Turning land from brown to green: Pittsburgh's reuse of industrial sites is a story worth telling
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Pittsburgh has undergone a half-century-long transformation from a steel town to an acclaimed post-industrial city whose education and medical institutions are among the best in the world. While it is not news to anyone living in the region that Pittsburgh has come a long way, those living elsewhere are just beginning to realize it. Much credit for this change belongs to the civic and community leaders who saw the potential in Pittsburgh's past and the role it could play in shaping the city's future.
After the steel industry declined, most of the mills that defined the region stood idle, contaminating the environment and hampering economic and community development. Years of inactivity transformed these sites into what are commonly known as brownfields. Brownfields are sites that have been deemed unsuitable for development because of actual or perceived contamination.
Because the region has worked to reclaim many of these brownfields for redevelopment, Pittsburgh has developed a reputation for successfully recycling contaminated land. Pittsburgh's environmental cleanup and strategic redevelopment of brownfields has become a national model for cities that seek to transform themselves into attractive post-industrial success stories.
My own research on brownfields has focused on the remediation and redevelopment of the slag heap at Nine Mile Run into the Summerset at Frick Park residential community. Nestled in the East End near Squirrel Hill South and Swisshelm Park, Summerset was built near the Nine Mile Run watershed, a system of urban streams that flows through Frick Park to the Monongahela River.
For 50 years, slag, a toxic byproduct of steel production, was dumped on the land near the watershed, polluting all it touched and creating a 120-foot-tall community eyesore. Redevelopment of such a site required more creativity than other brownfield successes such as the Waterfront or SouthSide Works. In the late 1990s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, with direction from Mayor Tom Murphy, purchased the land. By 2007, the first phase of construction was completed with $261 million in private and public funds.
My work, published in the June edition of Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly, details the economic benefits of replacing the slag heap with Summerset at Frick Park. According to my analysis, residential properties sold within 500 feet of the slag heap enjoyed a significant boost in price, at least 50 percent depending on when a house was sold during the building of Summerset and its proximity to the brownfield. I estimated the total increase in nearby home values at $405 million. In short, the long-run benefits of the project far outweighed its costs.
What does Pittsburgh's experience with brownfield redevelopment have to offer other cities?
Pittsburgh has shown the importance of strategic planning, leveraging private and public resources and taking calculated risks in reclaiming contaminated land. By investing in improved environmental quality and new housing, the city of Pittsburgh and the URA stimulated the local economy while significantly raising property values in the neighborhoods around Nine Mile Run.
Context matters, though. Summerset at Frick Park is located near Squirrel Hill, a desirable place to live with one of the highest percentages of college-educated people in the city, which contributed to its success. The potential benefits from a particular brownfield redevelopment may not itself justify the high cost of reclamation, so not all projects are worthy of limited government resources.
The economic value of green space and environmental quality are only now being realized in Pittsburgh and across the nation. A recent Wall Street Journal article cited evidence that office space in New York City located near parks costs more than similar space located elsewhere in the city. University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University studies have found that proximity to large parks significantly influenced property values in Chicago and here in Pittsburgh.
The great Pittsburgher Fred Rogers once remarked: "Anything worthwhile certainly takes a while." The Pittsburgh story has taken decades to unfold, and brownfield redevelopment's role in it is certainly worthy of being told.
First Published October 14, 2012 12:00 am