The historic Carrie Furnaces are the last relics of pre-World War II iron-making technology in this region. The site is open for tours from May through October. Photos courtesy of Ron Baraff, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

A 168-acre former brownfield along the Monongahela River, with the historic Carrie Furnaces at its center, is ready for redevelopment as an office and light industrial parka project more than a decade in the making that brings the promise of up to 1,000 jobs where U.S. Steel once made pig iron.

And with the ongoing renovation of the two remaining furnaces, there’s potential for complementary recreation, entertainment or event space.

When grading is completed in early spring, the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County will seek development proposals for more than 60 acres east of Blast Furnaces No. 6 and 7 that have been filled to raise the land above the 100-year floodplain. Remaining acreage west of the furnaces will require backfill and an extension of the new Carrie Furnace Boulevard to get it ready for development.

Map courtesy of Allegheny County.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and others envision commercial office space and advanced manufacturing but expect developers to determine the market with regard to tenants. The site would be similar to, and would complement, the coming Almono development in Hazelwood, Fitzgerald says.

“The Mon Valley has been a little slower to develop, and this is something that could really benefit what I call Pittsburgh’s ‘inner ring’ suburbs Swissvale, Rankin, Homestead, Munhall,” says Fitzgerald. “We still have companies that want to come. You know, with autonomous vehicles and robotics, we’re still at the early stages. And Pitt and CMU continue to commercialize and spin out about 50 companies a year.”

Park Corp. bought the property from U.S. Steel but never developed it, and sold it to the county for $5.75 million in 2005. Environmental assessments, site remediation and extensions of sewer and water lines followed. The county has invested more than $20 million into the siteincluding federal grant money for a flyover ramp from the Rankin Bridge and the roadway into the property.

An important phase of future work is rehabilitating the Rankin Hot Metal Bridge, including a bike trail extension alongside it. That work could cost $30 million, money the county doesn’t yet have. The county has obtained a $313,000 grant to determine contaminant levels of asbestos in the bridge paint, perform a structural inspection of the two main truss spans, and design a plan for remediation and repairs.

“If we can connect [the site] with the Hot Metal Bridge to The Waterfront site, now you add value,” says Fitzgerald. “Transportation and connections are so important with these developments.”

The historic Carrie Furnaces are the last relics of pre-World War II iron-making technology in this region. The site is open for tours from May through October. Photos courtesy of Ron Baraff, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

The Carrie Furnaces property is split between Rankin and Swissvale, 70-30 percent. A steering committee formed during the years of infrastructure work includes Bill Pfoff, president of the board at Rankin Christian Center and a legislative assistant to state Rep. Paul Costa, and Rankin’s Council President William “Lucky” Price.

Both communities recently updated and coordinated their zoning ordinances to accommodate “a whole host of opportunities,” says Clyde Wilhelm, Swissvale’s borough manager.

“We’d like to see development down there where we could have some opportunities for jobs here,” he says. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do, although I know it will not be retail,” which would compete with The Waterfront. “I would just like to see it done. It’s been a long time.”

Predominantly residential, Swissvale has a sparse and fragmented business district. “We’re working toward getting those areas cleaned up and hopefully getting more businesses to move in,” says Wilhelm, noting The Salt Factory, a bulk road salt and deicer distributor, moved into the former Babcock Lumber Co. yard. The community is growing, he says, with new families choosing its walkable neighborhoods.

U.S. Steel produced iron at the Carrie Furnaces from 1907 until 1978. The two remaining furnaces are the only pre-World War II iron-making relics still standing in the region. Since their designation as a National Historic Landmark in 2006, they’re a popular site for tours, weddings and events – the Thrival festival there last year attracted 15,000 people, says Ron Baraff, director of historic resources and facilities for Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, which manages the 20 acres with historic designation.

“What we as an organization are hoping for are just good neighbors, whether it’s light industrial, entertainment, whatever that might be – a developer who embraces the historic nature of the site and understands it’s extremely unique,” says Baraff, who has watched the grading work change the property’s sight lines. “There are ways for us to be connected so it doesn’t feel like a whole bunch of buildings with a blast furnace in the middle.”

When asked about a possible concert venue at the historic site, Dan Law, executive producer of Thrival Innovation + Music Festival, said: “There’s a ton of potential for that site, and we’re exploring a lot of opportunities in that regard. Thrival 2016 was just a first example of what can be achieved there at scale. It’s an exciting prospect to think about.” (Look for the Thrival music fest to return to Carrie Furnaces this year.)

Acreage around the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area under construction. Photo courtesy of Ron Baraff.

People in Mon River communities have waited for the development for years, Baraff says.  “It’s been mostly talk until the last couple of years and now it’s really starting to happen,” he says. The ramp and new road have made the property user-friendly.

“It’s important that this site is recognized as being a destination and an important site. It is not an abandoned site; it’s an active site, it’s a relevant site,” Baraff says. “The county doing their work and what we’re doing supports that. Where does it go from here? It’s all about bringing jobs to the region, sustainable jobs for the communities that surround it.”

Rivers of Steel continues to try to raise money to restore the blast furnaces and develop trails on its acreage, which includes a refuge for “the Carrie deer” and other wildlife.

“It’s an ongoing project,” Baraff says. “What we have found over the course of the last 10 years, as we’ve been reactivating the site, there is not a great desire on the part of the public or the organization to make it look like it’s 1950 again.

“What is important to do is to reflect the industrial history of the site, as well as the post-industrial history. You want to reflect all those eras because they’re important to the complete story. Time didn’t stop there in 1978.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.