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.

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.)

•A revised master plan for the site by Perkins+Will will be completed by year-end. The plan promises to integrate the streets on the plateau with the broader Hazelwood community through the existing street grid. It will be transit-oriented, walkable and offer recreational green space and possibly a marina. The revised plan increases the residential density and integrates it more fully with office and industry throughout the site.

•The revised master plan calls for four development districts, north to south, along the Mon:

Riverview (closest to the Hot Metal Bridge), primarily office and residential;
Roundhouse, a historic structure and place where CMU conducted autonomous vehicle tests, earmarked as a sustainable-type technology center and green space;
Mill Plaza North and South, industrial and commercial development of Mill 19 that honors and preserves the authentic integrity of the structure; and
Hazelwood Flats, residential and mixed-use that will connect with Hazelwood and include an “affordable component.”

“We want to preserve the Roundhouse (and Mill 19) as a nod to the history of the site,” says Smith. “They are cool structures. They add an ambiance that you can’t create and fake.”

•Smith envisions the plateau populated with cafes, retail, restaurants and recreational opportunities. The Eliza Furnace Trail will connect with the Hazelwood Trail. “Frankly there’s no easier bicycle commute to downtown than from our site. People (living here) can live, work, bike and walk.”

•Once the roads and infrastructure are completed, RIDC will issue RFPs. “Our goal is to get developers on site. We fully expect there will be strong demand,” says Smith.

With so much space and much at stake, three key development proposals have surfaced outside of Smith’s purview. Those considerations include turning Mill 19 into a film studio complex, relocating an industrial manufacturing plant to the site and the pending sale of the Gladstone School in Hazelwood.

The sprawling industrial warehouse known as Mill 19 (about a quarter-mile in length) recently served as a dramatically lit backdrop for the Thrival Festival in September which for two days introduced the cool industrial site to thousands.

Thrival Festival
The Thrival Innovation + Music Festival held at the Almono site in September. Photo courtesy of Thrival.

The City of Pittsburgh supports turning Mill 19 into a large movie and film studio to support the growing film industry here.

And while Dawn Keezer of the Pittsburgh Film Office says a major film studio in Pittsburgh has been on her wish list for awhile, she declined comment. “There’s been lots of talk and lots of conversations (around the mill site),” she says.

On a more definitive note, Latrobe-based Kennametal is widely reported to be in “advanced discussions” to locate a new world headquarters at Almono. The location appeals to the company’s desire for access to the city and airport, the pool of university grads and local cultural amenities.

Kristina DiPietro of the Hazelwood Initiative and Tim Smith of Center of Life. Photo by Rob Larson.

In Hazelwood, the long-shuttered Gladstone Middle School has become a touchstone for a community grappling with the gentrification that will certainly occur with the development of Almono. A partnership of Hazelwood nonprofits wants to buy the school for the community’s use. Another developer has other plans.

Lifelong Hazelwood resident Kristina DiPietro, who chairs the Hazelwood Initiative, applauds the commitment of local foundations in staying at the table throughout the process and providing funding for neighborhood initiatives.

The purchase of Gladstone, she says, is not about the money. “It’s about ensuring appropriate development takes place on both sides of the tracks. This school has been a hub of the community for years. This is about a community striving to control development in order to preserve its integrity.”

The Hazelwood Initiative and Center of Life have offered the Pittsburgh Public School District the asking price of $250,000 for Gladstone. The use has yet to be determined, says DiPietro. A private developer has counter-offered with $1.5 million for a proposed biotech incubator.

Make It Right, the nonprofit facilitating the community discussion, will hold its next meeting to discuss the Gladstone purchase on Dec. 8th at Firefighters Union Hall, 120 Flowers Ave.

“We’re working to ensure that opportunistic gentrification doesn’t happen here,” says Tim Smith, executive director of Center of Life. “If this area is gentrified, the tax base goes up, the slumlords jack up rent. We want people to stay in the community. Otherwise, they will be driven up the Mon.”

Any decision on Gladstone rests with Pittsburgh Public Schools, says Kevin Acklin, chief of staff for the mayor’s office. “The Mayor would like to see a community-driven conversation on what will happen next. The goal would be to bring in all the stakeholders and give them a seat at the table.”

Nearly 65 percent of the homes and buildings in Hazelwood are vacant. Many are owned by the city, which gives the city some leverage, Acklin says. The mayor is working on a solution with the federal government that may give struggling neighborhoods in the region, like Hazelwood, some relief.

Mayor Peduto has proposed a federal voucher program that would provide funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by subsidizing rising rents in urban neighborhoods like Hazelwood.

The mayor vetted the idea during his limo ride from the airport with President Obama last July, says Acklin. “It’s a new financing mechanism. Obama loved it.

“This is more than about Almono,” Acklin adds. “It’s about rebuilding the site in a community-driven manner. The Waterfront development is an example of a project that did nothing to lift up the community of Homestead. This is one way to put money into the community to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

The Almono stakeholders promise this project will be different, an example of how a major urban development of this magnitude should conduct itself. Will they succeed?

Hazelwood photo by Rob Larson
Hazelwood photo by Rob Larson

“Hazelwood can be the model for other communities,” says DiPietro. “We are committed to seeing it happen.”

“Almono is a unique testament to the working relationship between the foundations that have devoted years to making this development happen,” adds Smith. “They’re really the visionaries behind the idea that this site could be something more than whatever use came down the road.”

Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.