DCN ARCHIVES

April 19, 2007

Brownfields

Steely resolve to convert Pittsburgh

TORONTO

Take a dying steel industry, add three rivers and a hilly landscape, and you know that transforming brownfields will be one giant headache.

You could take two aspirins, wait for the developers to call in the morning, and hope for the best. Or, if you’re the City of Pittsburgh, you could create a swath of riverfront parkland, build liveable downtown neighbourhoods, and attract new business.

RIVERLIFE TASK FORCE

Washington's Landing is a 42-acre island two miles from downtown Pittsburgh. This once blighted island (above) was transformed into a high-quality, multi-use development, including market-rate housing, office/research and development, and light industrial uses (below). It also features a marina, a rowing centre and a public park.

“It’s more than a reclamation effort — it’s an effort to rescue and transform the city,” Lisa Schroeder, executive director of the Riverlife Task Force, told a recent brownfields conference in Toronto.

Riverlife, a nonprofit organization established in 1999 by Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy to create a vision and masterplan for the city’s riverfronts, has been front-and-centre in the local cleanup.

Schroeder described an effort to reverse a history of environmental degradation and seize upon the city’s abundant waterways, green hillsides, neighbourhoods and history of structural innovations to effect change.

“Our rivers were thought of as being a toxic industrial highway,” Schroeder said. “The rivers were separated from the community because the steel mills were located along the riverbanks. Now, we’re looking at them as the means to tie together all of our communities and districts.”

One early project saw a 48-acre site that once housed a steel mill transformed into a modern-day technology hub more than 30 years ago.

“Imagine what a radical concept it was back then to take a steel mill and bring in two universities and seven technology companies,” Schroeder said, describing how $25 million in public funding led to a further $104 million in private money.

Subsequent efforts produced mixed-use developments, with housing, office space, research facilities, sports stadiums and corporate headquarters for multinationals such as Del Monte and the Equitable Corporation.

A former coke-works will house a Smithsonian museum dedicated to the local steel industry and labour movement, and other waterfront plans include a casino and LEED Gold-rated convention centre.

Not everything worked out perfectly. During early brownfields redevelopment, some buildings faced away from the river, and development was decidedly suburban in style — lots of surface parking, and huge gaps between buildings. Work is now underway to resolve some of these issues, Schroeder said.

Key to the redevelopment is extensive parkland connecting the entire riverfront. This has involved reestablishing native plant species, promoting public uses for waterways such as fishing and kayaking, and renovating bridges carefully in order to preserve historic elements.

Through efforts to meet environmental standards in redeveloping Point State Park, a 250-year-old fort, proponents drew criticism from historic preservationists.

Preservationists warned that a plan to fill an eight-foot-deep moat with a mix of concrete, rock and asphalt debris from the same site might damage sensitive handmade bricks and trap water against the fort’s now-underground walls.

Schroeder described this as a juxtaposition of values, where LEED environmental specifications promote the onsite re-use of materials and where the preservationists saw this as potentially damaging.

“We ended up bringing in clean dirt fill from another site,” Schroeder said.

“This is a really good example of a dynamic public project of a beloved space in which everybody wants to participate.”

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