Don Smith has a bird’s eye view of the Almono riverfront site from his office on the 36th floor of the K&L Gates Center. Pointing east, beyond the U.S. Steel Tower and Hot Metal Bridge, he outlines the grassy plateau that was once home to the Hazelwood Coke Works. From above, the field looks more like an airstrip.

The 178-acre parcel, a portfolio property of the Regional Industrial Development Corp., is about to unleash its potential. Named for the three rivers, Almono is the largest undeveloped acreage in the City of Pittsburgh. With spectacular riverfront views and a short commute to downtown and Oakland, it offers an unprecedented opportunity in the creation of a riverfront development that will define Pittsburgh for years to come.

Location. Location. Location.

“It’s a unique opportunity to do something of scale and create a whole new neighborhood in the City of Pittsburgh,” the RIDC president says. He should know. Smith has been the one coddling and pushing the project forward since 2002 with a hefty assist from the four Pittsburgh foundations that own the site—the Richard King Mellon Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, the McCune Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

Don Smith, president of RIDC, at Almono. / Photo Rob Larson

Don Smith, president of RIDC, at Almono. Photo by Rob Larson.

“It’s a transformative opportunity for the City of Pittsburgh and the region,” he says.

The vision is ambitious. From the beginning, the partners saw the property as an opportunity to set a new standard for urban riverfront development and best practices from across the globe. To that extent, Almono strives to be a “sustainable, 21st-century neighborhood” that will harness renewable energy in its many manifestations, generate 4,500-6,000 jobs and provide 2,500 homes, including affordable housing.

The site also offers room for two million square feet of office space, light industry and/or a technology center and ample green space for riverfront recreation.

“The sustainability standards for the site are important to the partners,” says Smith. “The goal is zero energy and carbon neutrality. I don’t think there’s any other site of this scale that has set net carbon neutral energy as a goal for development.”

Public infrastructure, roads and utilities will cost between $103 to $110 million. Investment is expected to pump another $900 million to $2 billion into the site and the neighboring Hazelwood community.

“With a tremendous amount of green space and access to the river, this is going to be a very extraordinary development,” says Smith, who estimates development will generate $15 million in taxes for the city.

Almono

The site of Almono in Hazelwood. Photo by Rob Larson.

In a nutshell, here’s what has happened to date and what will happen next:

•The RIDC has spread nearly one million cubic yards of fill dirt across the site in preparation for development and to remediate the underlying brownfield. The work to “cap and contain” industrial residues, which were minimal, is nearly done, says Smith. The fill, which was trucked in from the casino and other local developments, raised the site 10-14 feet above the 100-year flood plain. (The site is nearly 40 feet above the Mon.)

•A negotiated settlement on the right-of-way will soon be reached between ALMONO and CSX. (The lawsuit has been one of the hurdles holding up development.) “We are on a path to a resolution that will work for both sides,” says Smith.

•The plan calling for the Mon-Fayette Expressway to traverse the site is dead.

•A ceremonial groundbreaking in late October heralded the start of Phase 1 of the project. The new 1.5-mile public street, Signature Boulevard, will connect with Second Avenue, near the Hot Metal Bridge, and extend to the river (and under the railroad tracks) before winding back to Hazelwood Avenue. The 18-month project will give prospective developers access to the site and provide core utilities, storm sewers, water lines, fiber optic cable and dedicated pedestrian and bike access. The $27 million cost will be borne through a combination of grants, loans and partner equity.

•Stakeholders have held more than 100 community meetings with residents of Hazelwood to discuss the plans. The partners are genuinely committed to connecting the project with the community and keeping residents informed, says Smith.

•The URA has applied for a state grant of $3 million for the construction of a road that will connect Hazelwood to Oakland for “rubber-tire” shuttles and possibly driverless vehicles. (Carnegie Mellon University developed and tested driverless technology on the plateau for many years.)