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Tending the Brownfields

What’s a good indicator of an up and coming city?

The status of its brownfields, those abandoned or idled industrial and commercial facilities that are often contaminated. Brownfields are strongly linked to economic development in post industrial cities such as Pittsburgh. HUD calls them “the vehicle to unearth the development potential of our urban communities." 

Murray Rust, of  the Pittsburgh-based design/build firm, Montgomery & Rust, speaks at national conferences about the brownfields work his firm has done –including Washington’s Landing and Somerset at Frick. “The audience is always amazed at how far Pittsburgh has progressed in this area," he says.

Pittsburgh is unique since it has a very active Urban Redevelopment Authority—since 1947-- that has partnered with private developers to make redevelopment possible on brownfields, where the costs of site remediation would not be economically feasible for the private sector to go it alone. “The value of this public investment has been returned many times over not only in the tax revenue generated by these projects but by the vitality that they have added to the community,” says Rust.

 “Other cities have lagged far behind Pittsburgh in recognizing that the public sector has a major role in seeding these projects and hence they have not progressed to the degree that we have here in Pittsburgh."

The Perfect Brownfield

 “I think we’re going to do the perfect brownfield here in Pittsburgh,” says Dr. Deborah Lange, executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Brownfields Center. Lange chuckles softly, no doubt recognizing that to those involved in the hard work that is brownfields redevelopment, perfection is a lofty goal.  Her unwavering confidence, based on history and the regions's collective expertise, is apparent, though, and may soon find its fulfillment in the178-acre LTV Hazelwood site on Second Avenue next to the Pittsburgh Technology Center.

That’s where an ambitious mixed use project is planned:  Not just residential, but homes for varying incomes; not just green space but direct river access; and not just offices, commercial, and institutional uses but an overall design that, unlike the Waterfront, will be knitted right into the beloved but struggling neighborhood to buoy its recovery.

Maureen Ford, vice president of Colliers Penn Properties and an 18-year veteran of the Regional Industrial Development Corporation, and Jerome Dettore, Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) executive director, agree that the Hazelwood site has the potential to be, if not perfect, a model redevelopment.  It could be a natural extension for the overcrowded, land-hungry universities in nearby Oakland, says Ford.

The strategy is distinguished by extensive sustainable design guidelines and a stronger economic position than most. In an unusal alliance, the site is owned by a limited partnership called ALMONO that includes the Heinz Endowments; the Benedum Foundation, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and McCune Foundations; along with the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC).  "The intent," says Maxwell King, president of the Heinz Endowments, "is to set a national standard for brownfield development."

The land parcel offers tremendous opportunities as a truly mixed use site, where we can expand commercial uses to include high quality office space and enhanced river commerce, says King. “But we foundations are particularly interested in taking full advantage of the riverfront land in this project by creating more parkland and recreational trails.”

Project coordinator Bill Widdoes of RIDC agrees. "In terms of the ability of this site to affect the future of Pittsburgh and riverfront development, it's important we do it right--exploring the uses possible in an urban context." The site development has started, he says, and they're currently working on fill to shape the topography.

A Historical Perspective

While Hazelwood is the area's largest brownfield project on the drawing board, Jerome Dettore, URA’s executive director, notes that Lawrenceville is a standout as a brownfields redevelopment hub, with a dozen sites ranging from three to 15 acres.  Most are owned by the development minded URA, RIDC, and Buncher–a key benefit since absentee owners can thwart the best plans.

Each Pittsburgh brownfield has progressively improved in layout and development, says Ford.        

Pittsburgh’s first major foray into brownfields redevelopment, led by the URA in 1993, was the Pittsburgh Technology Center, one of the first steel mill transformations in the nation.  Four years later, Herr’s Island was redeveloped into Washington’s Landing, a mixed-use development of office, light industrial and residences which commanded a waiting list. Considered a great success, townhouse properties today are selling far above their original prices.

The Waterfront redevelopment upped the ante in 1999 by adding amenities for its residents: grocery and other retailers, restaurants, and entertainment such as Loew’s Cineplex, the theater chain’s crown jewel, all of which continue to draw patrons from near and far to an area they previously didn’t visit.

That same year downtown’s first residential rental restoration in 15 years was completed in the Johnston Building, a former print shop at 900 Penn Avenue, followed by PNC’s nationally-acclaimed and LEED-rated Firstside Center built on an abandoned rail yard just over a year later. 

In 2002, East Liberty developers moved forward with Whole Foods by using PADEP’s Special Industrial Area designation, which makes it possible for redevelopment to occur in phases as environmental remediation is completed, even as it continues in other parts of the development.  That same year brought Summerset at Frick, a residential development built on a slag pile that extends the highly desirable neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. 

Finally, the Southside Works opened in 2003 on another steel mill site. A mixed use complex with retailers the likes of which Pittsburgh had never seen before, this development continues to expand with residential projects. Note: Southside Works, along with Washington's Landing and Somerset at Frick were all financed by National City which has been a leader in brownfields financing long before the return on investment was proven. It was yet another thing going in Pittsburgh's favor.

Back to the Future

Pittsburgh has solidly established itself as a leader in brownfields redevelopment,” says Jill Gaito, PADEP’s acting deputy secretary.  “You can cruise the rivers pointing to one redevelopment success after another.”  Ford adds that people want to get back to the rivers they’ve been cut off from for so long.  Apparently so: despite a drop in population since 1975, boat registrations have risen by 42 percent.

Soon another riverside project will be complete. Later this year, notes John Matviya, PADEP’s regional environmental cleanup program manager, Pittsburghers can visit an outpost of the world famous Hofbrauhaus, coming to Southside Works, where after a meal they can stroll out the door, down riverside stairs, and onto a boat for a river excursion.

Some would call that the perfect brownfield development.
Margaret Farrell is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer with a background in brownfields consulting. Pop City staff contributed to this article.


The remaining smokestacks preserved at The Waterfront

Houses at Washington's Landing

Google map showing some of the major brownfield developments in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Technology Center

PNC's FirstSide Center, Downtown

South Side Works

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene




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