You know it’s a strange predicament when both parties in a dispute can use “power to the people” as their rallying point.
For Duquesne Light, that “power” is literal — they plan to build a sizable cooling station to aid underground electric transmission lines along Cedar Avenue in East Park.
For Northsiders incensed by the planned station, it’s their prerogative to bar the unwanted structure from the historic landscape.
“I found out about this three weeks ago,” District 1 Councilwoman Darlene Harris said. “We looked at the building to put bathrooms in it, but this [whole issue] got a lot bigger.”
Harris was one of many speakers invited to a fiery community meeting organized by the Allegheny Commons Initiative at the New Hazlett Theater on Sept. 28. The quickly organized event brought out around 150 Northside residents, representing nearly every neighborhood.
Among speakers and attendees, the opinion was nearly unanimous that the structure would blight the historic landscape, be prone to graffiti, invite a criminal element into the park and compromise a location traditionally used for dozens of annual community events — such as the Pumpkin Fest and the Farmers’ Market.
A spokesperson for the electric company, Joseph Vallarian, said the structure would circulate cooling oil through large electrical transmission lines that run from substation to substation under the park and is necessary to ensure continued, smooth operation of power distribution.Although Duquesne Light’s designs have changed rapidly since they first approached city planner Andrew Dash, the cooling station’s present designs are 28’ long, by 9’ wide and 9’ tall.
Duquesne Light wants to place the structure on Cedar Avenue directly across from Foreland Street, because it already has an underground vault there and can easily circulate the cooling oil directly into the transmission lines. In addition, the electric utility argues that the spot is a perfect midway point between where the lines begin at Brunot’s Island and end at Lawrencville’s Arsenal Station.
Allegheny Commons Initiative’s project manager Alida Baker, who spoke at the meeting, said ACI proposed Union Avenue near Allegheny Center Alliance Church as a better location for the structure, since it is only 100 feet away from manhole access to the transmission lines and would not interrupt the park’s landscape.
“It would fit there because there are structures on that edge,” Baker said. “It wouldn’t be smack in the middle of the lawn overpowering the landscape. I think 100 feet is not a lot to ask.”
But Duquesne Light, who canceled earlier in the day an agreement to send a representative to the meeting, said the cooling station must be close to the lines.
The farther away the structure is, the farther the oil has to travel and the less effective it becomes, Vallarian said. And if one of the transmission lines should fail, he said it would take a minimum of 8 hours to fix because they are underground.
“We don’t just arbitrarily go and say ‘Let’s put something there,’” Vallarian said. “There’s a reason it has to be where it is.”
The electric company has offered to build a public bathroom or a gateway to welcome visitors, but both ACI and the East Allegheny Community Council would like to see the structure removed entirely from the Cedar Avenue location.
Both groups along with city council members Tanya Payne, Darlene Harris and Doug Shields — all present at the meeting — believe the city has the ability to stop Duquesne Light from building the structure in the first place.
Doug Shields said under the agreement the city granted Duquesne Light in the 1970s to build the underground vault, the director of parks must permit all new construction in public parks.
Additionally, under the zoning code, Shields said, “the city has to apply on Duquesne Light’s behalf.”
Harris and others said that she is not sure whether federal or state officials could overrule the city, because the utility company argues it is building the cooling station to comply with newer federal power regulations, created in the wake of New York’s blackout in 2003.
Vallarian said that Duquesne Light has the right to build in the park, because of the underground infrastructure, and added that the company is going out of its way to build something that would also benefit the community.
“We don’t normally offer to build a bathroom for someone,” Vallarian said. “We’re going to build it. We have to put something there.”
Harris talked about three separate options to push for: either the structure could be built below the soil grade, it could be built closer to the Union Avenue, or it could be placed in a vacant building across Cedar Avenue from the park.
“We don’t think of this [latter option] as a reasonable one,” Harris said.
She admitted to not understanding the engineering details of the utility company’s plans, but said she had a feeling the reason the company didn’t want to relocate the station 100 feet away was the heightened cost, which she estimated at an extra $250,000.
“Duquesne Light doesn’t want to put the shed underground, because they said the equipment is too expensive,” and the underground structure could flood, said Paul Tellers, a local architect who explained the utility’s proposals using a projection screen.
Crowd members were not pleased with what they were hearing and many addressed the speakers sharply.
“Would this happen in Fox Chapel or Mt. Lebanon?” one older gentleman said.
“Everyone in this room doesn’t want this structure to begin with. What do we have to do collectively to stop this? Can we tie them up in litigation?” another woman asked.
Harris said if the Mayor’s office was with her and the other city council members, they could direct the city law office to look into blocking the structure.
This would have to occur soon, since Duquesne Light wants to begin construction by February 2010.
Two respondents said that working with the utility company might achieve better results. One woman proposed making the structure artistic is some way. Alex Sands, who lives on Cedar Avenue near the proposed structure, said that the company might design the structures to look like historic guard towers as a gateway to the park. But both opinions received a tepid response.
Most residents argued that the cooling station would be an ugly addition to the park and would invite vandalism and block drug and prostitution activity from the sight of police patrols.
Others mentioned the safety issue in connection with the large number of children who attend school in the Allegheny Commons.
Baker expressed worry that the structure would ruin the historic integrity of the park and interfere in a $450,000 project to restore East Park that ACI hopes to start in spring 2010.
The East Park restoration project is part of a larger $2.2 million plan to restore all of Allegheny Commons, and includes building a replica of the old Northeast Fountain across from Allegheny General where a circular flowerbed currently sits.
Tanya Payne proposed a second meeting when and if Duquesne Light representatives could meet with concerned residents.
ACI and the EACC are directing Northsiders to write to local and state legislators and sign a petition to be used in upcoming city council meetings.