A national award for Pittsburgh’s I-579 cap project to reconnect the Lower Hill District with Downtown has been turned into a major benefit for youth programs in the community.

The project, which put a cap over the interstate highway to build Frankie Mae Pace Park, was named the $10,000 grand prize winner in October in America’s Transportation Awards, sponsored by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, AAA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The prize is earmarked for donation to charity or transportation-related scholarship programs, but local officials decided to use the award to lobby local agencies for another $63,000 that will be used for community programs.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation built the park for the city and the Sports and Exhibition Authority, which controlled the former arena site.

“When the award was announced, [PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian] thought it would be a good idea for everyone to throw in a little money to make it more worthwhile,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said at a news conference at the park Monday to announce the grants. “It’s not only to honor the award for the engineering that went into this project. … It also highlights the importance of this project to the community.”

The money will be split between Ozanam Inc., which runs after-school and STEM programs, and ACH Clear Pathways, which offers jazz and art programs for young people and activities for senior citizens at the Kaufmann Center on Centre Avenue.

Darelle Porter, executive director of Ozanam, said the organization would use the money to buy laptops and iPads for the center as well as pay for field trips to learn from the story boards at the park. ACH Clear Pathways will use the money to expand its jazz program, said Executive Director Tyian Battle, which honors the neighborhood’s importance in the American jazz scene before construction wiped out much of the area.

In addition to the county, others that contributed extra money to the prize were the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, F.N.B. Corp., HDR Inc., S&B USA Construction, Michael Baker International, SAI Consulting Engineers, Monaloh Basin Engineers, AGES Engineering and Collective Efforts. Many of the contributors worked on the project or are building at the former arena site.

The $29 million park, which opened in November 2021, was part of the city’s effort to reconnect the Hill District with Downtown after it was cut off in the late 1950s with the construction of the former Civic Arena and I-579. The 3-acre site features walking and bicycle paths, an outdoor classroom, landscaping and story walls that tell the history of the neighborhood in a manner that AASHTO said “reconnects a community and spurs redevelopment and economic growth in the area.”

PennDOT District Executive Cheryl Moon-Sirianni said she thought SEA officials brought her a “crazy” idea more than 10 years ago to build the park above an interstate highway. She credited contractors with making the plan work.

“They were literally working in a postage stamp,” she said. “I think the complexity is why this project is award-winning.”

Gramian, her boss, preferred to call it a “brilliant” concept that accomplished its goal.

“A lot of great engineering and design work was done. A lot of genius ideas,” she said. “It’s about moving people, mobility. Making life easier for everyone.”

A view of Frankie Mae Pace Park, which includes information about the historic Hill District, Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, in the Hill District. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.