Aspinwall council votes to shift funding to Riverfront 47 intersection
Before a packed meeting room and after a contentious debate, Aspinwall Borough Council voted 4-3 on a nonbinding measure to explore shifting $1.42 million in grant funding to establish a new intersection access to the Riverfront 47 site, a former scrapyard that extends a mile and a half along an Allegheny riverfront facing new redevelopment potential for the first time in decades.
The vote allows Aspinwall the opportunity to request its state funding sources to allow the community to change its intended use of the funding from building out improvements to the intersection at Freeport Road and Brilliant Avenue to instead fund the development of a new intersection at Freeport and Eastern, a location that would also need to establish access through a busy Norfolk-Southern Rail line.
It was a vote closely watched by a divided community wary of a major new development expected to include a mix of a new residential community, some commercial and light industrial use on the 47-acre site and its potential to bring more traffic to an already busy Freeport Road.
“I want to emphasize that this is only the first step in the decision-making process,” said Tripp Oliver, a borough councilman who chairs the planning and zoning committee, also maintaining the nonbinding vote will enable the community to begin a full cost-benefit analysis of the development plan.
The vote allows the development team, Riverfront 47, led by the Mosites Co., to work with the borough to meet a variety of conditions to pursue the plan, including traffic studies, funding expectations and other concerns.
At the same time, the borough of Aspinwall will explore an intergovernmental cooperation agreement with Sharpsburg and O’Hara, the two other communities through which Riverfront 47 extends. Though only six acres of the 47 are within Aspinwall’s borders, the borough expects to face greater disruption from the new access point.
“I recognize a great community effort when I see one,” said Mark Minnerly, director of development for Mosites. “It’s a little disturbing actually to not have people want you to do what you’re doing.”
“We’re actually listening carefully,” he said. “We’re absolutely doing everything we can to get to a center spot which is a win-win.”
Minnerly and Aspinwall’s council faced a room full of organized opposition lead by a community group called Priority Aspinwall that outfitted all its supporters in neon green T-shirts and “No” signs, along with various other signs of protest.
There was also a contingent of community supporters of the project, including some who identified as Progress Aspinwall, who pointed out efforts to mitigate the traffic concerns and occasionally clashed with the plan’s opponents.
Though Mosites joined Riverfront 47 in September 2015, pairing with Aspinwall couple Susan and Currie Crookston, their development plans for the site still remain somewhat conceptual.
Minnerly mentioned a desire to build residential on the site and expected it would complement the riverfront park there, but didn’t offer any further specifics of what might be built there. Riverfront 47 hopes to add a new entrance to the site to complement the main access point at 19th Street in Sharpsburg.
When pressed about the need to use Eastern as an access point, Minnerly said the company’s research on the site so far has determined it to be the best option, given the market strength of Aspinwall and the technical challenges elsewhere relating to flood plan limitations and physical access through the rail line.
“We have studied and examined a number of options and have not come up with anything that works except for Eastern,” he said, adding that Mosites was always open to new information.
David Brown, a leader of Priority Aspinwall, argued the project lacks community support for its traffic impact and other concerns, supporting his position by noting the 200 yard signs in the community against the plan and a survey of local businesses in which he said 80 percent were opposed.
“I am deeply afraid that this decision if made wrongly will ruin this community permanently,” he said.
Yet a council majority eked out a one-vote victory for the measure that gives Riverfront 47 a deadline of June 30 to establish a formal agreement to pursue the plan and all its contingencies, as well as get approval to fund the Eastern Avenue plan at a time in a state budget season when funding is precarious.
When pressed by opponents of the plan, Councilman Mark Ellermeyer offered his reasons to support the plan, starting with increased tax revenue and opportunities for funding other initiates the community needs, such as safety measures and extending a riverfront trail down to Millvale through the site.
He also looked forward to the potential of expanding a new neighborhood for Aspinwall.
Ellermeyer also expected more negative outcomes if the development doesn’t go forward under the broad outline Mosites has laid out thus far.
“I believe that without Eastern Avenue, there will not be a residential component. If there is not a residential component, then we will be looking at the backside of some industrial development,” he said. “I’m telling you what I believe.”