PG: Proposed housing development adjacent to Aspinwall Riverfront Park has stirred the ire of some residents

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Proposed housing development adjacent to Aspinwall Riverfront Park has stirred the ire of some residents

Aspinwall Riverfront Park is having growing pains.

The 10-acre site opened last September, five years after the first Boy Scout gave his lawn-mowing money to a fund that 3,000 people joined to buy a marina and the land around it.

A $250,000 county grant and similarly large foundation gifts made up the bulk of the $2.3 million purchase price, but the sale of lemonade and T-shirts, penny jars and proceeds from lawn mowing, a rubber ducky race and pet parade made for a Norman Rockwell story about a can-do community effort.

A more complicated next step has turned some residents against the park’s visionary and its most tireless fundraiser.

Susan Crookston has come under fire from several residents for proposing an access road through a piece of the park to 47 adjacent acres she and her husband Currie Crookston purchased two years ago.

When the mile-and-a-half-long scrap yard came up for sale, Ms. Crookston asked the park’s board to buy it. The park is owned by the non-profit Allegheny Riverfront Park Inc., whose board consists of people who helped establish the park.

“The board didn’t have funds to develop it or to take the financial risk,” said Chip Burke, a board member and chairman of the board of the Grable Foundation.

Ms. Crookston then lobbied foundations and environmental nonprofits to buy it, with the intention of expanding the park, but no one wanted to take the risk.

The Crookstons did. They paid a non-refundable deposit of $50,000 toward a $5.3 million asking price, unsure whether as a brownfield it could be developed, but did it in order to  secure a public connection to the river and the riverfront trail, Ms. Crookston said, adding, “The mission of the park has always been to catalyze trail extension.”

The cost required some return on their investment, though. They chose the Mosites Co. to create a residential development on part of the land. Mosites is now the majority owner of the 47 acres.

Mark Minnerly, Mosites’ director of real estate, said the project will take “multiple years” because there are two other municipalities to deal with, Sharpsburg and O’Hara, and a railroad line as a site constraint. But the environmental report indicates that soil remediation will be minimal, with no chemical contaminants, he said.

Mr. Burke said the development will financially compensate the park. “It’s a win for both parties, and I think people aren’t realizing that the results will be a better park, a safer entrance, a larger tax base and no more ugly scrap yard.”

The current park entrance is a somewhat hidden opening between railroad plinths near Brilliant Avenue along Freeport Road. On the advice of consultants and with board support, Mosites has proposed moving the entrance to Eastern Avenue. It would lead into the park in one direction and to the housing development in the other.

A Sunoco station would be purchased to create that entrance and parking for the business district.

Several residents oppose changing the entrance, saying it will add to traffic woes on Freeport Road. Some also question cutting a road through the park for a private development.

In response to one resident who implied that the board was granting the Crookstons’ a favor, Mr. Burke said the same concession would be made to any developer who would grant public access to riverfront land and the trail.

“It’s an abstraction to think that collaborations aren’t necessary” to make big projects happen, said Mr. Minnerly of Mosites, the developer of several large residential and commercial developments in East Liberty. “The public, private and nonprofit mindset has been part of nearly everything that has been minted there.”

Resident Karen Hart said she thinks the board is not being true to its original vision by making an antrance for commercial development. “I think they have a noble obligation as stewards to complete the park” as the community envisioned it. “They should tear down the marina building and do an open-air pavilion” instead of a welcome center in the marina building. “Why does a park need a welcome center? The impediment to a river view is that marina building.

Resident Gil Hart said he opposes the plan because of the heavy traffic he anticipates.

“Freeport is already a very busy road,” he said. “Additional housing is not what we need. But we don’t know what might be put in there. It could be a Dave and Buster’s or a Target. It could become whatever it becomes, but I don’t want all the traffic coming to it through my town.”

A second entrance into the development is required, so not all traffic would enter the development in Aspinwall.

“This piece of property has made the riverfront inaccessible to the public for more than 80 years,” Ms. Crookston said. ”We will gain a mile and a half of trail, acreage around the river and reconnect Sharpsburg, O’Hara and Aspinwall.”

Rob Stephany, the program director for community and economic development at the Heinz Endowments, said the plan for the former scrap yard is “an attempt to overturn 100 years of bad land use. Susan has been a dogged advocate of a high-quality public realm, and the notion of unraveling a brownfield is hero’s work. Part of this design is the reality” that revenue has to be part of the picture.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.