The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part III

[Part I is here] [Part II is here] [Part III is here] [Part IV is here] [Part V is here] [Part VI is here] [Part VII is here] [Part VIII is here] [Part IX is here] [Part X is here]

The story of how Pittsburgh got this way – how it began to be revitalized (note the passive construction) – continues. Today: Green Pittsburgh, or Sustainable Pittsburgh.

If you have read Parts One and Two of this series, you’ll note a couple of themes:

First – While Pittsburgh is unquestionably brighter and hipper and on the move relative to its own recent history and relative to its peer cities, a great deal of the story remains to be written. Pittsburgh is a city in progress.

Second – There is no one source or cause for Pittsburgh’s recent emergence. Cities are dynamic things that emerge in any form from lots of sources – the economy, the environment, the infrastructure, the history, and other things. Right now, in Pittsburgh a lot of these things seem to be converging. But none of these paths is ever perfectly smooth. There are lots of "Go" signs around Pittsburgh right now, but there are also many "Caution" signs, and more than a few signs signal "Stop," or even "Go Back!"

Still, Pittsburgh has acquired a reputation for embracing Green-ness, or for Sustainability, in the jargon of the moment. The city and region are environmentally hip. Let’s break down the sources and prospects of the phenomenon. The conclusion is this:

It isn’t easy being Green.

Architecture: The green meme in Pittsburgh got started with the new Convention Center (site of the G20 summit), which was and remains among the largest LEED-certified buildings anywhere, if not the largest. It helps a lot that the building is not only green, but cool – hip, neat, a really distinctive addition to Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River waterfront and to the view from PNC Park. There are dozens of LEED certified buildings in the region and more on the way. In fact, one local PR firm sent me a G20 themed press release the other day that highlighted its client’s involvement in a large number of these. There is hope that the new Penguins hockey arena (officially, the "Consol Energy Center") will be certified LEED Gold. The Pittsburgh City Council recently approved a bill that requires that all publicly-financed development in Pittsburgh to be certified "green." The LEED-driven, build green bandwagon is gathering steam in a big hurry. In general, of course, smart and sustainable building practices are a great idea, and in Pittsburgh they seem to have captured the attention of a lot of the right people. But it's important to recognize that the goal isn't LEED certification itself; LEED standards have weaknesses, and LEED can be just a buzzword.

Air: Sometimes it seems like every time a "livability" survey puts Pittsburgh at the top of the chart, an "air quality" survey puts Pittsburgh somewhere near the bottom. In 2008, an American Lung Association survey named Pittsburgh as home of the worst levels of short-term particle air pollution in the US. Ouch. At least some of these readings are flawed; critics of the ALA study point out that measurements in Pittsburgh studied air quality not far from the huge US Steel coke plant in Clairton. Measurements in the Downtown neighborhood or in more heavily populated areas would, we argue, show Pittsburgh in a better light. How clean Pittsburgh seems today depends a lot on the relevant baseline. Compared to Pittsburgh's air in the middle of the 20th century, Pittsburgh's air today shines as day compares to night. Literally. But compared to what might reasonably expected in a modern metropolitan area, the air in Pittsburgh is adequate at best, and fragile, at worst. In 2003, when a massive power outage across much of the Northeast US stilled coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley, the skies above Pittsburgh -- downwind -- were noticeably clearer. A new "waste coal" fueled power plant is in the planning stages at Beech Hollow, just south of the Pittsburgh International Airport and upwind from Pittsburgh's densely-populated South Hills suburbs.

Water: Pittsburgh's riverfront location is the source of enormous pride, and all three major rivers today are marvelous multi-use sites: recreation and industry share the space. Even after the collapse of the steel industry cleared the riverfronts of most of the steel works, Pittsburgh's rivers remained almost exclusively "working" rivers, too crowded and polluted for recreational boating and with limited access for the general public. The riverfronts were dedicated largely to industrial use, lined by railroad rights of way, highways, abandoned industrial sites, and some legacy building materials suppliers. In 1995, Pittsburgh missed an opportunity to expand access to its rivers by building the new Allegheny County Jail on a prime parcel of riverfront property, adjacent to the Liberty Bridge. The region's view of its rivers appears to have changed dramatically over the last 15 years. Partnerships among local government (including former mayor Tom Murphy), real estate developers, and river access advocates have produced recreational trails along much of the riverfront Downtown, with more in development. The Great Allegheny Passage, a hiking and biking trail that connects Pittsburgh and Washington, DC, is complete nearly to Downtown Pittsburgh. Summer weekends and home football games at Heinz Field bring out large flotillas of recreational boaters. Fishing on the rivers is so good that in recent years Pittsburgh has twice played host to major bass fishing tournaments. On the North Side, Heinz Field, PNC Park, the Carnegie Science Center and related development have given a major visual and economic shot in the arm to the city. (The stadiums, of course, were subsidized with public money from existing taxes and state-supplied "loans" after local voters overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to supply public funds via a new tax.) Offices, educational facilities, and R&D space have brightened the site of the former J&L Steel Works along the river in Hazelwood; the South Side Works shopping mall and condo and office development has done the same on the opposite shore.

But major railroad rights of way still impede public access, especially across much of the South Side.

Energy production:
Coal is king in Western Pennsylvania, which reflects the same truth on which Pittsburgh's steel and iron industries were founded: There is a lot of coal here, even after more than a century of mining. (There is also a lot of natural gas.) The new hockey arena has been christened the "Consol Energy Center" after the region's largest coal producer. That development recognizes the ongoing importance of coal to the region. But a host of clean energy alternatives are being explored here; Pittsburgh has a legitimate claim to being a center of 21st century energy research. Check out 3 Rivers Clean Energy for more, and a summary.

Waste and sewage: The Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority has been caught up in some serious financial troubles by virtue of who it chose as advisors in bond deals, but in this post the topic is where Pittsburgh's waste goes, and in what condition. And the answer is: In the rivers, down the rivers, and all too often -- raw. Industrial pollution of the rivers is no longer a major problem in Pittsburgh, but untreated sewage is. Pittsburgh's sewer systems are antiquated and inadequate, leading to ugly and expensive backups in homes and neighborhoods during heavy rains (the Shadyside and Oakland neighborhoods are often particularly hard hit), and ugly and expensive deposits downstream from the Point. In 2007, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) settled a claim by the US Environmental Protection Agency over countywide untreated sewage discharges (billions of gallons per year), a settlement that obligates ALCOSAN to spend roughly $3 billion by 2026 to fix the problems and bring the Pittsburgh region into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. That is $3 billion that the county's ratepayers will have to absorb over the next 20 years. Truly clean water in Pittsburgh is a long way off.

Transportation: Both public and private transportation systems in Pittsburgh are creaking under the dual burdens of age, lack of funds, and the pressure of politics that trump sensible planning. Unlike many Americian cities, Pittsburgh has no true beltway for automobile traffic (the color-coded "belt" system, evident on some road signs, is not a system of highways and is largely ignored by residents), which means that freeway traffic ("parkway" traffic to Pittsburghers) travels from the periphery of the region into the heart of Downtown before making its way in a new direction. Poorly engineered approaches to Pittsburgh's major bridges, drivers who pause before entering tunnels, the lack of a grid system (and the accompanying absence of easily accessed alternative routes), and limited public funds for road and highway maintenance make rush-hour Pittsburgh traffic worse than its modest population otherwise might suggest. The public transportation system is likewise fragile. The Port Authority, which now operates buses, the city's two remaining Inclines, and a single light rail line, was a product of Pittsburgh's first Renaissance in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But declines in public support have produced successive rounds of service cuts. The light rail system is being extended from Downtown to the North Shore neighborhood at an extravagant cost -- driven by rules associated with its federal funding source -- while many Pittsburghers contend that better planning would have used the money to relieve congestion in the corridor between Downtown and the Uptown and Oakland neighborhoods. The brightest spot in the local transportation landscape today may be bicycles, which have found help in recent city administrations and among advocacy organizations. Between its hilly landscape; narrow, old streets; and drivers and cyclists historically unused to sharing streets with each other, Pittsburgh is a notoriously bike-unfriendly place. But with new bike lanes being installed on some major city boulevards, especially in the Strip District, and with the opening of additional riverfront bike and hiking paths, more cyclists are hitting Pittsburgh streets. Peaceful coexistence may be on the horizon.

Next (yes, there's more!): Politics.


5 Responses to "The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part III"

RoboticGhost said... 9/04/2009 9:52 AM

Excellent post and series.

FWIW and tangetical to the business at hand, I stumbled across this item this morning: Tom Murphy Keynote Speaker at E2 in Detroit.

At some point it would behoove Pittsburghers to have a long conversation about the good, bad, and ugly of the Murphy legacy. There are many dense lessons to be learned and important things to celebrate, mourn, and otherwise address.

Tradesmen Building Supplies said... 9/08/2009 12:03 PM

Building the recreational trails helps transform the place. Lets hope we see more!

JRoth said... 9/11/2009 4:45 PM

Just a note on architecture:

I can't say whether or not the green "mem" got started at the convention center, but Pittsburgh has been a hotbed of green architecture since long before that. Conservation Consultants, Inc. and the Green Building Alliance were involved in efforts to green the stadiums while they were still on the drawing boards, in 1999. The CMU architecture department has been doing groundbreaking green research and experimental construction since the early 90s and before.

The Convention Center was, in some sense, "first fruits," but the infrastructure had been in place long before. It's one of the reasons that we have an array of LEED and otherwise green buildings far out of proportion to our size or amount of new construction.

mjost7 said... 9/29/2009 5:06 PM

drivers who pause before entering tunnels.

Please understand this is not unique to Pittsburgh drivers but rather applies to all human drivers. I suggest Adolph May's Book Traffic Flow Fundamentals to help understand why all humans do this.

prrmiddledivision said... 10/08/2009 5:24 PM

Your comments regarding the North Shore Connector deserve a response.

First, the Port Authority DID want to go to Oakland as well as the North Side...the project was referred to as the "Spine Line", but was cancelled due to the efforts of Allegheny County's greatest commissioner of all time, Larry Dunn. The North Side segment was revived not by the Port Authority, but at the request of the city, driven by the mayor you cite in an earlier blog, Tom Murphy.

Furthermore, you imply that the cost of the project is extravagent. What the hell do you think the per mile cost of fixed guideway transit is anyhow? Unless you just embed rails in Fifth Avenue, something little better than the existing bus lane, you are easily talking a cost of several hundred million dollars per mile given the lack of an existing right of way through the Hill District and Oakland.

Finally, aside from Oakland, the public keeps asking for light rail to the airport. Keep in mind, that if you extend the existing system to both the airport AND Oakland, you cannot stuff both new lines into the south end of the existing subway. It may have enough capacity for one additional line, but not for two more. In order to extend light rail to both destinations, the airport line must be extended from the north end of the existing subway. So what on earth do you thing the North Shore Connector represents? It is the first (and most expensive part) of any potential line to the airport. If you want to bash the Port Authority over anything, than you can do so over their failure to point out this fact AND their reluctance to develop a plan allowing commuters to use the underutilized I-279 HOV, North Shore Parking Garage, and the NSC as part of a package deal to access downtown Pittsburgh. I have repeatedly contacted the Port Authority regarding this and have received only a tepid response at best.

This series of blogs has been quite thought provoking, but I find it disappointing indeed that the author fails to see the NSC as an imaginative project. He bemoans our current leadership for the lack of imagination shown by Tom Murphy (a point with which I agree). Yet rather than doing the obvious...slapping down a set of rails on an existing bridge, the Port Authority went with the best possible engineering solution, and funded the whole thing for a local cost of less than $15 million dollars. You have to be kidding if you think they did a lousy job! Turn on your brains and think about what they accomplished.

If you are REALLY serious about bettering Pittsburgh, quit using your energy to keep whining about this project. Instead, write to your local elected officials as I have uging them to raise the funding necessary to extend the light rail rail system to Oakland and the Airport.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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