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May 29, 2008

Pitt wants to control future Semple Street parties

Pitt plans to intensify efforts to control the annual “Semple Fest,” a student-driven after-finals street party that got out of hand this year.

According to John Wilds, assistant vice chancellor for community and governmental relations, the April 18 event was the third year for Semple Fest. “It was kind of a frightful thing for the residents with the mass of people. It was estimated there were 1,200 people on Semple between Bates and Louisa streets,” said Wilds, who was reporting to the University Senate community relations committee (CRC) May 13.

“There was a lot of narcotics selling, underage drinking, resisting arrests, vandalism, all sorts of behavior that we didn’t want to see.”

It is natural for students to let off steam at the end of a semester, Wilds acknowledged, and neither the city nor the University can legislate against having an off-campus party. “But when the party overflows off your porch onto public property and you’re blocking right-of-ways and you’re displaying alcoholic beverages in open containers, which is against the law, then you’re breaking the law,” he said.

Wilds said law enforcement agencies were out in force: Pittsburgh police, the vice squad, the narcotics squad, Pitt police and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board law enforcement, which are state police. “We had 64 arrests and 18 of those were Pitt students. Those students were referred to the Student Judicial Board for a hearing and/or disciplinary action,” he said.

The biggest concern, though, is for the safety of the neighborhood’s residents. “The permanent residents of Semple Street are terrified by the actions of unruly students, and their options are to stay in their house or leave the neighborhood,” Wilds said. “Our main focus right now is to meet internally, first, with student leaders and Student Affairs [staff] and then externally with law enforcement agencies to determine how we can prevent Semple Fest from happening again.”

Pitt officials also plan to coordinate efforts with Pittsburgh City Council, particularly council member Bruce Krause, who represents part of Oakland.

Adrienne Walnoha of Community Human Services, who attended the May 13 CRC meeting to report on anti-panhandling strategies, suggested that the University and the neighborhood convert the annual event into a neighborhood event along the lines of National Night Out. “What if we had a Night Out in Oakland in April? People could celebrate, but you can structure it so that the residents are part of the event, and to promote Oakland,” Walnoha said. “If it belongs to everybody, if everybody is a part of it, it has two-fold effect: It gets the neighbors involved and it makes it less fun to be really out of control. People could be hanging out like a block party that’s planned.”

Wilds responded, “That might be an option. We’ll look into that.”

Wilds also reported on ongoing plans for the Robinson Court area adjacent to Trees Hall. He said that construction of the athletics fields Pitt plans to build on the 12-acre site will commence in the next couple months.

“Phase I will create baseball and soccer fields and will be completed for use by fall 2009,” Wilds said. Phase II of the project will convert the existing baseball practice field into a track by 2011. The facilities will be open to the general community on a scheduled basis so as not to interfere with Pitt’s athletics teams. When completed the fields will allow Pitt to qualify as a host school for Big East and other NCAA competitions, Wilds said.

In other committee business:

• CRC member Tracy Soska expects to report June 3 to Faculty Assembly on the committee’s response to a proposal from local activist Carlino Giampolo that addresses trash and litter problems in Oakland.

At the committee’s April meeting, Giampolo presented a list of 26 issues in an action plan to alleviate chronic trash and litter problems.

At the May 13 meeting the committee reviewed Soska’s responses to Giampolo’s suggestions and recommended that they be brought to Assembly for discussion.

• Also at the May 13 meeting, CRC heard reports from community agencies on panhandling, the homeless and quality of life issues in Oakland. CRC plans to ask agency officials to address a Faculty Assembly meeting in the fall on these issues.

—Peter Hart

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