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Mon-Fayette Expressway extension will leave a heavy impression – Road cuts into history

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Friday, December 10, 2004

All along the 24 miles from Jefferson Hills to Oakland, the newly approved northern leg of the Mon-Fayette Expressway will cut through populated areas, affecting historic buildings and cultural and natural landscapes.

Older communities will be dwarfed and divided by an elevated, four-lane, limited-access toll road, and pristine hillsides will be sacrificed. Nowhere will its impact be felt more than in Braddock, Duck Hollow, Hazelwood and Turtle Creek.

The $2 billion project, which was given a go-ahead yesterday by the Federal Highway Administration, was 12 years in planning and is expected to take some 10 more years to build.

Here’s a look at the path it will cut:

After leaving Duquesne and crossing the Monongahela River, the highway would divide into two branches — heading east into Turtle Creek and west into Braddock, with both branches eventually connecting to the Parkway East.

It will run through North Braddock between Bell and Braddock avenues on concrete piers, then swoop down into Braddock, where it will travel through the borough on an elevated, earthen berm 25 feet high and 300 feet wide. It will run between Talbot and Woodlawn avenues, partly on an abandoned railroad right of way, then through several blocks now occupied by a mixture of houses and vacant lots.

The toll road will require the demolition of 73 buildings in Braddock and North Braddock that until earlier this year had been eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The state Bureau for Historic Preservation determined the district no longer qualified as historic due to a loss of integrity caused by demolitions.

But many historic buildings remain, including the Clawson brick row houses that lie in the expressway’s path, at 1223-1229 Braddock Avenue. Built between 1908 and 1915 by John Clawson and Thomas Scott, they are considered good examples of steelworker housing, although they now are vacant and deteriorating.

The highway would separate most of Braddock and all of North Braddock from the riverfront, with access only via tunnels through the berm.

It also would alter a landscape with historical significance: Braddock’s Field, site of a major battle in the French and Indian War. The battle site, on a hill in North Braddock, will overlook the expressway.

At Duck Hollow, perhaps the city’s smallest and most isolated neighborhood only two houses lie in the expressway’s path, neither of them deemed historic.

The Hollow is snuggled in a recessed valley where Nine Mile Run meets the Monongahela River, where blue heron and other water fowl often can be found. The highway’s impact on the riverfront and its green hillside from Nine Mile Run to Hazelwood is a great concern, said city planner Patrick Hassett.

While the turnpike commission will try to elevate the highway on piers, engineers don’t yet have enough information about the composition of the hillside to know exactly how to treat it.

“We may see some retaining wall there,” Hassett said.

The commission will work with the Nine Mile Run Design Advisory Team to address the highway’s overall appearance and scarring of the hillside. The commission suggests color, texture and detail-enhancing materials on retaining walls and roadway structures.

In Hazelwood, the expressway will be sunk 25 feet below street level at Gloster Street. New bridges would carry Elizabeth and Tecumseh streets and Hazelwood Avenue across the expressway. Three at-grade covers would be built over the toll road, each about 600 feet long, to allow parking and public open space on top and provide areas for potential new development.

The right-of-way would take 10 acres from the 222-acre National Register-eligible historic district, removing 18 structures. The most significant are a two-story, red brick L-shaped house with Italianate influences, built by James Barker in 1875, and the former D.L. Thomas dry goods store, built about 1895, which retains its original storefront and ornamental brickwork.

“Hazelwood is still evolving,” Hassett said. “The one big concession they made was to depress the highway but many of the other impacts were deferred to the final design stage.”

At Bates Street, where the toll road will connect with the Parkway East, the turnpike commission also has opted for a full interchange connecting to the Boulevard of the Allies, with ramps flanking and then traveling above Bates Street as it climbs to the boulevard. One of the ramps would eradicate the Shrine to the Blessed Mother, tucked away in a hillside grotto overlooking the parkway. About 25 buildings also would be demolished, although none are thought to have historical significance.

The highway’s eastern spur, after leaving Duquesne and crossing the Mon, would pass under two of the five concrete arches of the Westinghouse Bridge, erected in 1930 with a central span that was, at 460 feet, then the broadest concrete arch in the country.

The expressway would travel 60 feet above the borough of Turtle Creek on concrete piers. Its visual impact on Turtle Creek would be high, reports the turnpike commission’s Environmental Impact Statement, “since the overhead structure would extend across the downtown.”

The highway would come within 75 to 85 feet of three historic churches — St. Colman, McMasters Methodist and United Presbyterian.

As the expressway moves into final design, local preservation groups yesterday called for more study, reinvestment in existing infrastructure and features that would minimize the impact on hillsides and historic neighborhoods.

“We felt that the transportation industry had not proven the economic benefits” of the highway, “nor did they justify the exceptional cost,” said Arthur P. Ziegler, Jr., president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

“We now are facing major invasive surgery,” said Rob Pfaffmann, president of Preservation Pittsburgh. “We need to look for every opportunity to keep the road from cutting off arteries to historic neighborhoods, sites and riverfronts.”

(Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633