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Pittsburgh's commitment to urban farming: St. Clair Village

Posted September 8

— For urban gardens and farms to sustain themselves, they have to be big enough for people to make money from them. The one being carved out on 23 vacant acres of the former St. Clair Village has that kind of massing.

Most of what we know of urban gardening is small-scale. People garden on plots for themselves. These gardens can survive only if the gardeners keep their soil enhanced, pull weeds and grow produce season after season. They have a bounty for their own kitchen, maybe extra for the local food pantry, and that's a lot of incentive.

But many early efforts to start community gardens end up as weedy lots after a few years.

Aaron Sukenik, executive director of the Hilltop Alliance — which draws membership from a dozen neighborhoods that include St. Clair, Arlington, Beltzhoover and Allentown — took a big idea for a big empty space to numerous funders and experts four years ago to ensure that the land could become an economic asset for the community.

St. Clair Village, a public housing project from the early 1950s, was demolished between 2006 and 2010.

When elected officials and community advocates cut a ribbon last week on the site, they spread the message that this would be the biggest urban farm in the country. There is no way for me to confirm that in the time I have, and whether it is the biggest isn't important. It is big enough to require investment of almost $10 million just for the scope and scale of the production, from infrastructure and equipment to greenhouses and people and all those things we forget to think about like insurance, legal fees and surveys.

It has gotten almost half a million already. That's a serious commitment that indicates the likelihood of continuing commitment. The Henry L. Hillman Foundation's grant of $250,000 paid for, among other things, pre-development of the land and the salary of a project manager.

"The project on its own is compelling," said Tyler Gourley, vice president at Hillman. "But the community's aspirations take it across the finish line."

The Hilltop Urban Farm isn't just a great idea, and it's not a new idea. It is an example of what Michelle Sandidge, the Pittsburgh Housing Authority's chief community affairs officer, described as a new model in cities and their neighborhoods.

"We are replicating what people want these days in urban settings," she said, interlacing her fingers. "Trails, affordable housing, food."

She cited Larimer as one of several examples of neighborhoods that are meshing new affordable housing with green infrastructure and a neighborhood farm.

"This is the mindset," she said.

Affordable housing is expected to be built on 10 acres near the farm. St. Clair Village consumed about 40 acres.

Most neighborhoods that need fresh food need jobs, and the Hilltop is a glaring example. Almost half the farm will be available for would-be entrepreneurs. The entire plan would consume most of Cresswell Street and all of Bonifay Street. Bonifay horse-shoes off Cresswell like a pendant from a necklace.

A portion along Cresswell would be a youth farm, an orchard for youth and an education center.

The Hilltop Alliance and the Allegheny Land Trust are partners on the site now. The plan is for the land trust to own it.

"There's a lot of attention among land trusts to acquire farmland in rural areas but no pipeline to get new farmers to that land," Sukenik said. "They can't go from a community garden to rural acreage. There has to be an intermediary step.

"We are going to give some level of preference to nearby residents. The thing we hear time and again is that this is an opportunity for employment."

Growers could sell from a large market building on the site, with greenhouses and a compost processor behind it. The plan also calls for chickens and small livestock. This, too, is part of the urban mindset these days, concern about knowing your food, from hoof to stalk. And like other cities, Pittsburgh now allows people to keep chickens and bees.

The fact that land trusts are interested in acquiring farmland is directly and ironically related to the reason why more urbanites are adopting self-sustaining lifestyles: Sprawl is eating up traditional farmland.

As I was writing this column, I got a call from Robyn Zadrozny of Mt. Lebanon. Her grandparents, Katherine and Stanley Zadrozny, made their living farming on the St. Clair site. They sold their produce in the Strip.

"I remember how beautiful it was up there," she said, "and I'm just overjoyed that people are going to farm there again. It will be so wonderful to see that."

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