There aren’t many reasons to go through Four Mile Run. A single road goes into the pocket neighborhood, sitting in a valley at the low end of Greenfield, and it leads to loops and dead ends. There’s one way in and one way out.
The streets are lined with two-story houses, all of them modest but few of them vacant. Yards are adorned with bicycles, plastic furniture and American flags. The only buildings that stand out are a Catholic church and a union hall. There’s a park, a basketball court and two watering holes: Big Jim’s and Zano's Pub House. The I-376 and Frazier Street bridges loom over the neighborhood. Residents of “The Run,” as they call it, look up to beams and well-trafficked routes that literally pass them over.
The neighborhood is secluded, but residents don’t feel isolated. They can walk to Hazelwood and to the South Side via the Hot Metal Bridge. Trails through Schenley Park lead to Oakland and Squirrel Hill.
“It’s a very stable, quiet neighborhood,” according to Marc Kelly, who has lived 45 of his 46 years in The Run. Neighbors have known each other for years, Kelly said. “There’s not a lot of turnover.”
The only eventful days are rainy ones. Water swells out of storm drains and occasionally bursts open manhole covers, a result of Pittsburgh’s valleys and an old, overwhelmed wastewater system. Though unsanitary, kids can’t help but play in the geysers sprouting from the street.
Tightly knit, working class and backdropped by rusted metal, The Run looks like something out of an ’80s Bruce Springsteen video. It seems untouched by time.
That may soon change.
More than $50 million has been poured into developing Hazelwood Green (formerly known as Almono), a 178-acre former steel mill property about a mile south of The Run, according to Rebecca Flora, whose firm ReMake is managing the site’s redevelopment. Now, a gigantic metal frame stands alone in a vast field. It’s the start of a proposed tech industry hub. Uber and Carnegie Mellon University’s Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute have already leased space there. Most recently, residents and community leaders have been speculating that the city offered Hazelwood Green as a potential site for Amazon’s second headquarters.
The city and backers of Hazelwood Green have been looking to develop some kind of transit system that would bypass a congested Second Avenue along the Monongahela River and connect it to Oakland, an area busting with university tech talent. Wedged in the middle of Oakland and Hazelwood is The Run.
For years, residents have fought off proposed transit connectors that would run through their quiet neighborhood or turn it into a magnet for buses, shuttles and drivers parking their cars and hopping on the transit line.
Despite their objections, the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure last month unveiled a futuristic plan for a roadway for driverless, electric vehicles that could hold about 15 people at a time. It wouldn’t enter The Run but would skirt right by it. From Oakland, the route would roll through low-lying areas within Schenley Park, cozy up next to the rail lines along the river and deliver users to Hazelwood. Riders would summon the vehicles by smartphone app or could use a kiosk. The project has been dubbed the Mon Oakland Mobility Plan.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said a transit connector would not only bring development to Hazelwood but also transportation that residents don’t have access to currently.
“There isn’t enough room right now to see a continued growth in Oakland without there being severe negative impacts to Oakland, mainly traffic and transportation issues,” said Peduto, “so being able to let that gage go and allow Hazelwood see some development occur in that community becomes critical.”
Run residents have been skeptical. Klaus Libertus heads the Run Resident Action Team — or “Run R.A.T.s” — a group formed late last year to represent the neighborhood in talks that city planners held to hear feedback from residents of several impacted neighborhoods, also including Hazelwood, Squirrel Hill and Oakland. Libertus said members of the organization have spoken to 80 households about the transit connector.
“They don’t want it; they don’t need it,” he said. “We are more concerned about keeping a quiet neighborhood where our kids can play safely and walk across the street.” Libertus, a University of Pittsburgh researcher, bought a home in The Run in 2015, seeking an easy commute and refuge for his family.
When asked what assurances he could make to people in The Run, Peduto did not name specifics, but he encouraged them to stay involved. Peduto said the project has benefits for them. He said the city could shift some of the transportation burden in that corridor from the diesel trains that run along the river to “electric vehicles, which would not pollute and not make noise.”
Also, the city has included a $41 million fix to the sewer system in the plan. Flooding in The Run has increased in severity and frequency, a result of increased building and activity in Oakland, whose sewers drain into the Run.
Karina Ricks, director of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, said the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority will build a stronger, more environmentally sound system through the valley and the new road will literally be built on top of the work they complete.
“It’s a system of systems … so it just makes sense to do at the same time,” Peduto said.
But the years of flooding and sewage backups have made residents skeptical of the city and its new infrastructure projects.
In 2015, the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] submitted a proposal for $3 million in state funds to build a road stretching beside Schenley Park. It would have started at the heart of Pitt’s campus and connected to Boundary Street, a lane in The Run that now ends in a loop. Residents first read about it in the newspaper. “There was not any public discussion,” Kelly recalled. “Publicly, it just came out.”
“It really did not go over well,” said Andrew McGuier, a Run R.A.T.s organizer, “and I think the URA shelved the proposal.” When the city announced community meetings late last year to renew discussions on an Oakland-Hazelwood connector, many were still apprehensive.
The relationship has been further frayed by frustration with the sewer system.
Thomas D’Andrea, a firefighter and lifelong Run resident, said storm surges and flooding were once limited to major rainfalls. But in the last 10 years, water surges out of the storm drains every few months. It creeps into basements, rising up through toilets and seeping out of pipes and drains. D’Andrea has witnessed manholes burst open, the covers flung by a volcanic eruption of water. He said he has replaced three furnaces and three sets of washers and dryers and lost his home insurance because of flooding.
Pittsburgh’s system dispenses rain and sewer water in the same tanks, making the overflow an unsavory phenomenon.
“We’ve been fighting for 10 years to not be flooded with sewage, and they don’t do anything until they want to build a private road for Carnegie Mellon University,” D’Andrea said.
Some Run residents, including Kelly, still think the city is putting influential tech companies, foundations and universities above them.
“I think the mayor talks to these universities and foundations and darlings of the city and gives them whatever they want,” Kelly said. “We’re the darlings of no one.”
But he feels resistance is futile. “They’re going to do it, and there won’t be anything left of this neighborhood.”
The Run isn’t the only tiny locality that is anxious. The 2015 plan also caused concern in Panther Hollow, a portion of Oakland that, like The Run, sits in low land near Schenley Park. Resident Carlino Giampolo has led its anti-development efforts.
At a Nov. 29 city council meeting, Giampolo decried: “The leadership of Pittsburgh will not be remembered by how many thousands of robots are manufactured at the old Almono site in Hazelwood. Rather, the leadership will be remembered more fondly if they make human dignity their highest priority.”
Giampolo declined to be interviewed for this article, saying his website SavePatherHollow.com articulates his views. The website is full of letters to public officials, criticizing the encroachment of the academic and industrial sectors into residential communities.
The transit connector could be a boon to the economically battered Hazelwood. But at what cost to residents of other neighborhoods?
Marianne Holohan, who moved to The Run six years ago with her family, says the neighborhood is already inundated with noise and pollution from transportation. “We already have trains nearby,” she said. “We have the parkway bridge, and they are adding another thing. For what? We [in The Run] don’t need it.”
Holohan also wondered why the city didn’t go with a more obvious solution. “Why not another Port Authority bus route? It’s like it has to be super sexy to appeal to the people who would use the Hazelwood Green.”
Libertus said he participated, at length, in a series of public meetings held by the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. He still has concerns, he said, but was impressed by the city’s openness. “They took our feedback and that’s very positive,” he said.
Libertus was pleased that the city planned a route that wouldn’t connect with any of the streets of The Run. He feared for the park and basketball courts.
Another positive: “The buses would come when needed to meet demand,” he said. “If these are sporadic requests, that would not cause much risk or noise. However, if everyone starts using them, we could have a real problem.”
Kelly is also concerned that the project may spiral out of scope. Having lived for decades in The Run, he said he has watched back streets where he had “beer parties” as a teenager sink and deteriorate and thinks the city may not understand the volatility of the land on which they plan to build.
“They have one plan that costs a certain amount,” he said. “What happens when costs run over and it all proves unfeasible? Then do they say, ‘Now, we’re going to take one of your roads?’”
To ease concerns, Ricks said she has emphasized transparency in the public meetings.
“We’re trying to get people to understand why this is needed,” she said. “For a lot of people, that is hard to accept.” She sympathizes with naysayers in The Run. “If I had 3 feet of sewage in my basement, I would be angry, too. They are nervous, and change is hard and unpredictable, and I am glad they are sharing.”
Her public meetings have included poster-sized maps showing route options and PowerPoint presentations, laying out all of the city’s planning steps. She also brought in engineers from Michael Baker International, who have contracted with the city, to explain various possibilities.
At the meetings, Ricks went over five possible routes for the transit connector and several manifestations, from electric vehicles to a rail line to the “Portlandia”-ish idea of pedicabs running on bikelines. Some of these withered upon serious analysis.
Some Run residents questioned why Ricks raised options that were infeasible, but she said it was important to rule them out in a public forum. “We didn’t want to go into a black box and come back with an idea and say, ‘This is what we came up with in our infinite wisdom.’”
She said the meetings had a tangible effect on the eventual proposal. “We learned how important it was to keep bicycling corridors open.” She said the concerns of Run residents were “multidimensional” and she came to understand how any disruption to traffic flow or barriers to the one neighborhood entrance would affect them.
Although she said listening has been a significant part of the process, Ricks said the city has not been asking for permission, no matter how fervent the concerns. “The cost of doing nothing is too great,” she said.
Ricks lives in Squirrel Hill, near the I-376 exit, a source of noise and traffic. Yet, she said, the neighborhood endures that for the good of the city, to provide an off-ramp to a major highway.
“We aren’t 90 independent republics,” Ricks said. “We can’t pull up our drawbridges and say no one can come into our neighborhoods. We are a whole city.”
Correction (3/22/2018): An earlier version of the article misidentified the area that the transit route is slated to cover relative to Schenley Park. The route would roll through low-lying areas within Schenley Park. The previous version also included misspellings of Marc Kelly and Andrew McGuier's names.
Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who has written for Reuters, Slate, Mental Floss, Vice, Nerve and the Village Voice. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Autumn Barszczowski.