City, sports organizations, private contractor pool efforts at Pittsburgh park

Pittsburgh’s North Shore Riverfront Park provides a beautiful gathering spot for residents and for those taking in a game or concert at the adjacent sports stadiums.
Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain.
The grounds maintenance staff from Heinz Field (home of the Pittsburgh Steelers) handles mowing duties at half of North Shore Riverfront Park. The other half is mowed by the crew from PNC Park (home of the Pirates).
Photos Courtesy of Pittsburgh SEA unless otherwise noted.

Everyone knows that sports fields are subject to a lot of wear and tear. Eleven players per team in football and nine in baseball, for example, can do a lot of damage, but that pales in comparison to the toll taken when tens of thousands of fans gather before big games to party on an open lawn. That’s just one of the many punishing uses of Pittsburgh’s North Shore Riverfront Park, an 11-acre facility with 3 acres of lawn set between the Allegheny/Ohio rivers and Heinz Field (home of the Steelers and University of Pittsburgh football teams) and PNC Park (home of the Pittsburgh Pirates). The site gets daily use from the public, and is a gathering point for major events, such as the Head of the Ohio Regatta, and for those attending concerts in the stadiums. So, how does the Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA), which operates the park, keep it looking great, especially with a limited budget? The answer is teamwork.

“It’s sort of like the saying, ‘It takes a village,’” says Mark Johnson, director of facilities with SEA. “A lot of people have a vested interest in the park and contribute to taking care of it.” Most prominently, that includes the Steelers and Pirates, which benefit from the park in conjunction with their games, so fans have a place to hang out and there are places for the media to broadcast from. The city of Pittsburgh also appreciates the park for the recreational value it offers citizens, including places to picnic or walk around or play in the cascading water features on hot days. All of these parties contribute to maintaining the park.

“We [the SEA] don’t actually have any maintenance equipment or staff,” explains Johnson. While event fees for use of the facilities are nominal, “we get a lot of in-kind contributions,” he adds. “The city, for example, helps with lighting repairs and provides bucket trucks and uses street washers to clean up the walkways. They also handle trash removal. The Steelers mow all the grass down to the Ft. Duquesne Bridge using their crews and equipment, and the Pirates do the same from Roberto Clemente Bridge up to the Ft. Duquesne Bridge. Both teams also provide some other cleanup work, mulching, debris removal and other help.” Plantscape Exterior Landscaping, which has cared for North Shore Riverfront Park for the past four years and is paid by the city, handles the rest of the landscaping and lawn care maintenance.

One of the biggest challenges is to minimize the presence and damage of geese in the park. During summer months, a repellent is applied to the turf to make it less attractive for geese. Without the repellent, the problem would be much worse.

Johnson drives through the park most days and keeps an eye out for maintenance that needs to be taken care of, and then contacts the party that handles that job. “I’m sort of the guy with the band baton, pointing to different people and making sure everything is covered,” he explains. “It takes a lot of coordination when we have seven or eight different entities all chipping in.”

It’s a good thing that a number of parties are involved, because the park presents a number of maintenance challenges, says Johnson. “There is a lot of foot traffic, we have a lot of events where tents and staging are set up, we have tailgating (without vehicles, fortunately), we have the Head of the Ohio boat races with 10,000 people walking across the lawn, we have boaters that dock here for big games and concerts and use the park,” says Johnson. “Then, we have floods, which require massive cleanup efforts to prevent the grass from being killed and to remove debris. Finally, we have Canadian Geese. They just love to eat the grass and then leave their droppings all over the grass.”

In fact, Johnson says the geese may rise to the top of the list of challenges. “We’ve tried everything. We hired dog handlers with border collies, but that was expensive and without a full-time presence the geese quickly come back. We’ve tried automated gunshot sounds and electronic geese distress calls, [but] those proved more like a mating call and actually seemed to attract more geese. We tried putting up fencing on the shore, but they just flew over it. The geese repellent, a grape-flavored liquid, is applied as needed. It takes frequent applications, but it does seem to help. There still are geese on the lawns, but the problem would be worse without the repellent.”

Chuck Croskey, who oversees the maintenance for Plantscape, explains, “We apply Flight Control repellent, which looks milky, with a spray hose and gun, and that leaves a UV residue that is visible to the geese from the air, and makes landing look uninviting. The geese may still walk up into the park from the river, though. We put the repellent down about every two or three weeks.” Some geese activity is still present, but Croskey says he’s certain the repellent is working because if an area is ever missed or an application skipped, that section of turf “just gets annihilated.”

The largest open area at the park is called The Great Lawn. Not surprisingly, this section tends to attract the most use and require the most maintenance. “We recently did a very extensive aeration and rolling and reseeding to help repair areas that were just destroyed during a big event,” Johnson explains.

Fertilizer is applied four to five times per year, two of those applications coming in the form of Milorganite. “The pH seems to stay pretty good; we haven’t had to apply lime in the last four years, and, given the amount of use, the turf stays pretty healthy. They mulch when they mow, which I think helps,” says Croskey.

The park’s Great Lawn provides a flat, open area for large gatherings. However, the presence of tents, staging, vehicles and foot traffic also mean that the turf needs regular aeration and the irrigation system requires regular repair.

The park can also flood, usually in the spring, leaving behind woody debris and silt. While that’s usually an annual chore, keeping the turf at the park weed-free is a more constant challenge. For example, says Croskey, “We get a lot of yellow nutsedge, which is difficult to get rid of.” Sledge Hammer is applied to try to get rid of those weeds.

In addition to the large, open areas, there are also a number of memorials in the park that need to be detailed with special care. The Plantscape crews might be on-site every day leading up to big events, or in spring when hundreds of cubic yards of mulch is applied, or perhaps once a week at other times. “It really all depends,” says Croskey. Plantscape often needs to coordinate its activities through the SEA. “For example,” says Croskey, “if we need to put goose repellent down on a certain day, we’ll ask Mark to coordinate with the crews from the sports teams to have the mowing done a couple days beforehand, and then maybe skip a week to let the repellent last longer. There’s a lot of coordination involved.”

The irrigation system is nearly 10 years old (the park opened in 2001-2002), and Croskey says that fact and the amount of use the park receives means that irrigation system maintenance is ongoing. “The turf gets a lot of activity, with tents going up and trucks driving on the lawn, so there is a frequent need to repair the heads and other irrigation components,” he says. “Because of the amount of foot traffic, we do quite a bit of aeration, deep-core aeration, so we have to really be careful of the irrigation system.”

There are extensive planting beds throughout the park, mostly cared for by Plantscape, which must get approval before adding or removing plants. “The goal is for the plant material to be all natives,” he explains. “Some of the natives can be unruly. For example, there are hibiscus perennials that need to be pruned throughout the summer to keep them down.” The SEA utilizes the park for educational purposes in a partnership with the Student Conservation Society, which takes advantage of the premises to study plants and weeds, and also performing some of the planting bed maintenance. The SEA has agreements with others, such as the local real estate developer and a building property manager, to provide for litter cleanup as well as other routine items and expenses. One of the reasons for the park was in support of the development of the North Shore, which is ongoing, with two new hotels currently in construction and an entertainment venue planned.

Those planting areas help make the park inviting, but it’s the open lawn areas that help attract and accommodate people for the nearly constant series of large events that take place at Pittsburgh’s North Shore Riverfront Park. “We try to keep the turf looking really nice,” says Croskey. It’s a job that takes a lot of teamwork.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.