Alcoa's '29' getting new life in New Kensington
By Liz Hayes
Published: Sunday, March 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Officials hope Alcoa, the company that helped found New Kensington, will play a role in forging the city's future.
More specifically, they want the research laboratories that Alcoa built, then vacated, off Freeport and Edgewood roads to be one of the keys to attracting new business and industry to the city.
For the past year, developer Steve Kubrick has been renovating the three main lab buildings with plans to lease portions to interested businesses.
By summer, he hopes to have the buildings ready to host an open house for prospective tenants.
“It's hard for people to visualize what this major space can be,” Kubrick said recently as he led a tour through Building 29, the original lab building whose iconic façade has faced Freeport Road for 84 years.
But Kubrick has a clear vision for returning the empty space to its former glory.
Kubrick said he entered a land contract with Moret Construction last spring to buy the 17-acre property for $950,000. Moret bought the land from Alcoa in 2003 for $400,000, according to county deed records.
Kubrick said it will take millions to fully renovate the buildings, whose combined 200,000 square feet of space were vandalized heavily over the years and need some modernization.
He declined to put a firm price tag on renovations, noting the cost will depend on the amount of work that tenants require.
If a manufacturer or researcher requests a clean-room environment — space free of dust and other pollutants that is used in semiconductor and biotechnology manufacturing — the cost would be significantly higher.
Less work and money will be needed if a prospective tenant requires only a shell of space for offices or classrooms.
Kubrick said he — and the buildings — are willing and able to provide whatever type of environment is needed.
Kubrick and Kim McAfoose, executive director of the city's redevelopment authority, said the variety of space available at the Alcoa Research Labs is part of the property's appeal.
The wood-paneled executive offices that overlook the front lawn could be offices again. Many window-filled rooms would be appropriate as classrooms.
Two of the buildings contain space with ceilings more than 40 feet high that would accommodate manufacturing.
“This setting, it's only limited by your imagination,” McAfoose said.
Kubrick imagines the labs acting as a business incubator. Entrepreneurs could start their projects inside his buildings, then move to some of the city's vacant lots downtown when they're ready to expand.
Mayor Tom Guzzo said the project is looking for opportunities to partner with Penn State, Westmoreland County Community College and other educational facilities to offer training programs at the site.
Guzzo noted a popular WCCC program that offered training in the Marcellus shale natural gas industry as one that would work well at the former Alcoa site.
McAfoose said the redevelopment authority is working with Penn State New Kensington marketing students to survey businesses to find out what types of space and amenities would be attractive.
The authority will assist Kubrick in marketing the buildings so he can concentrate on renovations, she said.
The city will be involved largely as a grant recipient, Guzzo said, and is in line to receive $375,000 in a state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant that will be funneled to infrastructure improvements at the site.
Blending old with new
Guzzo said he was surprised to learn that many prospective tenants don't want the old buildings stripped of their features — the historic feel is part of the draw.
“We can meld future technology with the past,” he said.
Kubrick said he will retain as much of the buildings' original look as possible, especially in Building 29, named for the year it was built.
He's cleared brush outside, exposing decorative aluminum elements such as the frieze, cornices and windows.
The stately sycamores that shade the front lawn have been pruned.
Kubrick hopes to add a reflecting pond leading up to the front entrance, which still features heavy aluminum grates over the front doors.
The marble lobby behind those doors is largely intact, but the rest of the interior was ravaged by vandals.
Terra-cotta floor tiles, light fixtures and windows were smashed. Bullets left holes in the wooden door of a former office.
Most of the aluminum, from the window frames to the stair banisters, was either stolen or damaged when it couldn't be easily removed.
Fires were set inside the building, likely to melt the coating off wiring so it could be sold for scrap, Kubrick said. Truckloads of debris were left behind.
But most of the damage is skin-deep, Kubrick said. The floor tiles, windows and lights are being replaced, the walls repainted, the building rewired.
“It's solid,” Kubrick said of the 16-inch-thick concrete floors and walls. “You couldn't afford to build like this today.”
Kubrick also is repairing Building 44 and Building 51, named for the years in which they were built.
A few smaller structures on the property likely will be razed.
Impact on neighborhood
McAfoose noted Kubrick has security at the site to prevent vandals from undoing his work. She said Kubrick and the city are conscious that the redevelopment will be occurring in a residential neighborhood that sprang up around the original labs.
Sharon Resek, who lives nearby on Edgewood Road, said she's glad the property is being cleaned up. Over the years, she said, neighbors have worried about trespassers and vandals.
“We would like to see the property become relevant again,” said Resek, a real-estate agent and former coordinator of the city's now-defunct Weed and Seed revitalization program. “To have colleges come in and research businesses in there would be wonderful.”
Her main concern would be how additional traffic would impact the surrounding residential streets.
“Knowing Steve Kubrick, I feel he also wants to have the right tenants,” Resek said. “We all live here and love New Kensington and we want to see it thrive.”
Kubrick said he has no firm time frame for bringing in tenants, but is fielding inquiries and providing tours. He said space could be readied in as little as 30 to 60 days.
“We're very excited about this,” Guzzo said. “It's going to happen.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or email@example.com.
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