Rebuilding New Kensington, The City Alcoa Made
On a recent afternoon, Steve Kubrick climbed to the brand new roof of one of his buildings to look at the last seven years of his life, poured into rebuilding the former Alcoa Research Laboratory in New Kensington.
It encompasses more than 17 acres and three vast buildings: 29, 44, and 51, named for the years in which they were constructed.
“I tell everybody it’s my little project,” he said with a laugh. “It’s scary sometimes. I mean, it’s such a big project and for one guy to take it on is kind of crazy. But it’s what I do.”
Redeveloping the site is part of New Kensington’s bid for renewal. Just 20 miles from Pittsburgh, New Kensington is arguably the city Alcoa built, home to one of the aluminum giant’s main production facilities, as well as its research headquarters. But the city has struggled since those operations closed their doors.
The research laboratory site was a shining monument to the wonders of Alcoa when it opened in 1930. Some 500 employees churned out new ideas while their offices showcased aluminum’s wonders: aluminum stairwells, aluminum window casings, aluminum everything.
A sign at the entrance to the former Alcoa Research Laboratory site in New Kensington warns against trespassing.
Credit Margaret J. Krauss / 90.5 WESA
But by 1965, the research and development division had outgrown its home, prompting the company to open the still-operating Alcoa Technical Center, just 7 miles away in nearby Upper Burrell Township. For years, the original campus moldered behind 12-foot fences. Kubrick frequently drove past the it on Freeport Road and swore he’d buy it one day.
“There’s so many people just wanted to bulldoze it down and build patio homes or parking lots, you know,” he said. “How could you tear this down? You could never build this today.”
Kubrick and his company, Kubrick Enterprises, LLC, bought the 17-acre campus with its three buildings in 2011 and renamed it AK Research Park, after the Alle-Kiski Valley where it’s located. Not long after, renovating the site became his full-time job. The sheer scale of the site acts as a sort of multiplier effect, said Kubrick: when he put in all new landscaping, he needed 4,000 bushes, which require regular feedings of 12 acres of fertilizer; when he wanted to replace broken window panes, there were 900 of them; re-bricking the windows alone took three years.
"There’s still places I don’t think I’ve seen in this place. You’ll walk in like, ‘Was I ever in there?’ It’s overwhelming," he said.
But Kubrick said he couldn’t stand to see the buildings collapse. Alcoa created jobs in New Kensington, and Kubrick wants AK Research Park to do the same. Born and raised in Braddock, Kubrick now calls New Kensington home; he raised his kids there. He’s watched both communities decline but says it’s possible to turn that narrative around.
“One guy can make a difference and there’s hundreds of people here in New Ken helping,” he said. “I mean, everybody here is thrilled about this and I don’t know if you’ve been downtown but they’re really making a big difference down there.”
New Kensington has a decentralized downtown, spread over three different business districts. Maybe it was busy elsewhere, but the Fifth Avenue corridor, about a mile from the research park, didn’t look like it was on the up and up. At 11 a.m. on a weekday morning, there was no one on the street, and most of the buildings were closed or for sale. The parking meters don’t even accept payment; there are gaping holes where the coin slots used to be. One was stuffed with a Cheetos bag.
At its peak, Alcoa’s production plant along the Allegheny River employed nearly 25 percent of the city of New Kensington. The city’s prosperity depended on Alcoa, said Mayor Tom Guzzo, but today’s empty storefronts are misleading.
“We are right now in the midst of a redevelopment and revitalization program," he said. "So, a lot of those stores are being filled now, a lot of those buildings are being filled.”
A Smart City grant will help the city streamline how it provides services, and the city is building on its natural and educational resources, said Guzzo. Westmoreland County Community College, a nursing school and Penn State New Kensington all help attract new people and new ideas.
Guzzo remembers the days when the city boasted multiple department stores and five movie theaters, but said the new downtown is going to be different, with less retail and more professional services, such as a Verizon store and space for entrepreneurs.
“Everybody’s working together,” he said. “We’ve reached that point now where it’s just, it’s all going up.”
Standing on the vast, empty second floor of AK Research Park’s main building, Kubrick agreed. No one person or development is leading the city’s revitalization. It’s a community effort, he said.
“This town wants to come back, all the towns around it do,” he said. “You know, it gets a bad rap, there’s great people around here, that’s why I love it here.
After seven years of work, the site is finally turning a profit. Kubrick has eight tenants and will soon be ready to rent space in the main building, as well as repay a state loan that helped put a new roof on the historic landmark.