How Pittsburgh landed a $19 million “game-changer” TIGER grant

Maya Henry

August 16, 2016

As grants go, this one is huge. Not just in the dollar amount but also in terms of impact on Downtown and the Hill District.

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently awarded the Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA) a $19 million grant to build a “cap”—actually a three-acre green space—over the Crosstown Boulevard and create a walkable connection between the Hill District and Downtown.

That makes Pittsburgh’s newest green space more than just a three-acre park. It will span the Crosstown Boulevard (I-579) and create a bridge between Downtown and the Hill District, a neighborhood long unconnected.

As planned, the green space will be filled with gardens, art, food kiosks, and places for concerts—all on top of a federal interstate.

The highway “cap” is a solution to reknit the connections between neighborhoods that were torn apart during the 1950s and ’60s during urban renewal and the construction of the federal highway system. Caps have been used in cities such as Boston and Dallas and they are planned for Chicago and Austin.

The $19 million award is part of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program and will leverage an additional $7.4 million in state and local funds to allow the project to happen.

Putting it in context 

The area surrounding the former Civic Arena site totals about 95 acres. The SEA owns about two-thirds of the land, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are planning to redevelop 28 acres with a mix of office, residential and retail-restaurant.

The Civic Arena was part of a planned cultural district complex that was never built so the land where the homes and businesses were demolished to make way for the project have remained surface parking for the last 50 years. During that time the Crosstown Boulevard was built and that created a trench between the Hill District and Downtown.

“Those two urban planning projects are what we are trying to correct or improve upon,” says Mary Conturo, executive director of the SEA. “The street grid is being reconnected at the Civic Area site. This three-acre green space will provide for a convenient and accessible pedestrian and bicycle connection between Downtown and the Hill District.”

The SEA and landscape architecture firm LaQuatra Bonci Associates conducted several months of  outreach, presenting design ideas and hundreds of pictures from parks worldwide to help community members decide what they want in a park.

A major priority is to relate the park to the history and culture of the Hill District and what the Hill meant to Downtown. The plans so far include kiosks where food can be sold, possibly by Hill District business owners, and a “great lawn” and spaces for events and concerts.

Although the programming for the park is a work in progress right now, “our goal is to make it a good everyday park and if we do that it will be a success,” says Fred Bonci of LaQuatra Bonci.presented design ideas and 300 pictures from parks all over the world to help community members choose priorities for the park.

“It is in many ways attempting to right a wrong when that part of the Hill District was demolished and the economic core of the community was displaced,” says Councilman Daniel Lavelle. “Even more than the physical connection of the Hill and Downtown, it will economically reconnect those two communities. It is merging two economies and lifting up one that has been in dire straits since the destruction.”

Lavelle is credited with being instrumental as part of the team of local and state officials who worked together to bring these funds to Pittsburgh. Congressman Mike Doyle, a democrat representing the 14th District of Pennsylvania was also part of that team, and helped tell the Pittsburgh story to Washington and secure funds to get the project created. What does it take to secure a hotly competitive TIGER grant? Congressman Doyle weighs in.

Congressman Mike Doyle knows what it takes to bring “game-changer” grants to Pittsburgh. This is the third in his district.

What does the TIGER grant award mean for Pittsburgh?
The amount of federal funding available these days — because of sequester — is almost nonexistent. There has been no transportation bill for six to seven years, and the one that was passed is inadequate, so TIGER is one of the major sources of infrastructure funding still alive and available but it is highly competitive. There are 100-fold more applications than they have money for. Pittsburgh was competing with proposals from all over the country.

To get a TIGER grant is a huge accomplishment when you think about the scarcity of funds and competition. These are game-changer grants, these are all double-digit million dollar grants. It is really big for Pittsburgh to land this.

You have been instrumental in bringing these very competitive funds to Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh has previously received two TIGER grants—one for Carrie Furnace in Rankin and another for the East Liberty transit center). Can you explain what your role is in securing the funds for this pivotal transportation project and others?
Primarily there are two parts to this—the Pittsburgh part and the Washington [D.C.] part. The key is building community support around a project. No grant is going to succeed without community support from the community-at-large that will benefit.

You need to identify a project that has community support, and has a multiplier effect—that more private investment will occur as a result of federal investment.

For the D.C. part, there is a formula on how grants are scored. If you just use that, you will come up short. The Department and Secretary of Transportation have to understand your vision and what it means for the community. So we had multiple meetings with Secretary Foxx to talk about what this grant meant to the community, not only as a transportation and economic development project, but this project  was going to right a wrong in the region where the Lower Hill was cut off from Downtown. It would reconnect to the Hill to Downtown, which is as good for Downtown as it is for the Lower Hill.

As a former mayor (of Charlotte, NC), Secretary Foxx understood what that meant to the city and what that meant to the Hill District.

And you know the first time we didn’t score high. And I asked for a debriefing after the first round. We did that and with the second application we strengthened it. The first time [we applied] was for the street grid and they were more interested in the cap than the street grid reconnection. That piece of feedback caused us to rethink our application. And after that, we were able to get the $1.5 million planning grant which was the second signal they had interest.

I was able to bring everyone to D.C. and have a sit-down and make sure they understood what it meant to Pittsburgh. It helped us when local officials, particularly Councilman Daniel Lavelle who had lived there [the Hill District] all his life, gave a heartfelt talk. Having Representatives Wheatley and Costa and Senator Fontana there with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Mayor Peduto. When you have state, county, and local people all pushing in the same direction with the support of community, well that was really key in letting the secretary know everyone was on board and they all thought this was a good idea.

How did you finally secure the grant for Pittsburgh?
It was my singular focus. There were multiple projects going up for TIGER and I made it clear that if I support multiple projects none of them would get funded. You need to be committed to one. I don’t write letters of support, if I commit it is 1,000%. When I get this one done I will focus on the next one. I want a project that will have impact. These projects are going to generate other investments in the region. Well, the third time was the charm, and we got the whole $19 million, which is rare, a lot of time you get something less, so this was a full-fledged endorsement of this project. So our success was due to outreach to the Secretary, and members of the review board and the constant debriefing. We wanted to learn what our weaknesses were. Every failure brings us one step closer to success. Then you need to be persistent. It took time but we got it.

How do you see this project as transformative in your district?
This is a prime development place, and if we do it right so everyone benefits, it is going to be tremendously beautiful. It’s going to encourage more people to walk and bike. I am very excited about how it will enhance and change the development of the 28-acre portion. The new green space will be the entrance. This project will give the designers [of the Penguins site] a whole different mindset.

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