ron Gaydos, a project manager for the department who's overseeing redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site. "The access for the Mon Valley and for the region is the most important thing."

The improved access to the area will only help industry, said Michael Tobias, the owner of Dipcraft Manufacturing, whose company has been in Braddock for 35 years.

"Try to bring a 40-foot trailer in here, that's a feat in itself. In 35 years, I have yet to figure out how to give directions," he said.

But Tobias said even though he is optimistic about the project, he also has concerns. He said the plan to put the expressway on an earthen berm "would literally cut the town in half, not only visually, but psychologically."

He also is concerned about the effects on his own business. He said he has at least five buildings that will be directly affected, including three that will be eliminated by the roadway. The front door of his main office will be 12 feet from a superhighway.

The plan for the expressway calls for demolishing 205 residential units in Braddock, 115 of which are currently occupied, and 24 businesses. In North Braddock five homes and two businesses would be demolished. In Rankin the expressway would be built where four residential units and one business are now located.

In all, up to 640 housing units in 421 buildings could be demolished when the highway connects Route 51 to Monroeville and Oakland. In addition to the housing, up to 115 businesses could be displaced.

Richard Florida, a professor of regional and economic development at Carnegie Mellon University, said the Mon-Fayette Expressway will encourage further sprawl while destroying some of the historic areas around Pittsburgh.

"The Mon-Fayette is exactly what Pittsburgh should not be doing," Florida said. He said the highway "is not going to help the Mon Valley one iota. It's going to turn Fayette County into Cranberry."

He said people in Braddock do not need a highway through their town. He said they will be further disenfranchised because the poor who live in Braddock often cannot afford cars. Instead, he said, they need more efficient forms of mass transit to get them to and from jobs.

"A car-oriented strategy promotes segregation and uses up resources that can be used for other things," he said.

Agnello said the commission is planning to build the expressway to comply with Act 61 of 1985 that called for the construction of the expressway as well as other highway projects, such as the widening of the turnpike to six lanes near Philadelphia.

That state legislation says it was designed "to facilitate vehicular traffic within and across the Commonwealth."

Agnello said it was included to provide residents of the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh a way Downtown without having to travel through the Squirrel Hill Tunnels.

Gaydos said planners have met with representatives of the Turnpike Commission to discuss the concerns regarding Braddock, North Braddock, Rankin and Swissvale. "We're working with them to coordinate the best design enhancements," he said.

While the consultants for the county and the turnpike commission work on the details, Angela King, who lives on Third Street with her five children, said she is opposed to the state taking her house.

"I think there are other ways of improving Braddock rather than taking people's homes," she said. "If [turnpike officials] were going to lose their homes, would they be so quick to approve something like this?"

No one disputes that Braddock and the former Carrie Furnace site in Rankin and Swissvale need to be revitalized.

Currently, the land owned by the Park Corp. around Carrie Furnace is clear of debris and overgrowth, but it is a huge brownfield, with old buildings and giant concrete slabs. On the north side of the CSX tracks, where the road is slated to run, are tangles of weeds and piles of debris. Wild turkey, deer and rabbits wander through the honeysuckle and dumped tires, paint cans and sofas.

In the lower part of Braddock, where the highway is to be built, neatly tended homes butt up against overgrown vacant lots and abandoned houses.

The Allegheny County Department of Economic Development is studying the area from Braddock Avenue's commercial district to the industrial area along the Monongahela for redevelopment.

Port Authority of Allegheny County also is considering continuing the Martin Luther King East Busway from Wilkinsburg to Braddock, creating a mass transit link to Downtown. The plans include a large parking lot for a park-n-ride.

The expressway would also run across North Braddock, on the north side of the Edgar Thomson Works and through Rankin and Swissvale along the railroad tracks that border the Carrie Furnace Site. In Braddock it would take out the Braddock Volunteer Fire Co. No. 2 fire station and everything between Woodlawn Avenue and Talbot Avenue from Eleventh Street to the Rankin Bridge.

There will be passages under the highway at Eleventh, Ninth and Third streets, an interchange at Sixth Street and a ramp from the Rankin Bridge to the Carrie Furnace Site.

At public meetings held in Braddock, the responses from community residents have been overwhelmingly in favor of the project. Right now, where there were once blocks full of families, empty houses stand abandoned next to well-tended homes.

Braddock residents who attended the public meetings on the expressway and filled out comment forms were almost unanimous that the project could only help their community.

"I hope this will be good for Braddock and will bring in business," wrote Roger Lee.

"I see this to be very beneficial for the Braddock area. Even though some residents will lose their homes, this is still progress for the communities," wrote Clara E. Davis. "Sometimes sacrifices have to be made with the end result being very beneficial to all and I believe the coming of the expressway will be just that."

"Once 19,000 people lived in Braddock," Schmitz said. "There are only 2,900 now."

He said the work for Braddock, in regard to the expressway, is to enhance the design to provide better access and possibly to drop the roadway below grade so the feeling of the borough being one community is not lost.

"The Turnpike Commission is willing to work with us to generate enhancements that will benefit the community," Schmitz said. "There's a real possibility that this could be a real valuable piece of property because of access to Oakland."

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