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Greening the Neighborhoods

Perhaps you long for a greener, more cosmopolitan lifestyle; say, a diverse urban setting where you can shop, play, eat and even work within short distances of your home. Fewer trips in the car. An energy efficient home. A community that values sound environmental practices. In a movement called “Green Urbanism”, greening whole neighborhoods is catching on in cities such as Portland and Denver—and now, Pittsburgh. A LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) pilot project is about to certify master-planned neighborhoods that define sustainable living and two projects in Pittsburgh have qualified for it.

While other LEED programs have centered on designing environmentally-friendly buildings, the new rating system goes a step further to deem whole neighborhoods green. LEED-ND (for neighborhood development) integrates the principles of smart growth, urbanism, and green building into the first national standard for neighborhood design.

The goal is to create more walkable, livable communities while incorporating green design, says Rebecca Flora of the Green Building Alliance ,the chair elect for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and a member of the national core committee for LEED-ND.

While the mainstream emphasis on green today is on smaller measures such as reusable grocery bags and recycling, this movement is more about wholesale lifestyle changes that result in big energy savings.

The LEED-ND certification system will officially launch in 2009, but the pilot program is already underway. According to Flora, over 300 sites across the country applied to be part of the pilot program. While USGBC initially planned to limit participation to 150 sites, the organization reports that due to the overwhelming response, all qualified applicants will be part of the pilot.

Two local development projects, one in East Liberty and one in the Cultural District, aim to combine the good from the “old days” with modern urbanite must-haves, such as retail shops, restaurants, green spaces, and public art projects. And both projects are focused on using sustainable practices.

Neighborhoods to Really Live In

While some call it "Green Urbanism" or “New Urbanism,” to Flora, “It’s really old urbanism.” Whatever you call it, it makes for great, livable communities. And Pittsburgh is on the brink of development projects that could become national models of sustainable planning.

At the core of such development are mixed-use neighborhoods instead of the single-use zonings that became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Pittsburgh is already home to such mixed-use neighborhoods, such as the South Side and Lawrenceville . What’s missing, says Flora, are modern day energy efficiencies and green building practices. But that may soon change in East Liberty with a new project, Mellon’s Orchards South, which has been accepted as part of the national LEED-ND pilot program, a joint effort of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the United States Green Building Council and National Resource Defense Council.

Mellon’s Orchards South

The plans for Mellon’s Orchards South draw on much of the urban revitalization and improved quality of life programs already happening in East Liberty. The former site of the Mellon family orchards sits blocks from the neighborhood’s growing business district and is centered on the northwest corner of Penn Circle. It encompasses nine acres of abandoned parking lots and buildings, as well as Garland Park, which has fallen into decline and lost about a third of its space to the adjacent police station parking lot.

According to Nathan Wildfire, sustainable policy coordinator at East Liberty Development, Inc., Mellon’s Orchards South will include 79-85 housing units, including a mix of for-sale, detached, single-family homes as well as town homes. All of the houses will be designed to fit into the context of the surrounding houses to maintain the historic and architectural integrity of the neighborhood. The new residences will be based on prototype homes that are set to go up in another part of East Liberty in the near future. Plus, they’ll face the crown jewel of the project: the reclaimed, revitalized, and re-greened Garland Park.

A unique element of the plan calls for the new homes to be heated and cooled by a geothermal heat pump placed underneath the park, resulting in zero heating and cooling bills for residents. That’s right: zero! Positioning the park as the plan’s centerpiece will give kids a safe place to play and community members a place to congregate. Wildfire promises that “this will be no cookie-cutter park,” but rather something “truly amazing and very special.”

Now that Mellon’s Orchards South is part of the LEED-ND pilot program, Wildfire says that it’s time to continue the community planning process that originally started back in 1999. He notes that ELDI will also work with the City to implement the best development strategy while remaining consistent with the community plan.

While this project is out of the ordinary, the challenges facing it are the usual suspects: funding and planning. Parks are traditionally difficult to fund because they generate no onsite taxes. But they do improve quality of life and increase the value of surrounding, tax-generating businesses and properties.

The other challenge is changing the status quo of infrastructure development, which Wildfire describes as a “big machine that does everything the same way.” Perceptions need to change, because “we’re proposing something totally different that’s not seen in Pittsburgh,” he notes. “We hope that this model proves to be successful and then moves to other neighborhoods. It makes the community healthier and adds value to the region.”

Downtown Riverfront Property

Plans for the Cultural District’s Riverfront Development call for six-acres of a green, mixed-use arts/residential neighborhood with approximately 700 new residential units (including a street of townhouses), a four-star hotel, a performing arts venue, retail spaces, and new parking structures. The project, known as RiverParc, is set to be bounded by Fort Duquesne Boulevard overlooking the Allegheny River, Penn Avenue, and Seventh and Ninth Streets.

As part of the LEED-ND pilot program, RiverParc’s plans call for environmentally sensitive buildings, a variety of parks and green spaces both inside and out, as well as vertical winter terraces and roof gardens.
“The RiverParc project is the extension of the continued work of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to revitalize downtown through the development of its cultural district, not only through the arts but also through real estate development. RiverParc is a milestone project of our 5-year strategic plan to create a 24-7 atmosphere where we have residents, visitors, workers, and students,” says Veronica Corpuz from the Trust.

Andrew Klamon, the development director for the Washington D.C.-based developer Concord Eastridge, says that the next step is a series of three public meetings to open up the development – and planning – to citizens. “We hope this will be a very transparent planning and design process,” Klamon says.

He notes that government officials have shown great support for this public-private project – something that will continue to be essential as the project progresses. To date, the state has contributed $12.3 million toward the estimated $460 million project.

“This is a place with significant public space – truly public in that citizens can use it. Our design team very clearly thought about urban microclimates – how to make this more comfortable in the winter and summer time – and not just for the residents, but for the public spaces as well. RiverParc will help to confirm a long-standing sustainable approach with an outstanding urban revitalization project,” says Klamon.

Interested in finding out more about LEED-ND? Join the Green Building Alliance on September 26 at the Children's Museum for a morning seminar. For more information: www.gbapgh.org.

Jennifer McGuiggan, a freelance writer and editor, is owner of The Word Cellar . Her last article for Pop City was about the legacy of FORE Systems.


Day perspective of RiverParc project Downtown from across the Allegheny River

Rebecca Flora

Site plan of Mellon Orchard South

ELDI logo


The green 'lanes' of RiverParc project looking towards Penn Avenue

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene
except RiverParc, courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Mellon Orchard, courtesy of ELDI
and ELDI
© Dave Krieger

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