And the Finalists Are…

The judges’ picks for the best ideas to improve Pittsburgh
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In the Spring issue, we launched a competition among our readers and residents to send in ideas to make Pittsburgh a better place to live. Ideas could range from something that wouldn’t cost a dime to a multi-​million dollar infrastructure project. Part of the reason I wanted launch this contest was that it didn’t seem that we had enough percolating here in terms of civic projects with an eye toward the future. Being an older community, I reasoned, we may be in danger of complacency and in need of a shot of ambition.

We received 115 responses. Nearly all were very good ideas. And many were great ideas. We narrowed the responses down to 35 semifinalists, and then turned them over to our judges, the 10 members of the Pittsburgh Today Advisory Committee. Among the 35 were a few that remained anonymous to the judges because two of our staff had ideas to submit. The ideas chosen by the judges as the finalists are below. And they include one, at the end, which I submitted. Each of the champions will have a chance to discuss their ideas with Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and, possibly, a group of potential funders.

We hope you like the ideas that follow. While they represent our judges’ favorites, many others were excellent, and we will be publishing those each week this fall on pitts​burghquar​terly​.com, so if you haven’t yet signed up for our free newsletter, please do so at pitts​burghquar​terly​.com/​n​e​w​s​l​e​t​t​e​r.

And let’s not forget: worthy ideas don’t need the official imprimatur of funders and elected officials to become reality. If you like some of the ideas below or online, why not help make them happen?

—Douglas Heuck

School and municipal consolidation

One big idea to make Pittsburgh better: consolidate all of the municipal governments, school districts, police forces, fire departments and EMS agencies into one (or at most three) large administrative units. Find leadership at county and state levels to push hard for this, go ahead and upset a bunch of people, get authority from the state to make it happen when local authorities resist. Stop this crazy inefficiency and wastefulness that makes it impossible for the region to move forward because it is impossible to coordinate big ideas, it is impossible to have people take a regional view as opposed to a micro-​local perspective.”

—Mike Schiller

There is new energy and vitality in Pittsburgh. But we have not, as a region, figured out how to stem our population decline. Our political leadership must be in a position to plan, implement, and speak about growth initiatives for our entire MSA. With 130 municipalities, 109 police departments, and 43 school districts in Allegheny County alone, unlike other more streamlined and faster growing regions in the U.S., we have limits on our capacity to think broadly and speak with one voice. We should start by merging the City and the County.”

—Bill Schenck

Job training & housing renovation

Pittsburgh has a wealth of wonderful and diverse residential homes, though some are in varying states of disrepair. Many of these homes were built to last using quality materials. Given that there are many links between healthy communities, housing, and job training, a major initiative could be launched to renovate vacant and languishing properties using a contractor apprentice program. This could connect with the land banks program (and affordable housing). The deterioration of houses through neglect, poverty, aging residents, and absentee landlords can lead to the demise of a neighborhood. In low-​income communities where people need jobs, there are many houses that need rehabilitation. Anecdotally, many property owners lament the difficulty in finding roofers, electricians, carpenters, masons, plumbers and general contractors.

Such a program would have economic, social and environmental benefits through the preservation of our existing housing stock. To take this idea a step further would also incorporate a home ownership component.

While there are a number of organizations doing this to some degree in Pittsburgh, a more concerted effort could be initiated, building on current programs. A coalition of groups could be considered for involvement. Many on the following list are doing job training and/​or house renovation to some degree or another: Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, Shelton Masonry (Steve Shelton and TIP program for incarcerated), Green Building Alliance, ACTION Housing, Hosanna House, Habitat for Humanity, Urban Innovation 21, Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, Rebuilding Together, Bridgeway Capital, Ma’at Construction Group, Goodwill Industries, Carpenters Joint Apprenticeship Training Center, Oakland Planning & Development Corporation, Summit Academy, Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program, Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, Construction Junction, Union Project, Homewood’s Community Empowerment Association, PCRG, Project RE( Construction Junction and CMU).”

—Melissa McSwigan

Build a biodigester

My idea to make Pittsburgh a better place is to build a biodigester. Biodigestion is a renewable, sustainable and carbon neutral way to deal with our municipal waste water and organic waste while cutting costs and generating revenue. Such a facility would generate substantial quantities of renewable natural gas, fuel and electricity at a significant cost savings. The resulting sludge is used as fertilizer and diverted from landfill. For those worried about climate change, the process is carbon neutral because the gas is generated from “new carbon” and the sludge is returned to the land.

Modern multistage digesters are currently operating in many states across the country. Cleveland (yes, Cleveland!) has a multistage biodigester with a 1.9 million gallon capacity handling 75,000 wet tons of sludge. It powers a 1.3 megawatt electric generator and produces 3,400 gge/​d. They augment the sludge with compostable materials provided by events at the Cleveland Convention Center and games at First Energy Stadium (Browns) and Progressive Field (Indians). That sports venue waste alone is reported to provide enough energy to power 300 homes for a month.

In Portland, Oregon, the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant is spending $12 million to install a biodigester facility. They project to net $3 million in annual revenue by replacing 1.3 million gallons of diesel with the equivalent CNG, and cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 21,000 tons annually.

Closer to home, the Hermitage, Pa. waste facility installed a multistage biodigester facility in 2014. It provides 75 percent of their electricity, saving $25,000 a month in energy costs, and recycles 15,000 gallons of waste per week, further saving on landfill costs. They are currently expanding the facility to increase their electrical output.

Recently, students in the MBA in sustainability program at Duquesne University did a feasibility study for a waste to energy project in Pittsburgh. While they identified a number of potential sources of feedstock to support a biodigester facility, the richest source of material was ALCOSAN with its yearly production of 44,000 tons of dry waste. The feasibility study also found that Allegheny County averages 386 million pounds of food waste annually, with little being composted and most ending up in landfill. Combined with additional organic waste from Steelers, Pirates and Pens games, we have more than enough to support a multi-​megawatt facility.

For the city of Pittsburgh, it would help meet our commitments as a “100 Resilient Cities” designation. The current 2030 Vision plan calls for the city to have a fossil fuel free fleet and zero compostable waste to landfill. A biodigester facility would decrease the carbon footprint, conceivably reducing carbon emissions by tens of thousand of tons annually. The economics are there, the return on investment is realistic, and it is part of a green solution to the CSO issue.”

—John Stolz

Water taxis

We need to implement a system of water taxis/​buses throughout the Pittsburgh region that allows us to take advantage of this wonderful unused infrastructure we call the rivers. Water taxis can reduce traffic, support equity, activate the rivers, instill beauty and create a sense of place for all citizens. Additionally, water taxis create a sense of fun, adventure and awareness for both tourists and residential users — even if you do not ride the water taxis, seeing them and knowing that they exist creates a sense of identification with our three rivers and our city.”

—Mike Schiller

Light the bridges

Light the bridges that frame Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle. Illuminate, from the bridge deck level, the nine or 10 bridges that border the central portion of the city’s business district. The effect on the city skyline from every angle, including overhead, would be dramatic and unique.”

—Jim Roddey

Amenities on the trails

I’ve always thought that our burgeoning trail system in the city could be enhanced to include amenities along them such as spray water parks, sand volleyball courts, playgrounds, food truck parking areas and areas featuring art and history. These are just a few examples. I got the idea while riding though Vancouver’s Stanley Park which is adjacent to their downtown. They have many amenities along the trails in the park including tennis courts, a pitch and miniature golf area as well as the items I mention above. Adding such things to an already popular trail system would only enhance the experience and get more folks out using the trails to go to do their favorite activities. I’m sure there are areas already along the trails that are already city owned or part of the easement area for the existing trails that could be used for various purposes. In short, why not enhance something which is already immensely popular and used by much of the population and folks from all walks of life?”

—Tom Vesch

A city budget for art

On a visit to our sister city, Philadelphia, a few years back, I learned that 2 percent of their infrastructure budget had to be spent on art. As I toured the city, it showed. Nearly every block has murals and statuary, making Philly a veritable feast for the eyes, a unique visual experience. Why can’t Pittsburgh take a note from our loved/​hated rival and implement a similar policy? We already have the largest free arts festival in the country. Let’s lean in to Pittsburgh’s arts to truly make the city stand out.”

—Anjuli White

5050 4 Pittsburgh

I believe people solve problems and as such my idea is based on people. I propose an initiative entitled: 5050 4 Pittsburgh. Think Big Brothers/​Sisters, but for high school seniors and college students in the city. The professionals, in their respective fields, get to mentor a student. The student then provides community service to the city. Ideally this would be to the next generation (i.e., middle school students), but any form of service would benefit the city. Even if the recipient is picking up trash it helps our city. Work ethic built Pittsburgh and in my opinion we could use a little more of it.

Problems typically aren’t solved by the generation running the show, but rather the one that follows. I believe this concept could help to accomplish that.”

—Eric Lloyd

Steam clock

I’d like to suggest that the City and the Cultural District join forces with funders to replace the unattractive steam pipe in front of the Benedum Center with a steam clock patterned after the one in Vancouver. This may be a small idea, but it would greatly improve an unsightly view for thousands each week, and provide economic benefits, too.

The corner of Seventh and Penn is one of the busiest intersections downtown. Those attending performances, especially at the Benedum but also at Heinz Hall and the O’Reilly, pass it. People who live in apartments and condominiums in that part of town walk by daily. Bikers using the dedicated lane on Penn Avenue ride by, and conventioneers in search of dinner, entertainment or outdoor recreation at Point Park see it, too. Now that theater-​goers at the Benedum must line up on the Penn Avenue side of the building to move single file through metal detectors, an increasing number of folks are exposed to the steaming pipe. It obviously serves a purpose. A steam clock would release the corner’s steam pressure in an entertaining and beautiful way, turning what is now an eyesore, into an asset.

Vancouver’s steam clock is a major tourist attraction and the centerpiece of an entire portion of their city. Visitors seek out the clock; they stay to watch its complex mechanical workings and listen to the musical whistles at the change of each hour. After the “performance,” onlookers disperse to patronize the wide variety of restaurants and shops in the district.

A number of police incidents have occurred around the Benedum Center in recent years and months. Making the corner of Seventh and Penn the center of positive attention may help defuse those incidents, too. Google Vancouver steam clock.”

—Lynn Dunbar

Connected vehicle technology

Expanding Carnegie Mellon University’s pilot program for connected vehicle technology would be a game-​changer for the city. The program, which outfits vehicles with devices that “talk” to other connected vehicles, traffic signals and pedestrians’ smartphones, would not only help move traffic more efficiently, but also lower emissions and make our streets safer by reducing the number of crashes, injuries and fatalities.”

—Katherine Kelleman

Gene Kelly dancing

Every few years, an old discussion recurs in the Cultural District: let’s erect a statue to Gene Kelly! But the many arguments on Downtown placement of a statue to Pittsburgh’s greatest dancer miss the point. A staid, middlebrow statue (of which Downtown has too many examples already) is too literal a tribute; it can’t possibly capture the lightness of being that was Kelly’s special flair. A monument to a man whose genius was movement should move.

Let’s use cutting-​edge, mixed reality technology (which doesn’t require VR headsets) to have Kelly reenact his most famous steps digitally, close to our theaters. For example, his turn on roller skates in “It’s Always Fair Weather” looks like it was actually filmed on Penn Avenue, as he dodges theater-​goers under glittering marquees. Let’s not forget (“Singin’ in the Rain;”) rather, let’s celebrate it in true local fashion. The city of Winchester, England recently celebrated the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s birth with “Rain Jane,” a series of the author’s quotes that appear on sidewalks only when it rains. In the same spirit, Kelly’s curbside dance in “Singing” would be a special only-​in-​the-​rain treat.

Given the choice between an encounter with Kelly twirling through the Cultural District or staring at a statue marooned on a traffic island, I’d bet any visitor would find the moving image more magical­ — and thus, more true to Kelly’s spirit. It expresses the dancer, the district and the spirit of the city more memorably than a cement-​footed statue ever could.

CMU’s expertise in entertainment technology could solve the technical problems of projecting Kelly’s image down local sidewalks. Then, if he tires of entertaining theater-​goers, he can beam himself over to PPG Place or Point State Park and give skaters and strollers an inspiration. For a digital dancer like Kelly, it’s always fair weather in Pittsburgh.”

—Christine H. O’Toole

The Pittsburgh Conservation Corps

The history of Pittsburgh is the history of one of the few greatest cities in America. For the past 250 years, this region has been played a key role — arguably — in nearly every major milestone in the development of this nation. Despite this, the long-​term viability of the region is threatened by one of the worst economic problems any region can face: continued population decline. Greater Pittsburgh is alone among large U.S. metro areas in continual population loss over 30 years.

It also has one of the oldest populations in the country due to an exodus of workers 25 years ago during the decline of heavy industry. The demographic situation is widely misunderstood and for a long time was turned into a local mantra that “the young people are leaving.” And while young people actually leave here at no greater rate than in other cities, the perception that young people flee Pittsburgh has become pervasive and damaging.

In the minds of many, especially young people, there is no more important issue today than the environment. With its heavy industry, Pittsburgh has historically been a region of great prosperity but at the cost of great environmental degradation. A killer smog in Donora, Pa. in the late 1940s spurred the U.S. government to create the Environmental Protection Administration. Since then, Greater Pittsburgh has made great strides in improving environmental conditions, until today it is a green and beautiful region. Still, though, a national perception of Pittsburgh as a smoky, dirty and undesirable place remains.

In that context, The Pittsburgh Conservation Corps can make a critical difference. This project will recruit regional high school students to work on conservation projects to improve and beautify Greater Pittsburgh’s environment. For three fall weekends their freshmen and sophomore years, students will gather to work together on projects in their home communities. For three spring weekends their freshmen and sophomore years, students will meet with students across the region and join to work on major regional projects. Such a regional project might be, for example, planting trees along bike trails. It could be scouring swaths of the region, picking up garbage. It could be painting murals. It could be a combination, etc. Some experienced students will return as juniors and seniors to provide help with project leadership.

The benefits will be many. Students will fulfill community service requirements that now form an important component in their quest to get into the best colleges they can. They will also make this region and the students’ home communities better through their physical conservation projects. They will make connections and friends with students from other parts of the region. And in a broader and more long-​term sense, they will become more involved in the region’s future, by taking an active part in improving it. They’ll develop a closer connection with the region and a greater sense of pride in it. This will form an important plank in the long-​term strategy of attracting and retaining our best and most committed young people. (It’s widely known that the people most likely to want to live in Pittsburgh are those who already have a connection with the region.) Beyond that, this program could become a national model for other cities, drawing attention to Greater Pittsburgh as a place of youth vitality and environmental strength.

Civic involvement can have a much greater impact on our fortunes than it currently does. The model in this regard is the famous public works project campaign started by the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression. The Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps accomplished great things in three areas. They built a variety of important physical projects; they engaged an available labor force in constructive activity; and they built a great sense of pride and accomplishment among those involved in our country. Our communities, region and country can become much stronger if people become involved and inspired to improve their communities.

There is also a long tradition in Pittsburgh of solving its problems, from rebuilding from fires that destroyed the city to the famed Renaissance that controlled smoke and flooding to the city’s remarkable recovery from staggering job losses in the 1980s. We can continue in this tradition. Pittsburgh can become known as the national leader in enlightened public service, the engagement of young people and the improvement of the environment.

We would seek to work with the Student Conservation Association, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy on this project. The SCA has a 60-​year history in executing conservation projects with students and has an active branch in Pittsburgh that began in 2000. The Pittsburgh Conservation Corps could be an arm of the local SCA or it could be a separate entity. The important thing is to greatly expand the involvement of local students in projects in their home communities and in the region as a whole. Through a variety of incentives and public media outreach, we would make being part of the Pittsburgh Conservation Corps “the thing to do” among high school students, attracting the best and brightest first, which will then attract greater numbers.

Recap of benefits: 1: Pittsburgh builds the strength of connection between its young people and their home­ — significantly increasing the chances they will want to return home and live here. This is one important long-​term solution to our population problem. 2: Pittsburgh sheds its old and rustbelt image and becomes known as both a “Young City” and a “Green City” because of the national and international attention this project would bring. 3: Young people actually take on projects that will significantly enhance our region.”

—Douglas Heuck


PQ Staff

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