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New designs for Route 28 gains support – Proposals would spare church, industrial park

By Joe Grata,
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2003

Alternative designs initiated by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation only six months ago appear to be gaining support for the eventual reconstruction of a two-mile stretch of Route 28 between the North Side and Millvale.

Both options would save St. Nicholas Church, the first Croatian Roman Catholic Church in the United States, although the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese wants to close it, and Millvale Industrial Park, although the owner wants to get rid of it.

Historic preservation groups are rallying around the two sites along the dangerous, congested highway.

At a PennDOT-sponsored open house at the Boathouse on Washington’s Landing yesterday, many of the 300 people who turned out to look at plans and meet with engineers appeared to favor “Alternative 6,” which proposes to rebuild Route 28 essentially where it is, rather than “Alternative 5,” which would place six lanes of traffic on a 30-foot overpass only a flying hubcap away from the stained-glass “rose window” above St. Nicholas’ main entrance.

“No. 6 is a superb plan,” said Jack Schmitt, chairman of the Religious Structures Committee of Preservation Pittsburgh, who said new access and parking would enable the church’s dwindling congregation to grow. “It saves the church, preserves the green hillside and is cheaper” by $40 million.

No. 6 could be even cheaper if it were up to Andrew A. Lang Jr., owner of Millvale Industrial Park, home to a dozen small businesses.

Historic groups want to save that site because one of the buildings housed a brewery in the 19th century.

“There’s nothing historic about it,” Lang said of the building, which is now mostly a warehouse. “It’s been altered and remodeled 15 times. You’d never know a brewery ever existed there. Why does someone else have an interest in saving my place when I don’t?”

Tom Fox, PennDOT District 11 assistant executive for design, said while he may be inclined to accommodate Lang’s wish, federal laws require PennDOT to prove there’s no prudent and feasible alternative to buying and demolishing a historic structure, even though it might cost $20 million to save the one Lang owns.

Plans to rebuild the two miles of Route 28, known as the “death stretch” because of its accident history, have languished for years.

The highway, an extension of East Ohio Street past the Del Monte/Heinz plant, is a narrow four lanes with no divider or shoulders. Traffic bogs down at signals at the 31st and 40th street bridges.

PennDOT proposes spending $160 million to $200 million to reconstruct the stretch, although the timetable does not call for construction to begin before 2008.

Until six months ago, PennDOT’s design options would have eliminated St. Nicholas Church and Millvale Industrial Park and dislocated about 80 households, including some on Eggers Street atop Troy Hill. The plans would have meant constructing up to 20 miles of retaining walls over the two-mile stretch to shoehorn a limited-access expressway between the steep hillside on one side and Norfolk Southern Railway tracks on the other.

Fox credited George White, a retired civil engineering professor who is with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, for coming up with new ideas that have since been modified to conform to the terrain and geometry at the two bridge intersections.

“My take on [the open house] is that the people favor Alternatives 5 and 6,” Fox said. “We’ll study the comments and recommend a final alternative for the draft environmental impact statement and hold a public hearing on it early next year.”

Nos. 5 and 6 would provide nonstop traffic flow on Route 28, as did the earlier plans, although the speed limit with No. 6 would be 40 mph and the horizontal profile would be narrow: a 5-foot sidewalk in front of St. Nicholas, a 2 1/2-foot-wide curb, two 12-foot southbound lanes, a concrete divider, two 12-foot northbound lanes and another 2 1/2-foot-wide curb.

Fox said accidents and breakdowns would stop traffic, as opposed to Alternative 5, which provides 10-foot-wide shoulders in each direction by elevating parts of the highway toward the river, over the railroad line.

White said special legislation could permit PennDOT to acquire half of the 52-foot-wide railroad right of way and build No. 6 as a first-class transportation facility at the present elevation, increasing the frontage at St. Nicholas and keeping the hillside in its natural state.

White said train traffic is so infrequent that Norfolk Southern does not need all of the four tracks passing through the site.

One more entity is planning to weigh in on PennDOT’s plans — the Riverlife Task Force, a group promoting preservation and controlled development along the city’s river corridors.

Attorney Ted McConnell of Kirkpartrick & Lockhart, a Downtown law firm that advises the task force, was at the open house, examining a total of 11 options that were posted on easels around the room.

“We’re concerned about the hillside, the visual impacts and the community impacts of what PennDOT plans to do,” he said. “We’re looking at the alternatives and determining if there are some appropriate mitigation measures that we can recommend.”

Joe Grata can be reached at or 412-263-1985.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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