What do you do when the corner lot is full of lead?

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Don’t go near the corner lot.

That’s what Jackie Williams tells her kids — ages 11, 7 and 5 — when she takes them over to their grandmother’s house on Excelsior Street in Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood. There’s lead in the ground there, the McKees Rocks resident knows.
“And all these kids are walking around and rubbing up against it and balls going in there,” said Ms. Williams on Wednesday as her kids played kickball in the street in the middle of the block. As for the corner? “They know not to touch that. They know not to even go by.”

The city-owned vacant lot on the corner of Excelsior and Millbridge streets — known as Lot 51 because that was the number on the long-gone house that once fronted on Millbridge — has bedeviled neighborhood do-gooders for years. The high lead level in the soil has nixed beautification efforts and worries some parents in the neighborhood, which has the third-highest incidence of elevated blood lead levels in children of any place in the county.

The worst news, as Pittsburgh tries to deal with the seemingly omnipresent neurotoxin, is that the poisoned lot isn’t an anomaly.

“That’s fairly typical of lots in the Pittsburgh area in terms of its profile,” said Mahsoud Sayles, a project coordinator with the nonprofit Grounded, which was involved in a failed attempt to improve the weedy lot. “Many of the lots we deal with have contaminants, particularly lead.” There’s no accepted model for dealing with a lead-polluted lot, other than trying to find ways to cover the hotspots, according to others at Grounded, which helps neighborhood groups to improve communities.

“This could be a really great community project,” said Christine Rotella, an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America pastor with Abiding Ministries, based out of the former Bethlehem Lutheran Church, just down Excelsior from Lot 51, near which she stood Wednesday.

She has educated neighbors on the lot’s problems and now wants to address the resulting concerns. “There’s enough tension up here already,” she said. “Let’s do something positive.”

Two years ago, the neighborhood group Hilltop Alliance asked Abiding Ministries to “adopt” Lot 51, and potentially to garden on it. That led to soil testing by the Allegheny County Conservation District.

Why bother? Because it’s bad for people to ingest lead-contaminated soil, eat vegetables grown in it, or track it into homes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. For play areas, anything above 400 parts per million is considered hazardous, and anything above 1,200 ppm is bad, even if kids aren’t playing in it.

Tests of Lot 51 showed that around 85% of the lot was above 400 ppm, and 25 percent — including areas along Excelsior — were above 1,200. One sample tested at 1,664 ppm. So much for gardening, or even mowing. Pastor Rotella said she then proposed turning it into a demonstration project for remediation of lead-polluted sites, but nobody wanted to partner with her.

Why was it so lead-laden? Tom McFadden, who has lived next door to the lot for 25 years, said that when a crew demolishing the house there dumped fill, he asked where it came from. The crew told him “they were tearing the houses down and using fill from the mills,” dirt taken from old mill property, to cover the lot.

Situated roughly between Warrington Avenue and Grandview Pre-K-5 school, Lot 51 is in the midst of a neighborhood in which 15% of children tested between 2015 and 2018 had high blood lead levels, according to the Allegheny County Health Department. Out of 365 census tracts in the county for which data was available, that was the third highest, trailing only tracts in Spring Garden (19%) and Wilkinsburg (18%).

In mid-May, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority was busy removing lead water lines from homes along Excelsior and Millbridge. Indeed, lead water lines and old paint are considered to be the main sources of the heavy metal in kids’ bodies, moreso than dust from lots.

Still, in a neighborhood in which one in seven residents is below the age of 9, Pastor Rotella wanted to do what she can to improve the environment.

She took it upon herself to place orange construction fencing around the lot, and to hang signs reading “Keep Out, High Lead Levels.” In early April, though, she saw that the fencing and signs were gone. Mr. McFadden said he watched a small lot maintenance crew, whose employment he did not know, remove it.

A city spokesman could not ascertain whether the fencing had been removed by crews supervised by the city.

With the grass two feet high, it’s unlikely that kids will frolic on Lot 51. Still, Tasha Wilson, who lives across Excelsior from Lot 51, and often cares for a cousin, 10, and a stepdaughter, 14, said news of the lead has her “worried, because that’s not good.”

In 2015, the Hilltop Alliance, through its ally the Mount Washington Community Development Corp., put in an application to buy Lot 51 through a program under which the city passes tax-delinquent properties to neighborhood groups. The city took ownership of the property in September 2015.

It usually takes three years for the city to navigate the legal bureaucracy needed to seize a vacant lot from a prior owner and transfer it, but it can take longer, according to Mount Washington CDC executive director Gordon Davidson. He said his group is scheduled to buy the property next year.

The Hilltop Alliance, meanwhile, is working on an application for state funding that would allow it to build upwards of 25 new houses in and around Allentown, including on Lot 51.

Meanwhile, nobody dares cut the grass and weeds or trim the trees on Lot 51.

“While it’s city-owned and not in our name, we can’t access it,” said Aaron Sukenik, executive director of Hilltop Alliance.

Mr. Davidson said it doesn’t have to remain a weedy corner lot during the years between now and the hoped-for redevelopment.

“I am going to explore other things that can be done, because we will become the owner of record,” he said, declining to provide specifics. “If this works out favorably, then maybe it becomes a best practice for how to deal with lots like this.”

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