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Development Project Uses Art To Control Water Flow In Larimer

Betsy Damon, an international water artist, was invited to Pittsburgh to create a museum exhibit several years ago but decided instead to find an amenable neighborhood.

“Pittsburgh has buried most of its streams in huge pipes,” she said. “Finding the right place was a story in itself.”

The plot twisted to Brooklyn, where a Pittsburgh native at a workshop told her, “‘Betsy, find Larimer,’” she said.

She found a lot more in Larimer than one of the city’s flattest and most vacant neighborhoods. She found a Green Team of residents eager to move forward on an environmental agenda and a cadre of technical experts eager to sew green infrastructure into the design of new housing.

The Living Waters of Larimer sprang to life as an integrated plan of water collection, natural infiltration and artistic reuse in synchronicity with the coming of almost 400 new housing units — 350 spurred by a $30 million federal Choice Neighborhoods grant and 40 under construction now by KBK Enterprises.

Rain from KBK’s buildings will go from a roof piping system to nine filtration trenches rather than the sewer system, said Jennifer DeNardo, KBK’s assistant vice president and project manager. Rain barrels will capture additional run-off.

“We are keeping our stormwater on site,” she said. “We feel we are doing our part to minimize the impact of stormwater and to keep it from being treated unnecessarily.

“Larimer has branded itself as green, and our part will add to the allure. It will be beautiful,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve had great support from the Living Waters team, Penn State Center, public works and county health officials.”

The Penn State Center’s bioswale at Larimer Avenue and Meadow Street will collect water from the street via channels cut in the curb.

Ms. Damon’s art installation will use water for sculpture, to enliven a civic green space and to power a children’s playground. It is a finalist for an ArtPlace America grant.

She and Carnegie Mellon University art professor Bob Bingham are the Living Waters project directors. Environmental attorney John Stephen, hydrologist Ian Lipsky, landscape architect Christine Mondor, storm flow data and mapping expert Matt Graham and the Penn State Center are the key members of the technical team.

In 2007, residents were first on task with a “let’s do something” planning process, said consultant Pat Clark. “They were sick of planning, so we formed action teams, the Green Team being one.”

One result was a block-long public garden on city-owned land along Larimer Avenue.

Larimer sits on a plateau that sends on average 141 million gallons of stormwater into Negley Run each year, Mr. Graham said. Negley Run and the paved boulevard that covers it contribute to flooding on Washington Boulevard and sewage overflows in the Allegheny River.

Larimer resident Robert Germany said when residents began their plan, “there was some talk about water because it leaked from pipes under old foundations, flooding people’s basements. Then after the incidents on Washington Boulevard, we thought we’d better do something.”

Four fatalities in a flash flood in 2011 was not the only impetus. A federal consent decree requires the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority to reduce or eliminate sewage overflows by 2026.

With 750 vacant lots, Larimer could demonstrate “a new paradigm for redevelopment, considering topography and natural features in the design phase,” Mr. Lipsky said.

The plan for Living Waters will complement that of Project 15206, a 10-site effort to sidetrack storm flow into Negley and Heth’s Runs from Highland Park, Morningside and Lemington.

The Heinz Endowments granted Living Waters $260,000 for artist stipends, project capital and administrative support for the Kingsley Association, a community service anchor and the home base for Living Waters.

“This is one of those community development projects with so much interesting stuff happening at the same time,” said Rob Stephany, a program director for the Heinz Endowments. “Having a team of artists and involved residents and the acumen for capturing water is tremendous synergy” in light of advancing development.

Yusef Ali of the Larimer Consensus Group said Living Waters “is a stabilizing element we think is necessary to revitalize our community, including wealth building” for low-income residents to withstand gentrification.

“A lot of people are excited about this project,” said Ms. Damon. “The vision is that this community collects water not just for bioswales but to nurture its economic growth with cisterns, farming, art, parks, orchards.

“This way of valuing storm water should be broadcast from the mountaintops,” she said. “And Pittsburgh has the topography to do it.”