No fewer than 5 Pittsburgh streets remain closed 6 months after landslides

The city says it’s working to fix the issues, but critics blame over-development and underinvestment.

A Greenleaf Street home destroyed by a landslide in February is pictured.

A Greenleaf Street home destroyed by a landslide in February is pictured.

COURTESY of KDKA-TV
colin-square-crop

Five Pittsburgh streets remain closed by landslides that occurred more than five months ago in a record-setting and budget-busting spate of natural disasters.

The city says it’s working to address the underlying issues and reopen the roadways, but timetables remain elusive. The streets that remain closed following February landslides include:

  • Advent Street in Elliott
  • Diana Street in Spring Hill-City View
  • Gershon Street in Spring Hill-City View
  • Greenleaf Street in Duquesne Heights
  • William Street between Mt. Washington and Allentown

Meanwhile, Parkwood Road near Becks Run Road is also closed for repairs following April flooding, and Lander Street in Elliott is closed due to a landslide threat. List Street in Spring Hill-City View is also closed for landslide prevention work. About six households on List have no “alternate traversable routes,” said Karina Ricks, director of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, adding “so this is a major impact.”

Six months after what KDKA-TV called the largest Pittsburgh landslide in a generation, debris is still atop Greenleaf Street. That landslide also destroyed a hillside home there. Greenleaf connects the hilltop neighborhoods of Duquesne Heights and Mount Washington to lower-lying highways and the West End Bridge.

The other streets that remain closed service this kind of commuter, too, and their closures impact an unknown number of commuters and dozens of households daily, in some cases leaving homeowners to access their streets and others by walking and taking public stairs. (A portion of Greenleaf, like some others on the list, is open to residents and local traffic only.)

“Engineering designs are now complete, and now that resources have been allocated, we will be issuing for bid[s] in the coming weeks with work to begin soon after,” Ricks said of Greenleaf.

“We are concurrently completing geotechnical work and engineering design on another area of concern on the upper portion of Greenleaf. Our plan is to complete both so that when the street reopens we anticipate it being secure for years to come,” she said.

Keyva Clark, a spokesperson with Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, said Advent Street is in contract to be remedied soon and that an engineering consulting team is preparing to propose a plan for Diana Street. There is no status update for repairs of Gershon and William streets. (As recently as March, the city told WPXI it was considering options for William Street, including closing it permanently.)

A February landslide spills over onto Route 51 in the west end.

A February landslide spills over onto Route 51 in the west end.

COURTESY KDKA

‘… a greater problem’

Of course, all of this is costly.

In addition to the roads that remain closed, the city has already addressed or is in the process of addressing flood damage, landslide damage or landslide concerns on eight streets, including Advent, Diana, Greenleaf and William.

Peduto’s office said the associated costs of this year’s landslides were expected to “far exceed” the $2.25 million he budgeted in 2018 for landslide remediation. The costs associated with this year’s landslides were expected to be five to six times that amount. In July, Peduto announced a plan to repurpose $1.5 million in unused city capital funding for landslide remediation projects on Advent, Diana, Greenleaf and List streets, as well as Swinburne Street in South Oakland.

But critics say the city hasn’t been proactive enough and over-development coupled with underinvestment has left parts of Pittsburgh disaster-prone.

Allegheny County is seeking federal assistance in addressing some $18 million in landslide damage in 2018. In Pittsburgh, the city was also looking to state programs for aid.

After a massive 2006 landslide in nearby Kilbuck Township, a state review of landslide hazards in the Pittsburgh area recommended development of a statewide map and inventory of landslide and sinkhole-prone areas, the Post-Gazette reported. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources placed a $9 million price tag on that process, and the push later died in committee.

A 2001 report by Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources points to southwestern Pennsylvania as the most susceptible region in the state when it comes to landslides.

“The placement of fill over old landslides has set off many additional slides, particularly in southwestern Pennsylvania where old landslides cover a large portion of the land,” the report reads, adding, “As people continue to develop more land, landslides are likely to be a greater problem unless we work to prevent them.”

‘… sliding down’

The problem also isn’t a new one, especially in hilltop communities like Mount Washington, where a delicate balance exists between the area’s vulnerabilities — abandoned coal mines, deep rock fissures and layers of red clay underground — and extensive development.

In an April interview with KDKA-TV, Pittsburgh Public Works assistant director Patrick Hassett was asked if Mt. Washington was falling down.

“I would phrase it differently,” Hassett responded. “I would say it’s sliding down.”

These concerns were apparent well before February’s landslides, too, with Councilmember Theresa Kail-Smith pausing a proposed zoning change bid in December, one that would have allowed for construction at the former site of Isabella’s restaurant on Grandview Avenue, due to landslide concerns. Isabella’s closed in 2015. The location is in the middle of Mount Washington’s Restaurant Row and on the edge of a mountain boasting some of the best views in the city. With that come some of the greatest logistical challenges for developers and city officials looking to ensure development is undertaken cautiously.

“The public has said overwhelmingly that something needs done with the building. It was really an eyesore,” Kail-Smith said of the former Isabella’s location in a December council meeting.

But Kail-Smith held off on moving the issue forward for the better part of a year, saying she remained concerned about the safety implications of new development there and wanted expert input first.

“I have concerns about the hillside coming down and don’t want to do something until a geotech study has been completed,” she explained in December.

The measure finally passed in June with the recommendation of the city’s planning department attached. It was first introduced in October of 2017.

Corey Layman, zoning administrator with the Department of City Planning, said the development plans for the former Isabella’s site have not progressed since.

“There was a hearing regarding the site at Planning Commission and City Council earlier this year. The property owner petitioned to change the zoning from the Trimont’s Planned Development Zoning to Grandview Public Realm,” Layman explained by email. “If the owner decides to move forward with a single family home at the site, there would be a hearing at the Planning Commission, but at this time we don’t have anything scheduled.”

In an email to The Incline last week, Kail-Smith said residents “are more supportive of housing” at the site “than any other type of development.”

And while Kail-Smith wants new development, too, she’s also pressing for a more permanent solution to the neighborhoods’ landslide problem, one that looms over development projects and plans like the one involving the former Isabella’s site.

“Given our topography, recent extreme weather and previous landslides, it would be foolish not to be concerned, however, I believe the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure is in capable hands and is addressing many of the current concerns,” Kail-Smith said by email.

In February, Kail-Smith called for additional funding from the state and federal government during a council meeting. “We need something more significant because we have so many slides. We cannot continue to shut down roads,” she said at the time.

Since then the city has formed a task force to develop a plan of action and to work to better detect landslide risks before landslides happen. Council also voted to shift funds to bolster and expedite landslide repair and remediation, Kail-Smith said.

But many residents know it’s just a matter of time before the next one comes down.

“It’s like living next to a time bomb,” Elliott homeowner Joe Gollick told WTAE in April. “You don’t know when it’s gonna go off.”