A community defends its park: media & public relations for a cause

October 21 2009

Allegheny_Commons_logoIn urban community redevelopment, often you’re either pushing for something or pushing against something else.  Sometimes you’re doing both simultaneously.  It’s the yin and yang of the process. In this case it’s a push back by neighbors against a proposed intrusion into a public, historic park on the Northside of Pittsburgh by a utility company. 

The community vs. utility conflict

The story began in 2003 when a big Northeast electric grid blackout wreaked havoc from the Midwest to New England.  Fast forward six years to May 2009 when Duquesne Light (DL), now an Australian owned utility, announced that it needs to quickly build a large “Crossover Station” in Allegheny Commons park.  Part of a cooling system for underground multi-megavolt power lines, the station is intended to mitigate the likelihood of another blackout.

Acknowledging that there is a need for a solution to this technological challenge—and that the Feds require a strengthening of the grid— the surrounding communities say “There must be a better solution.”  Many say it in terms that are less civil in response to DL’s proposal for an above ground 28’ x 9’ x 9’ structure in the heart of the park, only yards from the weekly Farmers Market, the annual Pumpkin Fest and restored homes across Cedar Avenue.

It’s also in the section of the park that is about to be restored with a $2,000,000+ investment. 

Allegheny Commons park conflict

Community push back begins

After a summer of negotiations— during which the Station proposed by DL grew in volume by 2000% —in September the Allegheny Commons Initiative and several community leaders decided it was critical to hear the voice the community. Collaborating with their two City Council representatives, they scheduled a Town Hall meeting for September 28th.  DL had already launched its public relations campaign for the project earlier in the month and one of the community leaders had already launched her own counter campaign by speaking at several neighborhood meetings.

In preparation for the meeting, the experienced, yet volunteer leadership group built an outreach platform under the banner of “A SHOCKING addition to our park?  Town Meeting Sept. 28”:

  • Station mockuppress releases went out to dozens of media
  • email invitations went to hundreds of residents and other stakeholders
  • a PowerPoint presentation was created
  • a panel of experts was assembled to speak
  • a full size mockup of the Station was built ———>


Town meeting rallies the community!

town meeting in DeutschtownThe result was impressive. Approximately 200 people representing 11 Northside neighborhoods showed up. There was consensus that the current DL strategy was inappropriate for a wide variety of reasons. Three City Council representatives spoke out in support of a better solution for the Station. They and other city officials pledged to pursue political and legal avenues for a better solution. DL did not attend.

Extensive media coverage & support

That night KDKA, WPXI and WDUQ broadcast stories about the meeting and the issues. Starting the next day and continuing for a week, more stories appeared in the press, including in the Post-Gazette, Tribune Review, Northside Chronicle and even on financial websites like iStockAnalyst.com.  Perhaps the most supportive and compelling were two from the Post-Gazette:

CALLS TO ACTION:  an email followup

Following the meeting, numerous local and regional organizations were solicited for letters of support for the community position.  In a followup email to hundreds of Northside stakeholders four calls to action were offered (exact text follows):

WHAT YOU CAN DO #1: email or call your elected officials

Even a dozen emails or calls can make a huge difference in building our officials’ case for support. While most of them already support this cause, telling them what concerns you gives them more leverage:  Aesthetics/blight?  Preservation? Safety? The precedent? Economic impact? Other? Perhaps use “Stop Duquesne Light” as subject of your email. Simply click on the live links below and send your message or call NOW:

  • Councilwoman Darlene Harris email
  • Councilwoman Tonya Payne, 412-255-0738
  • Mayor Ravenstahl, 412-255-2687
  • Representative Jake Wheatley, 412-471-7760
  • Representative Don Walko, 412-321-5523
  • Senator Jim Ferlo, 412-621-3006

WHAT YOU CAN DO #2:  circulate a petition

Attached is a petition you can have signed by neighbors and other stakeholders.  Please return this to Alida Baker at the Allegheny Commons Initiative by October 19th.  She will forward them to various elected officials and other influencers.

WHAT YOU CAN DO #3:  send a donation

Since this issue arose in May, more than $7,000 has already been committed by local organizations in seeking a different solution, money that was not budgeted for by these organizations.  Please make checks out to Northside Leadership Conference and send to:  Alida Baker, ACI, 4 Allegheny Center, Suite 601, 15212

The story is not finished

As of October 20th negotiations are still underway for a “better solution.”  And stakeholders in the community and their allies in organizations and government continue to push back. There are rumors of new and better options being put on the table.  Stay tuned.

1/29/10 Update: The Post-Gazette publishes a pro community article “Doing the Electric Slide”

1/30/10 Update:  The Post-Gazette publishes another pro community article “Yep, They Want the Garage”.  It appears DL has made a choice which is not necessarily a win-win.

10/11/10 Update: Read the Post-Gazette article “All’s Cool Again at Allegheny Commons.” The final outcome…


a member of the volunteer community team

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