Wrapping Up the Trail and Signage Project

Hollow Run Trail

The group approaches the WPA footbridges on the restored Hollow Run Trail.

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, the team involved in the trail and signage improvement project in the parks–the engineers, construction crew, park foremen, and Parks Conservancy folks–had a wrap-up walk-through in Schenley Park to take in the trails’ transformation. 

While the other three parks have seen noticeable changes (Riverview has some more walkable trails, Frick has a new footbridge, and Highland has a new trail altogether), the changes are probably most dramatic in Schenley Park.  Walking on the refurbished Upper Panther Hollow Trail, we were able to look down and see the changes on the Lower Panther Hollow Trail as well as the Hollow Run Trail, which is walkable again for the first time in recent memory.

This trail will be a fun new option for hikers–it’s more of a woodland trail than the Upper and Lower Panther Hollow Trails it parallels.  It’s narrower, it’s unpaved, and it meanders alongside the path and topography of the stream.  After walking along the other trails for so long, it’s a neat experience to take a different path and get a more “on-the-ground” look at this part of the park.

Sign installation

Installing signs outside the Schenley Park Café

We also passed by several of the new interpretive signs, which tell the story of the park’s trees, its cultural amenities, and the hard work of the Works Progress Administration employees who shaped the look of the park back in the 1930s.  We hope these signs will be a resource to those who are more curious about the places where they take their daily walks or runs.

And now a digression…

The signage project has been a huge opportunity for me personally, starting back in 2007 when I first sat in on a meeting with Phil and Susan from our office and Mike Gable from the City of Pittsburgh to decide where to locate these 100+ new signs.  I’m a sucker for tasks with a high level of detail, so I spent a good deal of time making a color-coded overlay and accompanying numeric key on maps of each of the four parks.  I assumed I’d be done for a while, since construction was still a few years away, but Phil took my penchant for detail to an entirely new level by asking me to actually map each of those signs in the parks themselves.  As in, GPS coordinates of the exact spot where the foundation would be laid as opposed to “near the Highland Park Entry Garden.”

Siting a sign near the Bob O'Connor Golf Course

Did I mention that Phil also had Jake holding a 10-foot pole so that I could Photoshop in fake signs at an accurate height to illustrate what the final product would look like?

Since I possess zero knowledge of GPS mapping, my compadre in all of this was my co-worker Jake.  When we visited these 100 or so sites, Jake would make a GPS entry according to my handy (and ultimately not at all useful) numeric codes and I would snap a picture of him doing this so that we could also have a visual representation of what we’d chosen.  Phil dubbed these “Jake-PEGs,” and they are a hilarious (to me) record of a sometimes challenging task.  I should mention here that this was all occurring in February 2008, a time when if it wasn’t actively snowing, it was nonetheless hovering around 2 degrees on the mercury.  There were a few times when the only thing standing between me and a full day of not being able to feel my face was the hot chocolate at the Schenley Park Café.  (All hail Bartho!)

But we persevered, and passed on the GPS coordinates and an enormous file of the Jake-PEGs to the City traffic engineers.  The City folks made some edits (which we expected because Jake and I knew next to nothing about the safe distances poles should be located from the road!), we re-mapped, and sent an enormous stack of documentation to the firms bidding on the project with PennDOT. 

Highland Park sign

A finished sign in the Highland Park Entry Garden.

The next part of the task, which I started in the winter of 2009, was much better suited to a frigid time of year.  Kolano Design, who had created the original concept for the signs, put together the interpretive signs for Riverview Park and sent us all the art files.  I spent the next few months using those templates to create the Frick, Highland, and Schenley signs.  This was where the many hours I’ve logged in the parks (along with our other ace photographers) really paid off–it was much less difficult than I expected to find appropriate photos for every panel.  My favorite ones are the Trees and Plants signs, because each one features specimen trees photographed in that park, so you really get a feel for the different makeup of the canopies.  Highland is a showplace for sweetgums, for example, and you probably won’t find a katsura tree anywhere but Schenley.

It’s been a long road from siting the signs (which of course often had to be relocated when it came time to dig the actual holes–there are pipes EVERYWHERE!) to actually seeing them installed, but just like the restored trails I think they add a lot to the parks.  I hope the project has enhanced your experience in the parks as much as it has enhanced mine.

Ribbon-Cutting Photos

Several dozen folks showed up Monday morning despite the rain to celebrate the completion of our trails and signage project.  After remarks from Meg Cheever, State Representative Mike Doyle, and City of Pittsburgh Director of Parks and Recreation Mike Radley, we had one long ribbon-cutting line!  Partners from PennDOT to the City parks crews to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources all shared in the ceremonial unveiling of finished trails.  We also got a sneak peek at the new park signs, which will be installed in mid-October.

Check out coverage of the event from KDKA, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.  A slideshow from the ribbon-cutting is below!

Here’s a quick before-and-after look at the 193os-era Works Progress Administration bridges on Schenley Park’s Hollow Run Trail.  The construction crew still has a little work remaining down there, but the improvements are obvious–a whole bridge instead of a half bridge!

WPA Bridge Before

WPA Bridge After

Now here are some photos from the ribbon-cutting ceremony.  Thanks to all who came out and marked the occasion with us!

We’re cutting a ribbon…

And we’d like you to join us!

If you find yourself in the Schenley Park area on Monday, September 27 at 10:00am, join us at the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center as we cut the ribbon for our trail and signage restoration project.  Congressman Mike Doyle, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Stan Caldwell, Parks Conservancy President and CEO Meg Cheever, and others will be on hand to celebrate the restoration of 5.8 miles of trails in our regional parks.

In honor of the completion of this project, we’d like to share some photos from a couple of the trails we’ve been working on.

Highland Park – Old Butler Street Roadbed
Once part of Butler Street, this land was never really considered part of Highland Park’s trail system until now.  This past winter, crews began digging an 8-foot-wide path for this woodland trail.

Butler St

The trail connects to the existing system at Lake Drive.  But because the hillside from Lake Drive down to the wooded path is so steep, steps needed to be built to provide safe access.

Building steps

This area had been largely unmaintained because there was no access to it.  The population of invasive plants was staggering as a result.  A lot of those were cleared to make way for the trail, steps, and drainage system, and new natives will be hydroseeded into the landscape.  But there’s still a lot of work to do–Japanese knotweed and mile-a-minute are rampant throughout this area.

Invasives cleared

Crews put the finishing touches on the steps.


The steps are finished now and the trail is ready for use. But keep to the trail or you might encounter mile-a-minute, which has lots of tiny little thorns to make you sorry you took a closer look!

Finished trail

Schenley Park – Steve Faloon Trail
The Steve Faloon Trail represented an interesting challenge for the engineers because of its proximity to the Bob O’Connor Golf Course.  Water cascaded down the rough of the course and tore up the trail on a regular basis.  The existing pipe couldn’t always handle the storm events in the park, and an asphalt trail entrance contributed to the runoff problem. 

So the project team designed a combination of bioretention ponds and stormwater wattles to slow down and intercept some of the water flowing off the hillside.  Water moving over these rocks is forced to slow down and infiltrate rather than sheeting over the trail.


Wattles are made of natural materials like straw and bound into a tight tube.  They intercept water, slow it down, and help combat erosion by interrupting the grade of a slope.


The asphalt was replaced with natural materials.


This summer, the trail work was completed and the area between the new bioretention ponds grew in, leaving a much greener, more sustainable piece of parkland!

Steve Faloon Trail

For a look back at the trail and signage project, click here.

$1 Million for Panther Hollow

Great blue heron at Panther Hollow LakeToday was a great day for fans of Schenley Park, as the Parks Conservancy received a grant of $1 million from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.  Half the grant will cover the development of a watershed management plan for the Panther Hollow Watershed, and the other half will fund ongoing management and maintenance.  This represents a huge step forward in the restoration of the watershed that we’ve been undertaking over the past ten years, and certainly in the life of the watershed as a whole.  (You can read a great history of Panther Hollow Lake’s ups and downs in this morning’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

We’re often asked why we don’t just dredge Panther Hollow Lake to get rid of the pollutants and make it usable again.  The answer, as in most questions regarding the watershed, goes back to stormwater.  If problems with the lake’s tributary streams aren’t solved first, and the streams don’t slow down water and infiltrate it along the way, overflows and silting in the lake will just keep creating the same problem.  We’ve made a lot of progress over the past ten years with things like redirecting the Phipps Run stream channel to handle a larger volume of water, creating catch basins to slow down water moving toward the lake, planting more trees in the canopy gaps in the woods (which slows down erosion and soaks up more water), and installing a rain garden at the Schenley Park Café.  But because the lake is the final stop for so much of the water coming through the 780-acre watershed (and because it has such recreational potential), we need to employ some innovative management techniques to keep it clean in the long term. 

We’ll be posting an RFQ on Thursday for firms interested in designing the restoration plan for the watershed.  Watch this webpage for the RFQ and supporting documentation, including several research studies conducted over the past few years about things like macroinvertebrate counts and soil quality.

DucksPanther Hollow Presentation
9/8/10 UPDATE: Our “What’s Going On in Panther Hollow?” presentation at Botany Hall on Wednesday, September 15 is completely full!  We’ll take good notes and hopefully have them available for you to read shortly after the lecture.  If you missed it, the Parks Conservancy staff will talk about specific restoration efforts, and we’ll also hear from Michele Adams, Principal Engineer and founder of Meliora Environmental Design in Kimberton, PA.  Adams, a leader in environmentally sensitive site design, will share examples of innovative engineering solutions to stormwater problems in the watershed. 


Laying new stonework on the WPA bridges

Meanwhile, along the trails…
Work is in full swing this week on the Hollow Run Trail in Schenley Park.  The three signature Works Progress Administration bridges are being repaired and invasive plants are being cleared.  Soon this trail, which has been impassable for years, will be returned to park users.  It’s awesome to think that someone walking from Panther Hollow Lake toward the east end of Schenley Park a few years ago would have encountered a field full of tires and heavy equipment, followed by a trail covered in fallen trees and stones cracked from bridges.  Now in a few short weeks, that walk will pass by the Panther Hollow meadow (now in its fourth season and thriving) onto a streamside trail.

The transformations happening in our parks are a great thing, and it’s support from funders like the Richard King Mellon Foundation–and from you!–that make every single project possible.


Aerial of Schenley Park by Hawkeye Aerial Photography

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It’s a Sign!

SPVC signYou may notice more shovels in the ground than usual this month, as our brand-new suite of directional and interpretive signs begins to be installed. At several locations in the parks, foundations are already being laid and poles are beginning to go up. One of the more visible locations is at the Schenley Park Visitor Center and Café, where the existing three sign panels will be removed soon so that a new six-panel kiosk can be installed. The new panels will have even more information about the park, as well as an updated park map. There will be a few days’ gap where there are no signs in that location, so plan accordingly. (If you need a park map, you can purchase one at the Café from 10:00am to 4:00pm each day, or you can find one on our website.)

We’ve been working on the location and content for the signs for the past three years, so we’re pretty excited to see them in context. My personal favorite signs are those highlighting the standout trees that characterize each park. It’s where, for example, the ginkgoes and sweetgums that make Highland Park so beautiful in the fall, and the dogwoods and magnolias that color Riverview Park in the spring, get their chance to shine. We put a lot of thought into what makes each park special and unique, and worked to highlight that through historic and contemporary photographs as well as text.

Signs will begin going up this month; for now, here’s a sneak peek at what you’ll be seeing.

Sign artwork

Trails Project: Park vs. Parkway

Our trail and signage restoration project is continuing in the regional parks, with several trails already completed and more work on the way.  You may have noticed some base material going in around the parks for the new signage program already as well.  The signs themselves will begin going up in August, providing a new guide for you to navigate the parks and appreciate their history.

We’ve spoken to a number of people lately who are concerned about the appearance of some of the reconstructed trails in the parks.  A few areas of the trails are showing some water damage, so we wanted to explain why that’s happening and let you know we’re adjusting our plans in some of those spots.

Storm Events

Bridge before

This bridge along the Falls Ravine Trail in Frick Park was structurally deficient. The brick work was crumbling and would eventually fail. It was replaced as an additional item to the trail work.

We’ve spent years working on the engineering for this project and we’re now about six months into the construction.  We’re into the season where we have really extreme weather events.  In 15 minutes, we can have an inch and a half of rain.  And when that happens, the water doesn’t seep into the ground as it would if we had an inch and a half over a 24-hour period.  So all that water then runs on the surface and goes into whatever drainage it’s close to.

We knew when we engineered the trails for this project that there were some very small drains in some places—maybe a six-inch pipe put in there by the park foreman 30 or 40 years ago.  And then in other places there were bigger drains because when the parks were constructed, they were engineered for a certain level of storm event.  So those particular pipes were much larger in diameter and capable of carrying those peak flows. 

Bridge after

Park foreman Dick Wilford stands atop a new feature that replaced the crumbling bridge.

However, over the last hundred-plus years we’ve had much more impervious surface added into the watershed.  More homes were built, so where there once were vacant lots, they’re now fully developed.  All the square footage that a home represents is less area for water to be infiltrated.  We used to have brick and cobble roads through many of these neighborhoods, and when it rained on those streets, a lot of that water was able to move down in between the voids between the stones and seep into the water table.  Since those streets have been blacktopped over, the rain hits that impermeable asphalt, runs into the storm drains, and then goes wherever that pipe goes.   

Recently we’ve had the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority daylighting many of their storm drains (bringing them above ground in the form of streams instead of pipes) to help relieve the combined sewer pressure that we have.  Where they’ve done that frequently is adjacent to parks.  So now what used to be a sustainable design for a particular trail has changed.  The water impact on our parks has increased, and we see more erosion.  What used to be a little depression in the surface now is ripped down to the shale outcroppings.  We know over the years that things have changed significantly.

A Park, Not a Parkway
One of the challenges in this project has been that these trails were built 100 years ago.  When the trails were built, they had to clear trees, they had to change the grades of the surface of the land, and so it had a heavy impact on the environment.  We didn’t want to do that when we undertook the reconstruction of the trails.  We could certainly make the trail far more sustainable if we built it like the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  You never see that gravel wash away, because they’re building it so that it can’t wash away.  But they’re also clearing a wide area so that they can have the road well above the adjacent surfaces, and they pitch the road so that the water runs in very specific areas, and then they can put in large enough pipes to move all that water away. 

Frick Park repaired trail

This shows a typical detail of a completed trail segment with improved rock-lined drainage channels, narrowed and cross-sloped trail surface, and most importantly, a “green edge.” This filters storm water which is leaving the trail surface and improves water quality. This subtle change makes a big difference. More green and less gravel.

We just can’t do that in the parks.  We’d have to cut down large areas of trees, move large areas of soil, and put in larger pipes.  So for our work we’ve engineered to the ten-year storm event.  We’ve certainly looked at the 100-year flows and the 500-year flows, but we can’t engineer to prevent those storms from having an impact on the trails, because it would just be too big of an impact on the whole park.  So when it rains, there are some areas where we realize that there’s going to be some water impact on that trail surface, but we can’t engineer it out without drastically affecting the surrounding ecosystem.  That’s why you see these new trails and 99% of the trail’s length is fine, it’s working great, but there are small areas where we couldn’t engineer to the level needed without doing other damage.  That’s the challenge of Pittsburgh topography.  If I were going to build the trails today, I’d certainly build some of them in locations other than where they are now. 

We’re coming back now and fixing the damaged areas as best we can.  In areas where we could not engineer out the storm water issues, we are adjusting the trail surface to a compacted 2A stone instead of using fine stone, and we are putting more cross slope on the trail surface.  At the beginning of the project, we tried to preserve some of the existing infrastructure in the parks.  We inspected pipes and they were in good condition, and then we finished the trail and a couple weeks later a storm came along and some of those infrastructure elements proved to be deficient.  So now we’re going back and upgrading those to be consistent with the rest of the improvements made on the trails.  We appreciate everyone who has reported the damage to us, and we hope you feel confident that we’re monitoring the situation and taking steps to correct the deficiencies wherever possible.

Happy trails

Things are really progressing with our trail and signage project, so here’s a quick update courtesy of Phil:

Schenley Park
Schenley Park wallRepairs to the Steve Faloon Trail should be completed within the next two weeks.  One of the more exciting things from an ecological standpoint is the daylighting of a pipe at the Bob O’Connor Golf Course. This pipe had been causing water to flow unchecked over the Panther Hollow hillsides and erode the slopes.  Now, that water is directed through a series of detention basins to slow it down and capture surface water.  The area where the pipe was will be covered with soil and revegetated.

The cracked wall behind the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center has also been repaired, although some of the railing remains to be installed. Looking at this image, you can really see the extent of the wall that had cracked off and needed to be replaced.

Frick Park
Along some trails in Frick Park, old utility poles had been used to stabilize trails, but these poles were rotting and sliding down the hillsides.  Now, those poles are being removed and heavy rocks are being situated underneath the ground’s surface.  The rocks are locked into the hillside so they won’t move and unintentionally widen trails.  Then the rocks are covered with fabric so that water can pass through but soil cannot. 

Frick Park bridgeDuring the course of the repairs to the Falls Ravine Trail, an old bridge above the shelter began falling apart, with pieces falling out from beneath the bridge.  Though it wasn’t included in the project’s scope, it was obvious that it wasn’t safe and needed to be repaired.  The City of Pittsburgh purchased a new culvert and will ultimately replace the wooden railing.  The Parks Conservancy’s grant for the trail project covered the excavation and removal of the old bridge.  The bridge replacement was an example of how the City’s partnership with the Parks Conservancy allows for a quick response to unexpected issues.

Highland Park

Highland Park trail

The new Butler St. trail

Years ago, the old Butler Street roadbed was identified as an excellent site for a trail, and now that trail has been created.  This new 8-foot-wide woodland trail is currently lined with straw, but as the growing season continues new vegetation will begin to fill in.  The trail will ultimately connect with one passing by the overlook that’s behind the current DPW construction area (across the street from the swimming pool).  While this area has spectacular views, the hillside is just too steep to place a regular trail there without compromising both safety and the area’s ecological health, so steps will need to be built.  After this middle portion of the trail is complete, the new Butler Street trail can connect all the way to the Washington Blvd. bike trail.