Edgeworth Land Use Activity Raises Concerns, Eyebrows, Hackles

Hazel at ORB Accident 111116

Police investigate as a tow truck removes vehicles involved in a collision on Ohio River Boulevard at Hazel Lane in Edgeworth, Monday, January 11, 2016.

 

ADDENDUM,  January 18, 2016 – Several of the below issues are on the agenda for Edgeworth Council’s consideration at their monthly meeting, scheduled for tomorrow, January 19, at 7:00 pm. Local media has indicated they will be present.

The possibility exists that the Chipotle decision may be revisited under Old Business at tomorrow’s meeting, and that citizen comments for non-agenda items may include comments about traffic, and the possible demolition of ‘Muottas’.

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Happy New Year.

Sounds strange over two weeks in, doesn’t it? Tell you what, it certainly doesn’t feel like the first half of January has already passed, but there it is.

If I were to assess the issues that I reported on this past year, the word LOCAL looms large, because that’s my intentional focus. History, Civil Liberties, Public Safety, Politics, and Land Use make up the sub-headings.

Some topics were re-visited as updates and other embellishments when warranted. That’s how I’ll close the books on 2015 and open them again, with some observations about proposed land uses in one particular area municipality.

Esmark View 12282015

The proposed Chipotle and retail site, with surrounding commercial properties, as seen from the Esmark Center.

 

Chipotle – Coming Soon (?)

The subject of a post a month ago, the Edgeworth Borough Council meeting of December 15 was indeed covered by the Sewickley Herald.  Edgeworth resident and attorney Michael Tomana was also in attendance, and provided me with some additional information and observations.

Add in the Herald narrative, and the combined accounts give an impression that the proceedings fell somewhere between dark humor and surrealism.  For example:

Following the first vote, which failed, the property owners had a private discussion and returned to announce they would work out an agreement.

So saying “no” was the only way to get these guys to talk to one another?

The second vote passed 3-0 pending a written agreement. Councilman Daniel Wilson recused himself due to a conflict.

Council President Joseph Hoepp and Vice President Gary Smith were absent from the meeting, with five council members in attendance. Councilman Wilson’s “conflict” is that he is the Chief Financial Officer of Eat N Park, which has a local, competitive presence in the immediate area of the development.

That left four members – not three – set to vote on Chipotle.

According to Mr. Tomana:

Motion to approve the development failed on a 2-2 vote.  (David) Aloe and (Ivan) Hofmann for, (Carrie) Duffield and Greg (Marlovits) against. Matter sent back to solve issues.
Developer than said he wanted to know why. Greg Marlovits answered because there is a legal dispute unresolved over the access road.
Developer comes back and asks Council to vote again “conditioned upon him working out the private road dispute.”
Shockingly they agreed to re-vote right then and passed it 4-0. Outrageous.

 

An agreement for road access between property owners should be a prerequisite for developing vacant land –  not something pieced together once Pandora’s traffic box has already been opened. Perhaps this is why Burger King is isolated from every other adjacent property in terms of vehicular access.

One other question looms large – the borough’s traffic engineer, Trans Associates, stated that a 3-lane intersection at Hazel Lane would be required to accommodate traffic flow in and out of the area with a McDonald’s in play, but backed off from that with Chipotle and two additional retail storefronts. I wonder why.

In a July 2015 Herald story, Edgeworth Manager Martin McDaniel acknowledged a considerable increase in accidents and traffic citations along their section of Route 65:

“In the last six months, there have been seven reportable accidents,” McDaniel said. In the prior five years, there had been only three.

Information from other media accounts and Cochran Hose Company data showed five accidents in the Edgeworth commercial corridor of Route 65 from May through September of 2015, with at least three of those accidents involving serious vehicle damage, injuries, or both. And as the photo at the top of this post demonstrates, the trend continues.

Chipotle restaurants, while typically not having drive-thru lanes, do offer extensive fax and online ordering services for takeout orders. This may attract those who live, work, or attend school nearby, such as Sewickley Academy across the street, to approach the business on foot.

Esmark CEO Jim Bouchard, who also attended the Edgeworth council meeting, was quoted by the Herald as stating, “Trust me, everybody in my building loves to see Chipotle coming. They all love to eat it, and I think all of us do and our kids do.

Considering recent events related to food quality and illness at several Chipotle outlets across the country, along with associated litigation announced last week, I’m wondering if Mr. Bouchard might choose to eat his words, and if the company will still be in a position to expand in the wake of these challenges.

Who knows, maybe Mr. Wilson could be persuaded to put a Hello Bistro in there if things don’t work out….again.

Muottas 2

The William Walker estate, “Muottas”, located above both Little Sewickley Creek Road in Edgeworth and Leetsdale’s Lark Inn Fields neighborhood.

 

Miffed Over “Muottas”

At just about the same time last month came the revelation that a historic Edgeworth mansion had been sold, and that within a few weeks of the sale the new owner had started the required process to tear it down.

The Post-Gazette reported in mid-December on movie mogul Thomas Tull‘s purchase of the William Walker estate “Muottas” and over 100 acres around it. The story went into particular detail about the restoration of the house by the previous owners, Harlan and Cynthia Giles, as well as reaction from local preservationists to what appears to be the lack of any attempt to protect the property via a preservation easement.

P-G Reporter Marylynne Pitz was clear and matter-of-fact in her assessment:

Preservationists are aghast at the prospect of losing a third historic home during the past quarter century. But it seems there is little anyone can do to derail Mr. Tull’s plans, whatever they are.

Online comments to the story seemed to largely lament the circumstances surrounding the sale, with many resigned to Mr. Tull’s ability to demolish the house, but hoping that he could be persuaded otherwise. This included the great-grandson of William Walker, who was gracious yet resolute, encouraging Mr. Tull to look into the history of the area and their family before making an irreversible decision.

Muottas Area 1

The general area of the Walker estate, showing ‘Muottas’, the property surrounding it, and the associated family houses ‘Bagatelle’ and ‘Pulpit Rock’. The Lark Inn Fields subdivision of Leetsdale was created by William Walker in the 1920’s, so it is also technically part of the original estate.

Much of that history is available through the book Keep Tryst: The Walkers of Pittsburgh & The Sewickley Valley: An Intimate Portrait of a Prominent Pittsburgh FamilyThe Walker clan, whose descendants still own property in Edgeworth, were instrumental in not only excelling in their own businesses, but in advocating for the protection of the Sewickley area from what they saw as the industrial behemoth of Pittsburgh crawling up the riverfront of the Ohio Valley. It’s a well-illustrated and informative read.

The most intriguing aspects of this story for me relate to WHY and HOW.

First, why did Dr. and Mrs. Giles leave the house and property unprotected, aside perhaps from the impressive amount ($5.5 Million) that they received for it?

Indeed, their legacy as preservationists and activists is well documented. Mrs. Giles was a founder of the non-profit Edgeworth Preservation, which made a concerted, though unsuccessful effort in the 1990’s to convince Edgeworth council to enact a historic preservation ordinance.

At the same time, the Gileses continued to put forth a great deal of effort to restore ‘Muottas’, for which they received a preservation award from the Sewickley Valley Historical Society (SVHS) in 1994.

Mrs. Giles continued her efforts in preservation advocacy, not only at the government level but also in the area of historical documentation. Along with other Edgeworth Preservation volunteers and the support of several local organizations, Mrs. Giles spearheaded the publishing of Historic Houses of the Sewickley Valley in 1996.

This 180-page volume documents numerous residential structures, with information on their original owners and designers, as well as exterior photographs. I found it most informative and entertaining – houses that I previously knew only in passing, or by virtue of childhood friends that lived in them, took on a whole new life as a result.

For her efforts, Mrs. Giles was named the Sewickley Herald Woman of the Year for 1996.

SVHS became the repository for the records and assets of Edgeworth Preservation in 2000, and published a second edition of Historic Houses in 2011.

Muottas Parcel Detail

Allegheny County GIS image showing ‘Muottas’ and surrounding property, which extends into Leet Township almost to Camp Meeting Road.

As hard as it seems for many local historians and preservationists to accept the Gileses’ decision to allow for the unrestricted sale of ‘Muottas’, the practical aspects of effecting radical change to the property may – or may not – provide some hope to those concerned.

The P-G story noted that access to the house and property from the Edgeworth side is via a narrow, single-lane driveway with several switchbacks, and there is a history of hillside instability. The prospect of heavy equipment accessing the site for construction and/or demolition is a cause for concern to both government and neighboring property owners.

The property, however, extends northwesterly into Leet Township, and is separated from Camp Meeting Road only by a few parcels of land – some developed, some not.

Muottas Topo Camp Meeting Rd

USGS map showing topography of the hill where ‘Muottas’ is situated, leading back to a potential access point via Camp Meeting Road in Leet Township.

As the above graphic illustrates, access could be achieved from Camp Meeting Road to a relatively level flat leading across the property to ‘Muottas’. Whether this could actually accommodate an access road for construction equipment is of course better left to engineers, surveyors, and geologists. This would also require Mr. Tull to secure the necessary land and permits to construct such an access from Camp Meeting.

The potential impact on this segment of the roadway, used heavily by residents of the Quaker Heights subdivision as well as employees and clients of HealthSouth and the Watson Institute, is hard to predict. I’m sure that Allegheny County, which owns and maintains Camp Meeting Road, along with Leet officials, will be prepared to deal with any efforts that do materialize.

Along with the speculation about Mr. Tull’s intentions for the property, last week’s P-G story on the pending sale of a majority stake in Mr. Tull’s entertainment empire raised questions about his future involvement in the Pittsburgh region, which up to this point has been significant.

Stack Property

Location of the Stack Property in relationship to Little Sewickley Creek. The owner, Edward Stack, has proposed building a golf practice facility that would require the removal of over 300 trees.

 

There is Unrest in the Forest

Mike Tomana, who also serves as President of the SVHS Board of Directors, told Ms. Pitz for her Post-Gazette story that “It’s more difficult to take down a diseased tree in Edgeworth than it is to obtain a demolition permit for a historic home“. Other recent activity before Edgeworth officials would seem to validate this assessment.

A long-time Oliver Road resident sued the borough for the right to cut down three large oak trees that are damaging her sidewalk – a condition that the borough had also sent her a warning letter about.

This resident’s recent court victory, combined with Larry Oswald’s success against Sewickley Borough last year, could signal a trend toward citizens fighting back against regulations that are perceived as unreasonable, or enforced in a haphazard and/or selective manner.

In October, the Edgeworth Planning Commission received a proposal from representatives of Edward Stack, the Chairman and CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, to construct a golf practice facility at his residence on Spanish Tract Road. This project would require the removal of 367 trees.

According to the minutes of the meeting, commission member and Councilman David Aloe advised Mr. Stack’s representatives that “a one-for-one tree replacement is required per Borough Ordinance and that the trees are of adequate size must be replanted as approved by the Borough Arborist“.

The discussion of the proposal was tabled, pending engineering reviews and a plan to replant any trees that are cut down.

The project also attracted the attention of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, which expressed concern as to the potential effects of such construction on runoff that enters the watershed from the Stack property, which overlooks the creek and adjacent Walker Park.

The park, incidentally, was donated to Edgeworth Borough in 1934 by the same family that built ‘Muottas’.

 

Conclusions and Observations

In conversation with Mike Tomana and others, an irony and a dichotomy starts to surface about these various projects, and their impact on how we both appreciate the past and proceed safely and responsibly into the future.

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Our area is the repository of some tremendous examples of how the scions of industry and commerce in the 19th and 20th century excelled, built, and lived.  For as many arguing about the preservation of historic homes built by those who also shaped the area we call home today, there are those who trumpet the right of private landowners to do with their land as they please, with minimal government intervention.

Mr. Tomana pointed me in the direction of Sewickley Heights Borough, and their recently published Pattern Book.  The book is an extraordinary compilation of the rich history of the borough’s architecture and design, along with detailed guidelines for improvements to assure that new construction complements the existing character of the borough.

The book reads like a catalog for a living municipal museum, which I believe many would argue is exactly what the Heights strives to be.

The citizens of Edgeworth and their elected officials, some of whom have been in their respective roles for over 20 years, apparently feel differently about their historic character. Perhaps they feel that the scions of the 21st century deserve their monuments to self as well.

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Along with this, our area is exposed to an increasing amount of commuter traffic, which strains both the capacity of our legacy roadways and the livability of the residential area that abuts them.

The addition of commercial infrastructure to what is demonstrably a risky area for both vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and the apparent failure of both Edgeworth and the landowners to adequately accommodate and manage vehicle access, smacks of an irresponsible approach to land management in the commercial area along Route 65.

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Of equal concern is the ability of our local media to report comprehensively on issues surrounding development, history, and preservation. This is particularly true of the Herald – as I scan across the decades for background information about these and other issues, I am increasingly uneasy about the current iteration of the paper, and its ability to dive into local issues as comprehensively as their predecessors did.

This includes the seemingly mundane and ordinary meetings of municipal governing bodies. When Edgeworth Council jettisoned their fire department in October 2011, there was no media representative in attendance. I stand by what I wrote at that time:

Our local media, while small and staffed only so much in uncertain times for their industry, must nonetheless focus some attention on those actions of government and other public entities, regardless of their size, that affect citizens in their coverage area.

In all fairness, I’m glad that the Herald seems to be bearing witness to these proceedings on a more consistent basis, in Edgeworth and elsewhere.

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There is a quotation at the conclusion of Historic Houses of the Sewickley Valley, attributed to the artist, critic and philanthropist John Ruskin:

“Therefore, when we build let us think that we build forever.  Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone.  Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think as we lay stone upon stone that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them and that men will say as they look upon the labor and the wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’”

It is interesting, if not ironic, that these words are etched into the floor of the entryway into arguably the most famous building dedicated to the practice of journalism – the Tribune Tower in Chicago.

Best wishes for health and happiness in the coming year.

Sources:

Sewickley Herald Digital Archive

Floyd, Margaret Henderson.  Architecture After Richardson. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 1993.

 

 

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3 Responses to Edgeworth Land Use Activity Raises Concerns, Eyebrows, Hackles

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