From the porch of her Mount Washington home, Jacqueline White's view of Pittsburgh's Downtown skyline is slightly obscured by some treetops along the Grandview Scenic Byway Park. But for her, that's part of the appeal. She and her neighbors "appreciate looking out on the green space just as much as we appreciate looking at the city," she says.
White is worried, though, that a threat to the park and its wildlife is lurking just over the horizon.
A Chicago developer, Steven Beemsterboer, plans to build an $80 million hotel-condo complex at the site of Mount Washington's long-abandoned Edge Restaurant, which broods over the hillside near the Monongahela Incline. If built, the facility will feature roughly 140 hotel rooms and 60 condominiums, as well as stores, restaurants and an underground parking garage.
But while the majority of the development, called One Grandview Avenue, will occupy land the developer has purchased over the past few years, part of it could stretch into the Byway Park. On May 5, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the developer's plan would require the city to surrender a sliver of the 268-acre public park.
"That would be sinful," says Laurie Lajeunesse, who lives near White, on East Sycamore Street. The city designated Mount Washington's steeply sloped hillside as a park in 2006, and Lajeunesse says, "I specifically moved here because I can see wildlife and the city all at the same time."
Beemsterboer's lawyer, Kevin McKeegan, says such concerns are premature. The P-G story, he contends, was based on preliminary plans. He cautions that the developer is still unsure whether the project will even need to take up any of the nearby parkland. And even if it does, McKeegan says the P-G's report that the developer plans to engage in a land swap isn't certain yet, either. According to the P-G, Beemsterboer would trade a piece of private land next to East Sycamore Street for a piece of the public park.
McKeegan would not provide land-use plans to City Paper because they "are still somewhat in a state of flux," he says.
According to McKeegan, the development would require roughly five acres of land. Drawings of the complex, created by Pittsburgh architecture firm Desmone & Associates, suggest the complex would resemble descending stairs, rising highest on the west end and sloping downward, toward the P.J. McArdle Roadway.
If the project does require any park land, says McKeegan, the developer will most likely need just a quarter of an acre. Some residents are more willing than others to make that concession.
Chris Beichner, executive director of the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, praises the developer for meeting frequently with the community. The group's board and members have unanimously voted in favor of the project three times in the past eight months, Beichner adds.
"The community is in overwhelming support of the development," he says. "It's going to bring jobs." What's more, says Beichner, "I believe it would enhance the park" -- because the developer has discussed plans to add trails and walkways.
Board member Anne Holmes, for one, can't wait to see the unsightly Edge Restaurant replaced. The building has sat vacant for roughly 30 years, and the site "looks like Sarajevo," she says. "It needs to go."
Beemsterboer "only needs a sliver of the park," Holmes continues. But some residents "don't want to give it to him. ... It's turned into a personal vendetta between the [residents] who want the park and the ones who don't."
"Is caring about the environment a bad thing?" White counters. "I would be embarrassed if I wasn't protecting that park."
"We have to preserve our parklands," agrees Lajeunesse.
Lajeunesse is particularly upset with neighbors who seem willing to downplay environmental concerns because only a small amount of parkland is at stake. Even if the parcel is small, she says, handing it over will set a bad precedent. "Who's to say they won't take parkland from other parts of the city?" she asks.
Selling the parkland would require the approval of city council, but council typically defers to the councilor representing the affected area. And Mount Washington's current council representative, Theresa Smith, supports the development.
"I do care about the environment," says Smith. "However, I think it's a good project."