The Best View in Town
On a breezy knoll overlooking the three rivers, two bronze figures square off against each other in a contest of self preservation. The larger than life sculpture portrays George Washington, commander of the British forces encamped at Fort Pitt, and Seneca leader Guyasuta.
Titled "Point of View" by Pittsburgh sculptor James A. West, the mood is one of tension and balance. The two men are equals in size and strength. Their weapons are down, but their physiques are fierce. The sculpture, unveiled on Mt. Washington this past October, commemorates a turning point in Pittsburgh history: the meeting of the two men at a Seneca encampment, and the trade and land agreements that came from their tedious negotiations.
For the city of Pittsburgh, the sculpture is more than just another piece of art. It quietly announces the birth of something exciting and new: the city's fifth major park.
The name is a mouthful, the Grand View Scenic Byways Park, a moniker selected based on the designation of nearby streets as a scenic state road. And if the byway qualifies for national designation next year, it will put Grandview Avenue, Sycamore Street and McArdle on the A-List map of 126 scenic roadways in the United States along with Big Sur Coast Highway in California and Skyline Drive in Virginia.
The Park (as referred to here) currently comprises 280 acres of land that encircle the Mt. Washington and Duquesne Heights area, from Grandview Park on the east, across the face of Mt. Washington to the Duquesne Heights Greenway, Olympia Park and Mt. Washington park on the back side.
Before it became a larger city park the area was a loose mix of steep wooded hillsides, playgrounds, city-owned lots marred by illegal dumps and smaller parklets and playing fields. GVSBP is the smallest regional park in the city yet it may be the only park and byway to boast stunning urban views while providing recreation and historic activities.
A Story of People
"All our beautiful city parks were created because of people with vision who understood how important parks are for the present and future generations of the city," says City Councilman Dan Deasy, who jumped on the park bandwagon shortly after he was elected. "It's a great deal for the city. It gives us the opportunity to take advantage of a great resource, make improvements, and attract tourists. The Mt. Washington Community Development Corp. worked very hard going after private dollars. They've done a great job."
The story of how the park came to be is one of people, the residents of four Mt. Washington neighborhoods, each advocating for park and green space improvements who came together with the MWCDC and embraced an often fractious but generally shared vision for a linked Mt. Washington Park and Duquesne Heights Park. Together they formed a strategic plan, a funding plan, an advocacy plan and then successfully partnered with others to make the Park a reality.
One catalyst was the tornado of 1998, which wiped out a number of old growth trees on the slopes and opened up new views of the city. Another was developer interest in constructing housing in the small section of the Mt. Washington Hillside that faces the city, 16 steep and wooded acres called "The Saddle." The prevailing attitude of developers was to target hillsides as "blighted areas," explains Lynne Squilla, a Sycamore resident and freelance documentary film producer who helped organize some of the early meetings.
The residents feared that the city would sell these sites to the developer who would build housing with no consideration given to green space, to quality of life issues, to the wildlife living there, the turkey, deer, red-tailed hawk, Squilla adds. The residents believed that the slopes were geologically unstable.
"We knew it could be one of Pittsburgh's greatest assets," Squilla says. "That's the reason George came here. He saw this incredible wilderness and understood its value."
The four neighborhood groups worked separately initially, but all were actively interested in the fate of the local green spaces. Grandview TOP and Friends of Grandview Park were formed by citizens concerned about maintenance and development encroachment in Grandview Park. In Olympia Park, the concerns of Friends of the Park included the youth center, illegal dumping and replacement of trees lost in the tornado.
MWCDC was already working with the Grandview Owners Group on preserving and beautifying the Overlook Park and improving the experience of visitors to Grandview Avenue.
A Richer Shade of Green
It was Sycamore resident Caren Glotfelty, program director for The Heinz Endowments Environment Program, who realized that the site had the potential to qualify for funding from some of the city's most prestigious foundations.
"There was the potential here for a lot more than a tiny pocket park along Sycamore," Glotfelty reflects. "The hillsides of Pittsburgh are one of the top things that give the city its character."
The process gained momentum when the MWCDC embraced the idea of the larger connected park in the fall of 2001 and attempted to bring the four neighborhood groups together to share a common vision.
The concept was researched and published by the MWCDC in November 2002 as the Emerald Link Plan. The following year, plans gained momentum when the site gained PA State Scenic Byway status and the board received $50,000 from The Heinz Foundation to conduct preliminary research to define the initial scope of the project.
Finally, a full blown Master Implementation Plan was developed by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for the MWCDC funded by The Heinz Endowments. In December of 2005, just as the Master Implementation Plan was being finalized, the city passed legislation designating all but 16 acres on the face of Mt. Washington for the Park. With the help of Councilman Deasy, the final 16 acres were added to the plan and the Grand View Scenic Byways Park was born, bringing the total acreage to 280.
"It was infectious, once it got started and neighbors began talking to neighbors," says Squilla. "I didn't want to take anything for granted, but I understand that if you are persistent, work hard and educate people, these things can come into being."
The MWCDC is particularly proud of the funding support it has received. Nearly $450,000 has been awarded by The Heinz Endowments to date. The Richard King Mellon Foundation funded the MWCDC another $100,000. And the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has provided $240,000 for informational and directional signage and history signs. (For a complete list of all the partners, click here.) The park itself will be developed in a series of phases over the next 10 to 20 years, explains Ethan Raup, the executive director of the CDC.
The Unfolding Vision
The MWCDC has hired a parks director, Ilyssa Manspeizer, to oversee the work. The plans call for linking the green space and existing parklets through a network of trails and stairways, allowing visitors to hike back and forth from the top to the city, as well as around the back of the mount. By the time it's finished, there will be new viewing areas, brush and trash will be cleaned up, slopes will be ecologically repaired, and fences replaced. New lighting along Grandview Avenue and road repairs are also on the agenda.
The MWCDC is currently working with Civil and Environmental Consultants to identify invasive trees and plants and replant the landscape with species that are easy to maintain, says Raup. Once the work is done, beautification of the area will begin, including the new lighting around the statue and on Grandview.
The final result will be a unique park that, among its many charms, embraces the dramatic views of the Ohio and Monongahela rivers as they sweep by the city and offers ample opportunities for recreation, walking and hiking. A true jewel on the city's crest.
"It all started with a tornado and it blew up into this thing," says Squilla. "We had people who knew how to go after funding and once one foundation gave, it started to snowball. All thanks to people who were willing to take a chance on a vision."
Debra Diamond Smit is a freelance writer and former writer for Time-Life Books who lives in Mt. Lebanon.
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Poster showing proposed layout of Grand View Byway
"Point of View" by James A. West
Commons at Chatham Village Path through Grandview Park
Overlook from performance space at Grandview Park
Diagram of land ownership and areas of proposed Byway
Overlook on Grandview Avenue
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene
except Poster and Diagram, courtesy of MWCDC