A New Life for Brownfields

How Pittsburgh transformed its brownfields into parks, residential neighborhoods, research centers and more.

For more than 100 years, Pittsburgh and its coal-powered steel mills were synonymous.

“During World War II, Pittsburgh made more steel than Germany, Japan and Italy combined,” said Tom Murphy, a three-term mayor of the “City of Bridges” who is now a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. “To give you an idea how dominant the industry was, there were 15 miles of steel mills in Pittsburgh and going south of the city on the Monongahela River.”

At the industry’s height there were hundreds of smoke-belching mills in and near the city. Until they collapsed starting in the 1970s, they provided tens of thousands of jobs for generations, said the 78-year-old Murphy, who served as Pittsburgh’s mayor from 1994 to 2006. His father, grandfather and numerous uncles all worked at the mills, some up until their demise.

During his tenure as mayor, Murphy helped Pittsburgh’s turnaround, initiating a public-private partnership strategy that leveraged more than $4.5 billion in economic development in the city.

He is credited with making Pittsburgh a national model by developing strategic partnerships to transform more than 1,000 acres of blighted, abandoned steel mills and other industrial properties into new commercial, residential, retail and public uses. He also oversaw the development of more than 25 miles of new riverfront trails and parks.

In addition, he led efforts to secure and oversee $1 billion in funding for the development of two professional sports facilities and a new convention center that is the largest certified green building in the United States.

“My dad spent 51 years in the steel industry and I worked there a few summers,” he recalled. “In Pittsburgh, that’s what you did back then. Guys went to the mills or the military. In my graduating class of 67 at a small Catholic High School, only myself and one other boy went to college.”

“When they were going strong, the smoke from the mills meant progress and job security,” he said. “But the downside was that we grew up not really knowing that the sky was blue or that there were stars at night.”

In the 1940s, the soot and smoke from steel mills and factories was so thick that city officials sometimes turned-on streetlights midday. Pittsburgh became known as the “City of Smoke” because of its thick air pollution. According to National Library of Medicine report, the vegetation around Pittsburgh also was affected. In contrast to the green city of today, the many hills were completely denuded by the fumes and acid rain, the study said.

“Where we lived, we could see flames and smoke on one side from the steel mills and slag heaps, a byproduct of the steel-making process, on the other side. When they dumped the slag, it was still glowing,” Murphy said.

By the mid-1970s, however, the steel industry was in decline. And when the mills shut down, they literally left mountains of detritus — environmentally suspect brownfields — in their wake.

Without those mill jobs, Pittsburgh’s population plummeted from 676,806 in 1950, when Murphy was just a youngster, to a little more than 300,000 when he became mayor. It remains around that figure, but the city has changed dramatically and is much cleaner. Today, there are no steel mills left in the city of Pittsburgh.

By the mid-1980s, the city had reached what Murphy called a “crisis moment.” In 1985 alone, Pittsburgh lost 50,000 residents who headed for booming cities like Houston. “I watched neighborhoods in my district shrink drastically and people lose their mill jobs after putting in 30 years,” he said. “It was devastating.”

In the early 1990s — with the steel mills all but gone — Pittsburgh started to cast off its rust-belt image and began rebooting itself as a center for education, technology industries and health care.

Dozens of colleges and universities are located in the metropolitan area, including the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), which Murphy praised for an “entrepreneurial culture” that has created numerous spinoff companies.

“CMU is probably the preeminent university in the world for its work around artificial intelligence,” he said.

The city has several large medical centers, including the Allegheny Health Network and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). Today, more than 1,600 tech companies have offices in the city, including Apple, IBM, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Bosch, Meta, Nokia and Autodesk. All totaled, they generate nearly $21 billion in annual payrolls for the city.

But when Murphy became mayor nearly 30 years ago, most of the mountains of slag remained an eyesore. “In other places in the country, efforts to remediate brownfields had begun, but not in Pittsburgh,” he said. “There had been little effort to deal with the steel mills, so they were just sitting there vacant. The mill where my dad had worked had been empty for decades.”

He said the city had acquired one 50-acre former steel mill site prior to his election with the aim of redeveloping it. “But when they found arsenic — from a previous coal gasification plant to light street lamps — things stopped because the city had that bad experience.”

Murphy and other city leaders then decided “that we couldn’t keep doing what we were doing. We were continuing to lose population. There was no economic future for Pittsburgh. We were a city of thousands of acres of old, industrial property that was vacant.”

He said the decision to convert the old industrial sites and slag dumps into housing, mixed-use, commercial, research parks and even new industries was controversial. “We needed to envision a different kind of Pittsburgh and we needed money and sophisticated deal-making capacity to make it happen.”

“As a legislator, I’d begun working closely with the universities — CMU particularly — about what a technology economy would look like. We bet that the university could become an economic engine. And it did.”

Pittsburgh started to cast off its rust-belt image and began rebooting itself as a center for education, technology industries and health care.

He said the president of CMU at the time, Robert Merhabian, “was a great partner with us. We made a decision that we were going to recreate Pittsburgh.

“Having shaped this vision, the second thing we did was cut the city’s workforce, including police, which was very controversial. And we shifted $6 million out of our operating budget to finance the $60-million Pittsburgh Development Fund with city money. In the first 18 months that I was mayor, we bought almost 1,500 acres of land.”

The city purchased old steel mills that were in bankruptcy, getting them for bargain prices because no one wanted them. “We even bought the mill where my dad had worked, which covered around 140 acres, and a slag dump for 250 acres that had been there for 90 years and looked like the moon.

“Nothing grew on it. It was cinders and was 300 feet deep. But it was cleaned up and now has $800 million worth of mixed-use development on it, including residential and commercial space, a marina, a riverfront park and five miles of new multi-use trails. At least one of the parks is now home to eagles.”

In the beginning, he said, critics thought he’d lost his mind and was making terrible investments. “When I ran for reelection four years later, my opponent’s campaign featured pictures of all these old industrial sites that I’d supposedly wasted city money buying,” Murphy said. “He said we should have hired more police with that.”

Murphy said he and his backers then “went to the marketplace and asked ‘who shares our dream?’ We did this in a city that had lost half its population in the past 20 years. One developer said I’ll do this and this, but I can’t afford a parking garage because we didn’t want surface parking. And we said we’ll finance it with our money. So nearly all the redevelopment was done with public-private partnerships.

EPA issued grants through its brownfields program to be used, for the most part, as seed money to begin redevelopment.

“We’d buy the land, work with the developers and the community to agree on its use,” he said. “Then we’d figure out how to finance it with a mix of public and private funding. It wasn’t atypical for us to have 15 different sources of funding in one of these deals.”

With some exceptions, he said the clean-up remediation needed at the abandoned steel mill sites was minor. And in others, nothing more was required other than leveling the slag and putting on a cap of clean soil several feet thick. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection also played important roles in the remediation of steel mill sites.

For its part, the EPA issued grants through its brownfields program to be used, for the most part, as seed money to begin redevelopment, said Susan Spielberger, an EPA official in the Mid-Atlantic region that covers Pennsylvania.

“This really is a community-based program where the ideas and the visions come from the communities to help them start the revitalization process,” she said. “We have assessment grants to determine if there are chemical contaminants on the site, cleanup grants and multi-purposed grants that can be used for planning what a site can be used for.

“We work in concert with state agencies. Pennsylvania has its own brownfield program and the EPA’s brownfield dollars and grant recipients work through the state to determine if a site is cleaned-up and ready for development.”

Murphy said he held his breath at first. “Initially, we didn’t know if anybody would live on these old brownfield sites,” he said, praising the Rubinoff Company for helping lead redevelopment of post-industrial sites and transforming them into attractive, tax-generating, multi-use developments for Pittsburgh to live, work and play.

One old slag heap near Frick Park on Squirrel Hill had long sat empty and been envisioned for a highway bypass. It was one of the nation’s first sites to be remediated for residential purposes. “There were plenty of skeptics, but I said let’s buy this and do something special with it because there was a beautiful valley going through there with a stream in it,” he said. “Even my city development people weren’t crazy about the idea, but we were able to get it and make it work.

“Today there are 700 houses there. It’s called Summerset at Frick Park, developed by the Rubinoff Company, and it turned out to be the best new residential development in the whole region. It’s like a traditional neighborhood of bungalows with front porches and garages in the alleys, like something from 100 years ago.”

Some of the houses now sell for up to $2 million. He said there were very few companies in Pittsburgh back then that were willing to take risks on remediated brownfield sites. Most thought it safer to build in the suburbs. “They had their niches, and they didn’t trust the Pittsburgh market. But the Rubinoff Company was one of the few that was willing to take a chance on these sites. For that, they deserve a lot of praise.”

Because the defunct mills were along Pittsburgh’s rivers, they made ideal locations for parks. “All the remediated sites have parks now because most of the land we recaptured is river front,” he said. “And smart growth has always been part of our planning philosophy, with residential, office, research and recreation being part of the mix.”

Initially, the rivers were polluted by sewage and used for transportation and not seen as places for parks. Ironically, Murphy was warned to stay away from the rivers as a youngster. “We all grew up in Pittsburgh with our mother’s telling us two things: ‘Be home before the street lights come on and never go to the rivers.’ They were badly polluted and there was really not much access to the rivers, in any case.”

Murphy said his efforts didn’t come without clashes with powerful people.

“On the SouthSide Works mill site, the UPMC and the Pittsburgh Steelers came to us with proposals. The UPMC said ‘we’d like to open up a world-class sports medical center. And the Steelers wanted to put their headquarters there, as well as their practice fields for the Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh football team.

“We said that was great, but this is a long, narrow site with the river on one side and a railroad line that runs through the middle. They wanted to put a whole series of buildings and practice fields on the river front. When we saw the design, we went to them and said ‘no, you’re not going to do that because the river front is going to be a public park, so you have to move back 100 feet off the river front.’

“When you are dealing with influential people like that, they want what they want. So, we had tense meetings where Dan Rooney, the legendary owner of the Steelers, and the head of UPMC, which is the largest employer in Pittsburgh, threatened to move this to a suburban location that they owned.”

Fortunately, they worked it out, Murphy recalled. “Dan’s big complaint for the Steelers was that if you want to take that property and build that trail, we can only build four 80-yard practice fields,” he said. “So, the joke in Pittsburgh was that the Steelers couldn’t score when they got into the red zone (the last 20 yards of the football field) because their practice fields were short. And it was my fault.”

But there is a park all the way along the river from repurposed properties, for which Murphy said he is proud. “In fact, you can ride a bicycle all the way from downtown Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., on car-free bike trails,” explained Murphy.

Murphy, in his role at the Urban Land Institute, is often asked to speak about redeveloping brownfields. “What I tell people is that successful leaders in both the public and private sectors need to have three traits: They need to be curious, nimble and have an appetite for risk. I would say that is even more important today.”

Caryn Rubinoff, president of the Rubinoff Co., agreed that there were many “naysayers” who believed no one would want to live on the slag dump that became Summerset at Frick Park.

“So yes, it was risky,” added Rubinoff, who began her career as a real estate attorney in New York City before returning to Pittsburgh to work with her father, Richard Rubinoff, and help lead the development of Summerset at Frick Park. The firm’s portfolio now includes approximately 2 million square feet of office, flex, and industrial property and more than 1,500 residential units.

Today there are 700 houses called Summerset at Frick Park.

Her company also redeveloped another brownfield site called Washington’s Landing in the Allegheny River, where it teamed with the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority and built 88 townhouses. The site also includes offices, space for research, development and light assembly, a full-service marina, a rowing and health club, public parks, tennis courts and a jogging trail.

“In that case, people said no one would want to live on the river on a former industrial island, but it’s now one of the region’s most desirable locations to live, work and play,” she said. Once known as Herr’s Island, it had also had been home to a stockyard, rendering plant and salvage yard.

At Summerset Park, Urban Redevelopment Authority paid for all of the cleanup before her company began building in phases.

“It was a public-private partnership, for certain, and the city bore some of the risk,” Rubinoff said. “In the first phase, the market was untested. So, we would take down the lots as we were ready to build on them.

“The neighborhood promotes walkability with interconnected streets, parklets, community centers, places where you see your neighbors, front porches and no garages facing the street. Alleyways and cars are relegated to the backs of houses. There are also five-foot side yards, so it’s relatively dense like an old-fashioned urban neighborhood.

“We basically replicated a Craftsman community of the Midwest. People love living there and the resales are great, which is an indication of its success in the community. The city needed newer housing, so this was also about creating value and restoring tax base, too.”

Craig Dunham, who directed the development of Summerset for a decade for the Rubinoff Company, said the risk was shared.

“First there was the environmental risk, then the market and finance risks,” he said. “The state of Pennsylvania created a framework that allowed for the release of liability if you followed certain steps such as sampling, testing and cover and did those in tandem with the state. And that was really, really critical in order for anybody, whether it was residential, industrial or commercial to make conversion of these formerly industrial sites possible.

“There was a lot of money directed to environmental cleanup, then it became possible for the private sector to see a redevelopment market opportunity. But they couldn’t take on the whole project.”

Added Rubinoff, “Fundamental to those projects is that they are public-private partnerships. The risk couldn’t have been managed solely by the private sector and the realization of a high-value conclusion was led by the private sector. Those two roles were fundamentally critical to the outcome.”

Another successful brownfield remediation occurred in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, where Alexander Simakas created Fort Willow Developers in 2013 to redevelop a former industrial site now known as The Foundry at 41st.

A former corporate attorney at a firm that specialized in environmental law, he’d run a steel fabrication company at the site in 2011, when he sold it, but not the property. At the same time, Lawrenceville had undergone a transformation from what he described as “a place where you didn’t want to be late at night to a place where everyone wants to be. I’d say it’s now one of the most popular neighborhoods in the region.”

Simakas said when he initially got his lease deal in 2000, he wasn’t looking to redevelop the site. “I just wanted to use it to manufacture in an old warehouse,” he said. “But as luck would have it, not only did we do well when we sold the fabrication shop, Lawrenceville also had turned around.

“In 2011, I wasn’t quite thinking about redevelopment … I was just thinking I’d get the warehouse leased. But it was in rough enough condition that I didn’t get any long-term offers. Which was quite lucky because a few years later, we started master-planning for the development.

“The soil had already been cleaned up, with underground storage tanks and dirty soil removed from the site when I got there. I reached out to the firm that did the cleanup in the 90s and got very comfortable that it was clean.”

In 2013, after starting down the development path, he said a representative from the Northside Industrial Development Company contacted him and told him government money was available as part of a public-private partnership.

The original plan was to do two residential buildings, separated by a big event space using the old roof trusses and columns of one of the production bays built in 1933. The Foundry on one half of the property opened for residents in 2017 with 182 units. He then shifted gears on the other side and built a commercial office building. It is called Tech Mill 41 with 87,000-square feet of space. All totaled, the development is worth more than $35 million.

“Tech Mill includes a repurposed old machine shop from the turn of the 20th Century, a neat old brick building with 13,500 square feet of space, out of the 87,000,” he said.

Simakas said the location has thrived in large part because it sits between the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) and the Allegheny River and nearby is the Lawrenceville Farmers Market.

“I don’t know if I’d say that Lawrenceville was blighted, but certainly some properties were,” he said. “From a residential standpoint, there are a lot of quality brick row homes built around the mills that is something like Brooklyn.

“The neighborhood began its turnaround once NREC went in around 1995 in another repurposed foundry with an initial investment of $10 million. Fourteen years later, the $625 million UPMC Children’s Hospital was built up on top of a hill above the Foundry at 41st.

“NREC was the major key to Lawrenceville’s revitalization. It has produced more than 120 patents and its alumni now work at scores of Pittsburgh companies, many of them start-ups. So, you’ve got that rush for urban residential living.”

Simakas, grew up in Pittsburgh, and said the turnaround of his hometown has been a delight to watch. “It’s been pretty amazing,” he mused. “And one of the best parts is it continues to have something of a small-city feel where you can still get concert and theater tickets. I can’t claim that I had a lot to do with its rebirth, but I’ve certainly been a beneficiary.”


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