From the hulk of Mama Rene’s Restaurant to the freshly furnished tech spaces of Hazelwood Green to the woods encroaching on Sylvan Street, change laps at every corner of this neighborhood overlooking the Monongahela River.

Sure, there’s been talk of development in Hazelwood for 20 years, since foundations bought the 178-acre former mill site that dominates the riverfront. But in the coming weeks and months, that talk could solidify into key decisions by the Urban Redevelopment Authority board [URA], the City Planning Commission and Pittsburgh City Council that would set Hazelwood’s course for decades.

  • The commission and council are weighing new rules for development of Hazelwood Green that would pave the way for construction but also allow acres of parking.
  • A grassroots coalition is seeking URA support to build a grocery store.
  • A local developer is negotiating to buy hillside land from the URA for construction of duplexes.

“It’s just a domino effect that I think we have been waiting for, for a while,” said city Councilman Corey O’Connor, who represents the neighborhood. His goal, he said, is to make sure “that if you live there now, you’re going to be able to live there decades from now.”

As dominoes wobble, though, passionate debate about the neighborhood’s future has intensified. Longtime advocates, relative newcomers and developers are trying to cooperate, but bracing for potential clashes. Here’s a tour of Pittsburgh’s emerging development hotspot.

Let’s start in the middle

Mama Rene’s Restaurant was named for Saundra Cole-McKamey’s grandmother, and her family and friends operated the soul food spot into the 1990s.

“It was like a centerpiece where people would come in and tell whatever was on their mind,” recounted Cole-McKamey, now executive director of the workforce development group People Of Origin Rightfully Loved And Wanted, or POORLAW. For anyone who wanted to eat or just chew the fat, Mama Rene’s “was just the place to be down here.”

Saundra Cole-McKamey, executive director of the workforce development group People Of Origin Rightfully Loved And Wanted, or POORLAW, and a member of GH-CARED, participates in a conversation on the southwestern side of the 4800 block of Second Avenue in Hazelwood. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

In 1997, though, LTV Steel closed the nearby coke plant, and the neighborhood declined. Even as shops and restaurants opened in nearby Homestead, Hazelwood’s business district wilted.

Now the URA owns the Mama Rene’s building and much of the rest of the 4800 block of Second Avenue. In 2019, the authority invited proposals to redevelop the block.

The former home of Mama Rene’s Restaurant, on the 4800 block of Second Avenue in Hazelwood, is on the site of a proposed apartment development. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

The URA picked a proposal submitted by The Community Builders, of Boston. That developer was already planning to convert a former school into Gladstone Residences, which will become 53 apartments, mostly priced for modest incomes, after construction that’s expected to start early next year. 

The Community Builders’ new plan, for the northeastern side of the 4800 block called for 44 apartments — mostly priced for low-income households — plus a small commercial space. Renderings showed parking, solar panels and a community lawn on the southwestern side.

The plan baffled some in the community.

“We have a lot of housing already, vacant houses, owned by the city and private developers,” said Lutual Love, pastor of Praise Temple Deliverance Church. The community had been asked, repeatedly, what it wanted, he said. “And at the top of the list was a grocery store.”

The decision to build housing, rather than a store, on the 4800 block spurred Love, Cole-McKamey and others to form the Greater Hazelwood Coalition Against Racial and Ethnic Disparities [GH-CARED]. Love summarized the coalition’s message: “We’re saying, ‘You should build for the people who live here now, not just for the people that you want to come.’”

GH-CARED members (from left to right) Saundra Cole-McKamey, Emily Higgs, Barb Warwick, Lutual Love and Bill Bailey – along with puppy Mist – gather on a picnic table on the southwestern side of the 4800 block of Second Avenue in Hazelwood. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

The Community Builders continues to pursue its apartment plan, which includes a retail space, but not one big enough for a significant grocery store, according to Juan Powell, the company’s regional vice president of development for the Mid-Atlantic region. The apartments are on hold, while his firm tries to land low-income housing tax credits to finance construction.

Meanwhile, GH-CARED is working on plans for the southwestern side. They’d like to build a 40,000-square-foot commercial building, anchored by a grocery store.

All they need is the land, funding and commercial development expertise.

A five-year old development firm, Oak Moss Associates, is advising GH-CARED, and Massaro Construction Group has worked up a $13 million estimate. The Heinz Endowments* has expressed willingness to fund a study on the feasibility of a grocery store, if GH-CARED can assemble its development team and gain control of the site.

The Community Builders wants to continue to be consulted on plans for that side of the block, but isn’t objecting to GH-CARED’s effort. And the neighborhood development corporation Hazelwood Initiative is considering granting GH-CARED rights to the portion of the site that it owns. 

Most of the site, though, is owned by the URA. GH-CARED wants to make a pitch to the URA board at its Nov. 18 board meeting, but the agency has been non-committal.

“We’re stepping out there like any other developer,” said Love. “Are they going to give us, the residents, the same opportunity they give private and public developers?”

Now we’ll cross the tracks toward the river

Walk a block from the proposed grocery store site, and you’re in Hazelwood Green, where Jones & Laughlin Steel and later LTV reigned. It’s now owned mostly by Almono LP, a partnership of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. One section – the mostly redeveloped Mill 19 area – is owned by the nonprofit Regional Industrial Development Corp. Besides Mill 19, only the former railroad roundhouse has been redeveloped, into a space for new tech companies.

The interior of the renovated Roundhouse on Hazelwood Green, now a start-up incubator run by OneValley. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

The rest? According to a preliminary plan the development team prepared in 2018, it could eventually include:

  • 3,500 apartments and houses
  • 4.4 million square feet of non-residential buildings, in which some 11,000 people might work
  • 30.6 acres of open space
  • 8,830 parking spaces.

Then came COVID-19.

Telework took off, online shopping accelerated and outdoor space became more important than ever, noted Todd Stern, managing director of U3 Advisors, a New York-based firm hired by Almono to coordinate the site’s development. He declined to be interviewed but answered questions by email.

The foundations have taken on, as another adviser, New York-based mega-developer Tishman Speyer, whose holdings stretch from Yankee Stadium and Rockefeller Center to Europe, China, India and Brazil.

In August, O’Connor submitted legislation to council that would change the zoning of the site to reflect the new realities. In advance of an as-yet-unscheduled hearing and vote of the Planning Commission, Stern and representatives of Tishman Speyer attended an Oct. 12 community meeting. The development team told a virtual audience of around 50 that the proposed new zoning was meant to improve pedestrian experiences, enhance green space, allow more types and designs of buildings and “add flexibility on parking.”

The proposed zoning change would allow “temporary” surface parking lots anywhere except in the acreage reserved for urban open space.

Hazelwood resident Eric Day noted during the meeting that the site plan has been billed as sustainable and “car-unfriendly. … This is about as far away from that as you could possibly get.”

Stern wrote to PublicSource that the increased parking “is necessary for both residential and commercial tenants” until enhanced transit and “other mobility initiatives” take effect. 

The development team has pushed for the creation of a Mon-Oakland Connector shuttle from the site to the Carnegie Mellon University campus, a plan stalled by neighborhood opposition. The Port Authority notes that it has three bus routes that reach Hazelwood Green, intends to extend a fourth to reach the site and has long-range plans to better connect Hazelwood, Oakland and the Strip District.

Day, a machinist who works at CMU and has lived in Hazelwood for 12 years, said residents spent a lot of time providing input on the neighborhood’s future, and it’s “just really insulting to see these updates and see that this fight we thought we’d won is still at risk.”

Hazelwood Initiative Executive Director Sonya Tilghman called the added parking “a major concern,” while holding out the possibility of compromise.

Up the hill, into the woods

Overlooking Mill 19 is a wooded hillside on which careworn public staircases, abandoned stretches of asphalt, apparently vacant houses and building foundations hint at a populated past.

“This glossy-leafed tree here on the edge is an Osage orange,” said Matt Peters, as he walked Monongahela Street, on the fringe of the woods. The Hazelwood Initiative’s community gardens manager pointed to a locust tree, which he described as characteristic of the early stages of forest regeneration. “The soil is healing itself with this tree.”

Matt Peters, community garden manager for the Hazelwood Initiative and a member of Heartwood, a grassroots forest activist network, stands at the foot of stairs that lead into public lands sought by developer Oak Moss. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

This patch of woods connects Schenley Park on one side and the 183-acre Hazelwood Greenway on the other. “So connecting those two habitat islands is essential,” he said.

Housing is also essential, and Oak Moss wants to buy the hillside and build 62 rental units, in duplexes. The land is owned by the city and, in September, the URA’s board granted Oak Moss exclusive rights, for six months, to negotiate to buy it.

Krish Pandya, a managing partner of Oak Moss, took interest in the hillside when he was developing the nearby Woods House Historic Pub. The amount of contiguous, publicly owned land, he said, “allows us to build something with enough units to make business sense.” After consulting the neighborhood plan and residents, he said, he worked up a plan that consists mostly of two-bedroom units. Six units would be priced for families earning 80% of the area median income or less.

The proposal has split the neighborhood. Environmentalists are pushing the URA not to sell to Oak Moss. The Hazelwood Initiative has expressed concern over both the potential effects on habitat and the increased traffic on narrow streets.

GH-CARED, on the other hand, has sided with the developer. The grassroots group is meeting regularly with Pandya and hopes that Oak Moss will enter into a community benefits agreement as part of the development.

“If you’re choosing between a tree and a person’s life,” said Love, “we’re choosing a person’s life.”

Peters counters that in the age of climate change, the two are intertwined. “Our lives depend on these areas.”

Matt Peters, community garden manager for the Hazelwood Initiative and a member of Heartwood, a grassroots forest activist network, points to a toad as he walks public lands sought by developer Oak Moss. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

“We completely recognize the environmental concerns,” said Pandya. He said he has already changed his plans to eliminate what would have been the row of duplexes highest on the slope, preserving a connection between the greenway and the park. He’s also planning to replace trees that are lost. 

Zooming out

Back on the 4800 block, GH-CARED members gathered around a picnic bench amid weathered farmer’s market stalls. They know that change is coming.

“Hazelwood is the next frontier for development in Pittsburgh,” said Barbara Warwick, one of the members. “This is the next place.”

Pittsburgh’s recent history is littered with “next places” – like East Liberty and Lawrenceville – that gentrified.

“They moved out generations of families, broke them families up,” said Cole-McKamey. “That’s not what we want out here because we do have people out here who have five generations of family. Some of them, the grandmother takes care of the grandchildren, and if they break them up, that granddaughter is going to be lost.”

Later, Tilghman said that Hazelwood Initiative has been working with the Heinz Endowments and nonprofits Rising Tide Partners and the City of Bridges Community Land Trust to save the neighborhood’s affordable housing. They’ve developed 27 affordable for-sale homes. And including public housing, buildings bought by the Hazelwood Initiative and nonprofit partners, and the impending Gladstone apartments, there are more than 400 rentals that will remain affordable for a long time, she said.

“I would certainly like a few hundred more,” she said. That, she said, will take planning, funding and “a whole lot of luck.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

PublicSource receives funding from The Heinz Endowments and has received support from The R.K. Mellon Foundation in the past.

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Rich is a reporter and assistant editor at PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2005 through early 2020, leading projects on child poverty, the opioid...