The following selection from Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America, by Allen Dieterich-Ward, is excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press. For more information see: http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/.Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America chronicles the rise, fall, and rebirth of a quintessential manufacturing region that once formed the heart of the world’s steel production and is now touted as a model for reviving other hard-hit cities of the Rust Belt.
Faced with economic and environmental disaster in the 1930s, Pittsburgh’s Republican business elite formed the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and partnered with Democratic political leaders in promoting an ambitious program of pollution control and infrastructure development. The public-private partnership behind the “Pittsburgh Renaissance,” as advocates called it, pursued nothing less than the selective erasure of the existing social and physical environment in favor of a modernist, functionally divided landscape: a goal that was widely copied by other aging cities undertaking urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Ultimately, the Renaissance vision of downtown skyscrapers, sleek suburban research campuses, and bucolic regional parks resulted in an uneven transformation that tore the urban fabric while leaving deindustrializing river valleys and impoverished coal towns isolated from areas of postwar growth.
In a series of three excerpts from the book to be published on Belt over the next three weeks, author Allen Dieterich-Ward picks up the story of metropolitan Pittsburgh following the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s as the region’s residents sought places for themselves within a new postindustrial economic order. Many civic leaders emphasized a two-pronged approach of revitalizing deindustrialized riverfronts as sites of consumption and using heritage-based building renovation to create more attractive communities and lure visitors downtown. This first excerpt examines how dilapidated industrial buildings, abandoned mill sites, and railroad rights-of-way in Pittsburgh were reimagined as loft apartments, high-tech laboratories, and recreational trails that complemented the city’s transformation into a center of education, health care, and corporate services. Later installments will focus on the challenges faced by the metropolitan region’s smaller communities in copying Pittsburgh’s model.
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“A 12 Mile Story of Who We Are”
Rather than emerging from a coherent set of policies, Pittsburgh’s neoliberal model for urban redevelopment and economic growth evolved as local residents, business people, and political leaders sought to “address urban needs and interests” in ways that preserved cities as areas that were “distinct from our suburbs.” In a time of “jittery lenders,” declining state aid, and withdrawal of the federal government from most urban development projects, business and political leaders looked to new types of public-private partnerships and innovative funding mechanisms, such as tax increment financing (TIF). It became clear by the early 1990s that “the industrial past” of urban communities would not “continue into another generation,” especially along the riverfronts. The 1990 update of the Allegheny Conference-backed Strategy 21 funding request abandoned even superficial support for reinforcing the region’s traditional dominance of the metals industry. Of the eight projects the proposal sought to fund, nearly all were connected to riverfront revitalization and several were connected to historic-themed redevelopment, including the John Heinz History Center in the former Chautauqua Ice Company building in the Strip District, the Andy Warhol Museum in the former Frick & Lindsay plumbing supply company building on the North Side, and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s renovation of theaters in the expanding downtown Cultural District.
As this list suggests, the conception of “downtown” expanded to include the areas across the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers from the Golden Triangle. Beginning in the 1970s, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation had pioneered the use of heritage redevelopment as a community revitalization tool in their transformation of an old rail yard along the Monongahela into the festival marketplace of Station Square. As with their earlier activities in the North Side’s Manchester and Mexican War Streets neighborhoods, Landmarks officials also partnered with local groups in the surrounding South Side neighborhoods to provide an alternative to the bulldozers of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The shuttering of the LTV site in the mid-1980 added a sense of urgency to this development agenda, and in 1982 Landmarks joined with the South Side Chamber of Commerce in creating the South Side Local Development Corporation (SSLDC). In 1985 the East Carson Street Historic District was selected as an urban demonstration project by the National Trust’s new Main Street program. “A region’s heritage, especially in a period of radical and negative change,” declared Earl James, director of preservation programs for the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, “becomes the binding force maintaining its identity and, by drawing the community together, becomes the driving force for renewal.”
With this proof that focused heritage-based redevelopment driven by private investment could revitalize areas in an economically viable way, boosters turned to expanding the downtown Cultural District beyond Heinz Hall (1971) and the Benedum Center (1987). Beginning with the 1990 purchase and renovation of the Fulton Theater, the overall development program for the area was largely entrusted to the nonprofit Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which served to channel funding from the city’s corporate foundations into the neighborhood. Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URAP) and the Heinz Foundation invested heavily in street and facade beautification, and, in 1987, the same year that Andrew Wiese noted the gentrification of the Cultural District’s Italianate buildings from his canoe on the Allegheny River, the area was designed a National Historic District. The goal of the public-private partnership was not only to create new facilities through heritage-based revitalization but also to “change the sociology” of a neighborhood in which visitors “d[id] not feel comfortable spending time.”
In 1993, the Trust began work on an innovative, split-level park that would connect the Cultural District to the Allegheny River. With the exception of a few riverfront municipal parks built in the early 1980s, this focus on the riverfront as an amenity represented a marked departure even from recent projects in the city, such as the Pittsburgh Technology Center, which tended to ignore the possibility of riverfront recreation despite the fact that the rivers were much cleaner and more attractive than they had been for more than a century. Allegheny County officials even chose to locate a massive new county jail on a former railroad property overlooking the Monongahela River. However, the decline of the city’s railroads coupled with the rise of state and federal rails to trails programs provided the opportunity for a new vision of the riverfronts. In December 1990, the Three Rivers Task Force, a coalition of environmental and civic groups, announced a plan to create a twelve-mile “Three Rivers Heritage Trail” along the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. The next year, trail advocates formed the nonprofit Friends of the Riverfront, and on Earth Day (April 5) hundreds of volunteers joined the group in beginning to clear the first section of the route.
[blocktext align=”left”]”The recreation value of our riverfronts is obvious; the economic value for development on adjacent property is equally important and obvious.”[/blocktext]No municipal official embraced the reinvention of the riverfronts as the key to economic development more than Tom Murphy, who made the transformation of disused railroad lines into waterfront pedestrian paths one of the cornerstones of his successful campaign for Pittsburgh mayor in 1993. “If ever there was a place to unfold the history of Pittsburgh,” Murphy declared, “it is along our riverfronts — a 12 mile story of who we are.” A native of the North Side — active during the 1970s as a community organizer and during his time as a state legislator in the 1980s — Murphy played an instrumental role in channeling state funds to the Strategy 21 urban renewal program. An avid runner and cyclist, Murphy was a founding member of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy as well as Friends of the Riverfront, which joined the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundations and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust in promoting urban revitalization based on riverfront and heritage renewal projects. “The recreation value of our riverfronts is obvious; the economic value for development on adjacent property is equally important and obvious,” Murphy declared on Earth Day in 1991.
On becoming the city’s mayor in 1994, Murphy declared his intention of making Pittsburgh a “24-hour” city and laid out a plan of public works. He placed particular emphasis on the twelve mile Three Rivers Heritage Trail, the linchpin connecting diverse urban neighborhoods with both a revitalized riverfront and new cultural facilities, including the construction of two new sports stadiums on the North Side. Undertaking this robust urban development policy during a time of shrinking federal support, with a local and regional population that was still declining, and in a city with a shrinking tax base required strong partnerships with county, nonprofit, and corporate officials and new methods of financing. Murphy forged a strong relationship with Richard Stafford, the new executive director of the Allegheny Conference, and surrounded himself with a group of visionary, hard- driving municipal officials drawn from his community organizing days. Finally, in 1997 Allegheny County Commissioners Michael Dawida, a Democrat with whom Murphy had served as a state legislator, and Bob Cranmer, a Republican who split with the other Republican on the commission, formed an alliance with Murphy that made possible a number of signature projects. Over the next three years, city-county cooperation improved to such an extent that Mulugetta Birru, a close associate of Murphy, served as both head of the URAP and county development director from 1997 to 2000.
The development projects of “Renaissance III” required a series of neoliberal funding mechanisms that allowed the city to leverage public and private investment in innovative ways. Murphy and his supporters made “a fundamental decision” that they needed a source of “money in a flat broke city,” centralized land control and development capacity, and to “be able to make deals.” In his final days as state legislator, Murphy pushed for legislation that created the Allegheny [County] Regional Asset District (RAD), which provided grants for civic, cultural, and recreational facilities as well as property tax relief in distressed communities by imposing a 1 percent sales and use tax. Formulated by Richard Stafford at the Allegheny Conference and supported by Murphy’s predecessor as mayor, Sophie Mas- loff, the RAD was designed to shift the tax burden for regional facilities away from Pittsburgh and gave Murphy a financial platform for his program. On taking office, Murphy also began diverting seven million dollars a year out of the city’s operating budget to finance a $60 million Pittsburgh Development Fund that was subsequently matched by local corporations and foundations through the Allegheny Conference’s new Strategic Investment Fund. Finally, city officials made extensive use of TIFs that earmarked future taxes to pay off construction loans in order to lure businesses to city properties.
Murphy’s aggressive approach to urban redevelopment was most successful on sites that the city could purchase outright. During his first year in office, the URAP acquired more than 500 acres of former industrial property, the largest land purchase in its history, which included U.S. Steel’s infamous slag heap at Nine Mile Run and the South Side Works as well as a failed shopping center in the East Liberty neighborhood. But perhaps the best example of Pittsburgh’s evolving neoliberal development model emerged following the collapse of the Steel Valley Authority plans to reindustrialize LTV (J&L) Steel’s South Side Works in 1991. By the time the URAP purchased the 123-acre site from LTV in 1993, the SSLDC had a decade of experience in heritage-based revitalization and a strong record of attracting new businesses to the East Carson Street neighborhood. At first, however, Murphy and the URAP ignored ongoing local planning efforts and directly brokered a deal with New Jersey-based Hospitality Franchise Systems, which lent $10 million to purchase the site in exchange for an option on a fifty acre parcel on which the company hoped to construct a riverboat gambling and entertainment complex. After necessary changes to state gambling laws failed to materialize, the URAP acquired full ownership and began site remediation under the guidelines of the state’s innovative brownfields Land Recycling Program (Act 2).
[blocktext align=”right”]”If ever there was a place to unfold the history of Pittsburgh, it is along our riverfronts — a 12 mile story of who we are.”[/blocktext]As the URAP worked to clean up the site and attract private investors, Murphy and Birru formed a strong though often contentious partnership with SSLDC executive director, Rebecca Flora, who had previously managed the URAP Washington’s Landing and Pittsburgh Technology Center projects. The involvement of the SSLDC resulted in a number of tangible results for the site, including the extension of Carson Street’s historic designation along the site’s border and the construction of senior housing units. Even more important, the SSLDC insisted that “even though the land is available and even though it may be priced at a level comparable to that of a good suburban site,” any new development had to blend in with the existing neighborhood by respecting the high-density urban grid pattern. Over the next few years, URAP partnered with the Soffer Organization, a local real estate development firm to create a TIF plan that helped lure high profile projects to the site, including sports-related facilities for the University of Pittsburgh, the regional headquarters of the FBI, several office buildings, and mixed use office retail buildings that included loft apartments.
Despite these successes, the 1990s remained a difficult period in metropolitan Pittsburgh’s history, and the city’s experimentation with neoliberal growth strategies resulted in failures as well as successes. The proliferation of community and nonprofit groups often made it difficult to reach consensus on projects, especially when they involved eminent domain and the destruction of existing buildings, a reality illustrated by Murphy’s failure to develop a downtown retail mall similar to Wheeling’s earlier Fort Henry Mall proposal. In September 1997 city officials signed an agreement with Urban Retail Properties to develop a 400,000 square foot retail center, which would have replaced a mix of national and local independent shops with forty destination-oriented chain stores, between Fifth and Forbes streets just east of the Golden Triangle. As retailers Lazarus (1998) and Lord and Taylor (2000), enticed by generous public subsidies and TIF agreements, signed on over the next three years, Urban Retail Properties began to market the $400 million project despite the fact that much of the area was privately owned. “We think Pittsburgh is a terrific city with a tremendous amount of retail potential,” declared an executive at Urban Retail’s parent company. “If there is some deal that makes sense there, we would love to get involved with it.”
During the heyday of the Pittsburgh Renaissance, the city’s public-private partnership could use eminent domain to transfer private property from one private owner to another with little regard for local concerns. However, the political landscape had changed by the 1990s, with opposition to the Fifth and Forbes proposal uniting a diverse group of stakeholders, including the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, young professionals who formed an ad hoc group called the GroundZero Action Network, and local businesses suffering from an uncertain market that aligned themselves with attorneys at the free-market libertarian Institute of Justice. For Arthur Ziegler, Murphy’s plan was a backsliding “demolition and rebuilding project” reminiscent of the Allegheny Center project that had horrified the founders of Landmarks in the 1960s. GroundZero, on the other hand, was an experimental “open network of doers, makers, and creative people” that emerged in 2000 focused on arts and culture projects with a particular emphasis on young, hip, “creative people.” The Fifth and Forbes controversy, according to group member Pat Clark, who worked at a real estate job nearby, was “the issue that drove them to mobilization.” “It was an artificial economy,” he concluded. “It was just so ill-advised. It was like watching dad try to dance.”
Landmarks and groups like GroundZero that viewed Fifth and Forbes as part of a broader agenda allied themselves with neighborhood organizations, such as the Market Square Association (MSA), a business cooperative that marketed local retail, dining, and entertainment. As with Ziegler at Landmarks, MSA executive director Bernie Lynch was concerned that the city was making plans with national retailers behind closed doors at the expense of local business and that, in the meantime, the area slated for redevelopment was suffering from a frozen real estate market. “It wasn’t blighted before,” Lynch argued, “but the plan caused it to become blighted.” These concerns about eminent domain and the viability of Murphy’s plan were shared by the libertarian Allegheny Institute, founded by Richard Mellon Scaife in 1995, and the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm that Lynch contacted for advice in the fall of 1998. Faced with the difficulty of attracting investors in the face of this opposition, Murphy eventually abandoned the proposal and agreed to work with opponents on a more collaborative effort, dubbed “Plan C” for compromise. Furthermore, within five years of opening, both Lazarus and Lord and Taylor closed their stores, costing the city up to $90 million in public subsidies and adding impetus to the search for a compromise. In the end, the URAP and other stakeholders settled on an incremental, “Main Street” approach that provided city funding for modest improvements to local property owners.
[blocktext align=”left”]”In Pittsburgh, with a strong mayor system, you can have huge influence on the pace and quality of the development. That’s what a mayor needs to do — imagine what we could be.”[/blocktext]Murphy’s aggressive approach to urban development created an even bigger backlash in his plans for replacing the aging Three Rivers Stadium, which had long been criticized for its inaccessibility, boring architecture, and unsuitability for baseball viewing, with two new facilities designed to highlight the city’s new relationship with its rivers. The opening of the Carnegie Science Center in 1991 kicked off a decade of construction and planning on the North Shore of the Allegheny River, including the relocation of Alcoa Corporation to a beautiful new headquarters. In 1996, the new co-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, newspaper publisher Kevin McClatchy, announced the team would leave the city unless a new park was built. While they did not threaten to leave, the Pittsburgh Steelers football franchise also requested a new facility. Facing increasing financial difficulties, Murphy negotiated a deal to establish an eleven-county Regional Renaissance Initiative, modeled on the Allegheny County RAD, which would use an additional .5 percent sales tax to fund infrastructure projects, including the two new stadiums. Despite strong support by the region’s public-private partnership, in 1998 the proposal failed spectacularly, not getting the required majority of votes in any of the eleven counties, including Allegheny. Following the defeat and in spite of enormous local opposition, Murphy pushed through a “Plan B” that used TIF and other funding mechanisms to support the stadiums.
Despite low unemployment and increased national attention for its new developments, the realities of governing a city with a population that continued to decline hurt Murphy’s position. Furthermore, lack of the political savvy necessary to collaborate effectively with various community and non-profit stakeholders undercut his successes as a visionary in articulating a renewed emphasis on the riverfronts and as a technocrat in cobbling together the financial capacity to “make deals” with developers. “Reformers tend to be people who listen. He didn’t cultivate that talent very well,” explained Mike Dawida, Murphy’s long-time colleague in the state legislature and frequent partner during his time as county commissioner in the late 1990s. “It got a lot worse in the mayor’s office.” After Murphy cruised to an easy reelection victory in 1997, growing anger at his apparent lack of respect for local desires made the 2001 campaign divisive. Although he squeaked by in the election with only six hundred more votes than his opponent, city councilman Bob O’Connor, Murphy’s final term as mayor was tempered by ballooning public debt that occurred despite only a modest increase in actual public spending.
The mayor’s repeated attempts to “change fundamentally” the municipal taxing dynamic during the early twenty-first century by imposing commuter and use taxes and attempting to tax the nonprofit universities and hospitals that controlled a large portion of the city’s real estate was stymied in an increasingly hostile state legislature. His close alliance with county commissioners was replaced by a cooler relationship with a Republican county executive elected under a new home rule charter for Allegheny County in 1999. Faced with few options, in 2003 Murphy led Pittsburgh into the state’s “distressed city” program, which paradoxically allowed a state appointed overseer to impose the kinds of financial remedies Murphy could not use himself. By the time he left office in January 2006, after having chosen not to seek reelection, nearly 50 percent of residents polled gave him a grade of D or lower. Despite this loss of popularity, the city’s fiscal problems, and the cloud of a federal investigation involving a sweetheart contract with the city’s firefighters union, Murphy left a legacy of brownfield and riverfront development projects that his successors as mayor, Bob O’Connor, Luke Ravenstahl, and Bill Peduto, built on for the next decade. “In Pittsburgh, with a strong mayor system, you can have huge influence on the pace and quality of the development,” Murphy later concluded. “That’s what a mayor needs to do — imagine what we could be.”
Allen Dieterich-Ward is Associate Professor of History at Shippensburg University.
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Your article touches on a concept which has increasingly intrigued me. Namely that the industrial landscape and infrastructure of Rust Belt cities in combination with the exceptional location of many of the sites relative to downtowns, waterfront atea, or dense historic neighborhoods, can result in stunning urban transformations that may be possible only in Rust Belt cities. Few of the cities have yet to fully realize this potential. Perhaps Pittsburgh is one. I see it happening in Milwaukee where essentially the entire downtown and near downtown riverfronts became available for transformation just as downtown revitalization was gathering steam. The transformation of the riverfronts has included environmental cleanup in combination with continuous public access via a Riverwalk network.
A key point is that the projects are not just something nice – examples of Rust Belt cities somehow managing to do something that is on a par with supposedly more progressive or successful cities. The point is that the Rust Belt landscape can present opportunities to create truly extraordinary urban features that would be physically impossible for these other cities to duplicate.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I spent some time in Milwaukee a few years ago and was also impressed with their river/heritage oriented projects. You’ve definitely hit on a key theme that I tried to explore — the idea that the best parts of the existing infrastructure in cities like Pittsburgh provide opportunities for unique and locally-oriented development (dare I say “authentic” and “organic”) that are not easily replicable in areas that developed in other social and geographical contexts.
I need to visit Pittsburgh. I’m pretty aware of its economic transformation, but less so of how it’s urban landscape has transformed. What is interesting in Milwaukee is that so much of the industrial landscape has been preserved or adapted to new uses. The 3 mile long former industrial landscape bordering the Milwaukee River is but one component. Others include major industrial complexes such as the historic Schlitz and Pabst Breweries that have been adapted to new uses. In total, at least 10 million square feet of historic industrial buildings converted to office space, and another 10 million converted to residential. Many of the larger projects, after 20 or 30 years of effort, and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, are actually reaching a state of completion. I think the results are quite incredible.
I’ve had the pleasure of working in several of these converted industrial buildings. Many of the buildings are constructed of a locally produced brick (“cream city brick”) with a distinctive yellowish color attributable to the mineral content of the local clay deposits used to make the bricks. The wooden beams are a relic of Wisconsin’s timber industry, and the steel fittings connecting the beams in many instances produced from local iron deposits. Hard to get more authentic than that.