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From Red-Hot Steel To Red-Hot Tech: Reinventing An Old Industrial Site


On a windy June day, Don Smith is proudly giving a tour of a former Jones and Laughlin steel mill site in Pittsburgh. 

Smith, who is president of the Regional Industrial Development Corporation, drives past construction workers who are working on a future roadway, and pulls up to an old building that is shaped like an enormous U, sliced in half. 

"This is a roundhouse that served the old Monongahela connecting railroad, which was the railroad that served the mill," he says. "This was the roundhouse where they would bring the locomotives in and the cars in for repair and maintenance."

On the front of the building are huge doors which mechanics once opened to pull engines inside. When he moves inside, daylight streams through the roof. Old tools and junk lay on the floor, rusting. 

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RIDC President Don Smith said he's excited to see development finally begin across the 178-acre Almono site. The multi-million dollar project was named for the city's three rivers, the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio.

The roundhouse is one of the few remaining buildings on the 178-acre site, which sits on the Monongahela River in the Hazelwood neighborhood, just three miles from downtown Pittsburgh. The mill shut down in the late 1990s, and in 2002, was bought by RIDC and a group of local foundations — including the Heinz Endowments and Richard King Mellon Foundation — intent on reclaiming the land for the city and community. They've remediated the land, renamed the site "Almono," after Pittsburgh's three rivers (Allegheny, Monogahela, Ohio), and are in the process of installing key infrastructure, like water and sewer lines, utilities, and a road.

The site is considered a brownfield, since it is an old industrial area potentially contaminated by pollutants like lead and asbestos. Brownfields are common in Pennsylvania, and in recent years, many cities have tried to clean them up and find new uses for them. Bethlehem, for example, turned a closed steel mill into a casino and art space, while Johnstown created manufacturing facilities.

For Almono, RIDC wants to build a mixed-use development of housing and office spaces, as well as forward-thinking green infrastructure (to manage stormwater on the site) and a complete street (which will have bike and pedestrian paths, in addition to traffic and parking lanes). "We have a lot of experience with brownfields," Smith says, "but this is by far the most ambitious reuse plan in terms of mixed-use character and its urban nature."

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
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The Roundhouse District is slated to include the Almono property's now-derelict rail roundhouse and turntable as part of a new Innovation Zone encompassing hospitality suites, high-density office buildings and mid-rise housing.

  The plan goes beyond just progressive urban planning, though. The ultimate goal of Almono is no less than to drive the future of Pittsburgh's economy.

"This site was the cradle of innovation in steelmaking," Smith says, "and today it's going to be the cradle of innovation in the next industries that drive Pittsburgh, like autonomous vehicles and robotics and the next phases of manufacturing."

Building a tech magnet

To understand how they're going to enact this plan, it's helpful to look back. This is a little simplified, but to make steel, you dump a few raw materials, including iron, limestone, and purified coal into a big blast furnace. You spray in some hot air, let it slosh around for a while, and then you pour out liquid steel. Steel is essential for items like buildings and cars; it's also instrumental in manufacturing weapons. "This Jones and Laughlin integrated mill site was really one of the key producers for armaments for World War II and the steel that went into many of the elements and components of the American war machine to win World War II," says Tim White, RIDC's senior vice president of development.

Today, though, Pittsburgh's most valuable raw materials are ideas. Many of these ideas flow out of the engineers and computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, which are just a mile and a half away in Oakland. Almono's plan is to provide the space — a metaphorical blast furnace, if you will — for all those smart ideas. Then they'll add in a heap of venture capital money, and, for good measure, some hot air. When it's done cooking, they want to pour out gorgeous, red-hot tech companies.

We're not looking for saviors. We're looking for partners.

  "The opportunity to do this development close to the education and medical institutions and close to downtown is a great opportunity not just for the neighborhood of Hazelwood," White says, "but the city of Pittsburgh and the whole region to help move forward our regional economy."

The roundhouse building is a perfect example of the change they want to make — the Almono partners recently announced that it had been leased by Uber, which is going to renovate the property and make it a facility for self-driving car research. Uber started investing in the autonomous vehicle research in Pittsburgh back in 2015, hiring robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon.

Smith says that Uber is already serving as a magnet for the Almono site. "Frankly, we've been getting prospecting calls from companies upon hearing that Uber is going to be here," he says. "They want to come and establish a presence nearby." 

What neighborhood residents are thinking

New businesses are great news to residents in Hazelwood, which has struggled since the mill closed. RIDC is predicting Almono will eventually employ 4,500 to 7,000 people. But Hazelwood leaders know that most of their neighbors lack the degrees to work at Uber.

Kristina diPietro, the chair of a community group called the Hazelwood Initiative, wants to use Almono as a springboard. "I think the most significant thing that development has had is that it has brought attention to Hazelwood," she says. "Our goal at the Hazelwood Initiative is also to see that whatever development happens in the community that the people who are here get to benefits from it."

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
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Almono developers say restaurants and mixed-use property will line the shores of the Monongahela River where the 178-acre site is already under construction.

  DiPietro and her group are working closely with the Almono partners to drive investment into their community, especially to revitalize Hazelwood's main street. They've also pushed for green space and riverfront access, and to make sure neighborhood streets connect onto the Almono site.

"We're not looking for saviors," diPietro says. "We're looking for partners."

Recreating a riverfront

One of Almono's greatest assets is its location, right on the Monongahela River. Smith and White drive down the riverfront, which is lush and green, to take a look at the site of the future marina. Downtown and Oakland are visible from the dock, and barges still move up and down the river; RIDC sees the area as a prime spot for recreation.

Next to the dock sits the pumphouse, which once pulled river water up to cool machinery at the mill. RIDC wants to turn it into a restaurant and make it a place for people to enjoy the views. "Certainly Pittsburghers love to get down to the river especially as our rivers have become so much cleaner," Smith says. "You see so much more activity with boating and fishing."

Beyond that, though, it is a chance for Hazelwood residents to once again have a connection to the Monongahela. "For the past 130, 140 years, there's been no access to the river," White says. "A key element of our plan as we interconnect the neighborhood through the site, that we're reintroducing the river and access to the river to all of Hazelwood."

A building for the Goodyear blimp

The final stop of the tour is the centerpiece of the site, the Bar Mill. The steel building is massive — seven stories tall and a third of a mile long. Smith drives his car right inside. Loose steel panels clatter in the wind, while a construction crew is trying to fix a vehicle.

The plan is to tear the walls off and convert the mill building into an enormous pavilion. On the roof, they're going to install acres worth of solar panels, so Almono can create its own power. Underneath, RIDC will build new, modern office buildings to house tech companies.

Smith believes the Bar Mill will instantly becoming an iconic building. "This is going to be the building that we think when Monday Night Football or God-willing, a World Series for the Pirates are on TV, this is the building that they are going to show to showcase the new Pittsburgh."

RIDC officials say they'll finish the site prep by the end of the year and start building in 2017.

When it's done, we'll see if their high-tech blast furnace idea actually works.

90.5 WESA reporter Liz Reid contributed to this report.

Read more of this and other stories at the website of our partner, Keystone Crossroads.

Patrick Doyle oversees WESA's digital news. Previously, he served as WESA's news director. Email: pdoyle@wesa.fm.
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