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All’s Cool Again at Allegheny Commons

Monday, October 11, 2010
By Ruth Ann Dailey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Conflicts are the bread-and-butter of journalism, of course — so much so that readers and reporters alike can find it all occasionally wearying.

So when a big, juicy conflict comes to a sorta-kinda happy resolution, it’s a relief to share the news.

Turns out it’s also instructive to take a closer look at the process and ask ourselves, “How the heck did that happen?” The people who threw themselves into protecting Allegheny Commons Park aren’t completely sure, but most of them — most — feel considerably less worried than they were this time last October.

“It was at Pumpkin Fest last year that we built the edifice,” recalled Bernie Beck, former president of the East Allegheny Community Council.

The “edifice” was a plywood mock-up of a cooling station Duquesne Light intended to build in the northeast corner of Allegheny Commons Park, and it was almost as attractive as the utility’s proposed 9-foot-tall, 28-foot-long metal structure promised to be. Which is to say, not very.

Allegheny Commons is the city’s oldest park, established by state legislation in 1867. A $2.3 million overhaul of the Northeast Common is slated to begin this fall, as part of the $16 million “Allegheny Commons Restoration Initiative.” So when Duquesne Light announced in May 2009 its unilateral decision to put a cooling station in that northeast section, citizens responded with indignation, public meetings and that attention-grabbing life-size mock-up.

Almost as quickly as it appeared, the plywood eyesore came down, but it had done its job. A year later, Duquesne Light crews appear to be well under way on an alternative site.

They’ve been busy at their 1970s-era underground facility in the Northeast Common, but at street level they’re headed east, digging a trench to 728 Cedar Ave., a residential property that Duquesne Light recently acquired. Neighbors say a garage there will be razed to make way for a new cooling station.

It seems that utilities, like God, move in mysterious ways, because none of the community participants I interviewed could say exactly how this new plan came to be.

Alida Baker, the Commons Initiative project manager, credits the combination of vigilant community groups, restoration steering committee input, city Councilwoman Darlene Harris and the weight of historic state legislation with changing Duquesne Light’s direction.

“They didn’t really discuss what they would do — it just became apparent,” Ms. Baker said.

That observation was seconded by Mr. Beck. “They bought the [residential] property before they discussed it with us,” he said. “When we raised a fuss, they held meetings and they came to ours.”

He last heard from the utility in March and was “still waiting for them to get back to us” when construction began. While it’s somewhat unpalatable, it’s not uncommon for a large entity to buy property as quietly as possible, thus keeping the price down.

However obscure part of the process was, the utility seems to have engaged the community when it had to. “We held some meetings with stakeholders,” said spokesman Joe Vallarian. “We’re happy we were able to come to something that everyone could agree on.”

Well, almost everybody. Charles Angemeer joined the community’s opposition to potential despoiling of the Commons as soon as he moved into the neighborhood in July 2009. The issue died down a bit, and his work picked up, so he was thunderstruck to learn recently that his front door is only 30-some feet from the utility’s new building site.

“The level of outrage I have toward Duquesne Light is pretty high,” he said. “They did not make their plans known to me — not a single piece of mail.”

Mr. Angemeer worries about safety, noise, quality of life and property values, and given Duquesne Light’s track record, “How responsive are they going to be to any issue that I, my wife or any other property owner might raise? Their consideration up to this point has been nonexistent.”

Well, Duquesne Light did bear in mind the pending park restoration, Mr. Vallarian noted. “That’s why we are going ahead and doing that part of our project first.”

He said there’s “no finalized plan” for what the cooling station will look like and thus no timeline for completion, but Mr. Beck is confident “it will be a pretty benign little building.”

The community council also hopes to acquire the adjacent empty house, to continue its Cedar Avenue sprucing-up.

So like I promised up front, a kinda-sorta happy ending where almost everyone gets some of what they wanted. That’s life — you heard it here first.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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