"Western Pennsylvania's Forests"

Huntington Bank Welcome Garden Gets a Makeover

In 1998, it was hard to imagine anything growing on a 7,390 square-foot concrete median just south of the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Characterized by hard surfaces and congestion, the median and surrounding Parkway West provided no hint of the beautiful Golden Triangle that waited on the other side of the tunnel. The length of a football field, a garden in this space would require thousands of flowers, trees and shrubs—not to mention grass, mulch and a watering system. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy saw a tremendous opportunity to create a greenspace in a wholly unexpected location.

The first phase of construction of the Fort Pitt welcome garden in 1988.
The first phase of construction of the Fort Pitt welcome garden in 1988.

The transformation began when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation created the garden ‘bed’ by facilitating the removal of concrete and placing soil from a nearby construction site between the Jersey barriers. Once the site was prepared, volunteers stepped in. “At the initial planting, we had over 200 volunteers planting tulip bulbs for what seemed like miles,” said Cynthia Carrow, WPC’s vice president for government and community relations. Now, more than 100 volunteers help the Conservancy plant 6,500 flowers and spread 45 tons of mulch in this gateway garden each year.

“When it was built, people were astonished at the thought of creating a greenspace in the middle of a multilane highway. Now people look forward to the garden as a welcome and welcoming sight going to and from the city,” said Judy Wagner, senior director of WPC’s Community Gardens and Greenspace Program. “The garden in many ways symbolizes the city’s resurgence as a great urban place that takes its environment to heart,” Wagner added. Fourteen years after it was first planted, the harsh conditions created by 126,000 vehicles traveling the Parkway West each day had taken a toll on the Conservancy’s largest, most visible garden. Faced with declining trees and shrubs, flowerbeds that needed to be regraded, and an irrigation system in need of repair, the garden needed some TLC. However, the significant cost and effort of maintaining this massive garden each year left scarce funding for improvements.

The Huntington Bank sign viewed from the westbound lane
of the Parkway West.
The Huntington Bank sign viewed from the westbound lane of the Parkway West.

Huntington Bank’s significant sponsorship of the Community Gardens program in 2011 and 2012 provided a new opportunity for the Conservancy to undertake a multiyear effort to improve this important site. “The Huntington Bank sponsorship, which is recognized at the Fort Pitt Tunnel Welcome Garden, has allowed us to initiate some much-needed improvements for the first time in years. These initial changes will help us sustain this unique feature as a highlight of the Pittsburgh experience for years to come,” Wagner said.

During the first phase of the refurbishment, the Conservancy removed and recycled the false cyprus, globe arborvitaes, juniper trees and shrubs that were in severe decline and regraded the garden to address the mounds of soil that had built up over the 14 planting seasons. The regraded surface allows the plants to grow better and makes grass cutting easier. WPC also replaced the irrigation system and installed a new timer. The addition of more colorful perennials, including roses, to the edges of the garden will enhance year-round interest. This year’s annual planting in the new beds included red and blue salvia, along with red and white Mediterranean spreading vinca.

The Conservancy will raise funds to tackle phase two of the refurbishment, which is scheduled for 2013. This phase will include removal of additional declining perennial shrubs and junipers, to be replaced by new perennial shrubs, grasses and long-blooming perennials. The “tip” of the garden, the first area people see as they approach the tunnel going toward downtown, will be redesigned and planted with roses and other bright perennials. Additional grassy areas also will be reshaped and seeded.

With Huntington Bank’s support, the Welcome Garden is well on its way to providing a more vibrant preview of the city that awaits just through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. “The sheer enormity of this garden offers a challenge and requires significant investment from time to time to keep a spectacular look at the most dramatic gateway to the City of Pittsburgh,” Carrow said.