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There Were Big Plans For Former SCI Pittsburgh: What Happened?

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
SCI Pittsburgh was closed in 2017.

State officials are eager to redevelop a former state prison along the Ohio River in Pittsburgh and are working to advance legislation that would reinvigorate the stalled process.

“It’s taking so long to get anything accomplished,” said state Sen. Wayne Fontana, whose district includes the site of the former State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh. “We should be way down the road with this.”

Gov. Tom Wolf decided to mothball SCI-Pittsburgh in 2017. The state faced a major budget shortage, and the administration estimated that shuttering the 135-year-old prison would save $80 million.

At the time, more than 200 people worked at the facility. But officials said it was the only prison site evaluated for closure that was “likely to be repurposed quickly,” owing to its riverfront location and what officials called its 24 acres of “prime real estate.” The governor, Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald all committed to finding a way to repurpose the site, create jobs, and get it back on the tax rolls.

State Representative Jake Wheatley, whose district also includes the site, said the promise of support is why he and others could get behind the closure.

“We’re going to hold the state to that commitment,” he said.

There are plenty of ideas afloat for the site, ranging from historic tourism associated with the oldest part of the prison to such options as warehousing, light manufacturing or even the expansion of a nearby medical cannabis facility.

But regardless of how the property is used, Wheatley said that in order for redevelopment to happen, there is site preparation work to be done. He said there have been early conversations with both the state and Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority to find the money to conduct environmental and engineering analyses.

Wheatley said his constituents are eager to lead the planning process and have a clear objective.

“They want access to jobs,” he said. “They want access to opportunities for economic advancement.”

Wheatley added that residents want to be sure the site is connected to the larger community, and maybe even provides a recreational space; there aren’t many places in the neighborhood for children to play.

The state was prepared to sell the entire site to the nonprofit Manchester Bidwell Corporation for $1, but the deal fell apart in 2019. Fontana said that’s because analyses revealed that the site was contaminated. Wheatley said community groups asked the state to back off and allow a more resident-led effort.

Calls and an email to the Manchester Bidwell Corporation were not returned.

The Department of General Services, which oversees properties in the commonwealth, annually spends about $600,000 to maintain the site. That bill is footed by the Department of Corrections, said a DGS spokesperson. Film crews have used the prison as a set, but the commonwealth can charge only for actual costs such as personnel and security, and it can’t turn a profit. ALCOSAN, which is in the midst of expanding its treatment plant, pays the state to rent parking spaces for union employees, according to agency spokesperson Joey Vallarian.

In June the State Senate approved legislation sponsored by Fontana that would allow DGS to prepare to sell the site through a competitive process. Fontana amended the bill to authorize the state to sell part of the land — a house formerly used by the warden — to a couple for $140,000. While bundled with the prison site, it is actually located in Marshall Shadeland.

But with Wolf finishing out the final years of his two-term administration and a gubernatorial election looming in 2022, Fontana worries redevelopment of the site won’t be a priority.

“It’s dragging along. That’s what’s the most disappointing,” Fontana said. And while the pandemic didn’t help, he said, he chalked up the lack of progress mostly to partisan gridlock: Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, and Democrats complain their bills are often slow-walked or ignored.

“I had to stand on my head to get [the bill] through,” Fontana said. “I’m in the minority party.”

Though Senate passage encouraged Fontana, he said it doesn’t mean anything unless the House also approves it. The bill is in the House State Government Committee, and the timetable for a vote is unclear, though Wheatley said he expected the bill to move this fall.