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Technology helps cement image of remade Pittsburgh

| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Historic preservationists and Pittsburgh's emphasis on research and technology turned some brownfields into gold as the city remade itself after a dismal early 1980s.

In the South Side, at the Smithfield Street Bridge, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation transformed the abandoned Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad property into Station Square, largely with investment by Tribune-Review owner Dick Scaife.

The 52-acre shopping and entertainment complex, developed in 1976, “marked the first development program in Pittsburgh that utilized a riverfront for entertainment rather than industry,” said Jim Rohr, former chairman and CEO of PNC Financial Services Group.

Soon others found adaptive uses for vacant warehouses and mills — a technology center on Second Avenue and the South Side Works in Pittsburgh, and The Waterfront in Homestead and Munhall.

“My generation's children will never know how much the steel mills and railroad tracks dominated our terrain when we were growing up,” said David Caligiuri, 41, the son of the late Mayor Richard Caligiuri and a father of three.

“As a kid, I always knew I would see J&L Steel when I came around that bend from the Parkway East, or that railroad tracks and freight houses would always line the rivers,” he said. “Never could I have imagined high-technology hubs, entertainment centers and recreation areas in their place.”

State government under former Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a Pittsburgher, helped to advance the technology sector. He established a commission that recommended policies to promote technology as a factor of the economy, said Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

That led to the Ben Franklin Partnership, which established four regional technology centers at research universities in the state, including the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, Thornburgh told the Trib.

“We wanted to hasten commercialization of technology by providing early-stage financing to startups, by linking Pitt and CMU ... to the private sector,” Thornburgh said. “Pittsburgh had always been advanced technologically since Andrew Carnegie's day, so it was a natural fit for the region.”

Outgoing Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said the “marriage” of sorts between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon fostered research, entrepreneurship and technology companies.

“The only other place you see this would be in Cambridge, Mass., between Harvard and MIT,” Nordenberg said. “That combined strength made a real difference, something they could have never done on their own. Instead, they became the largest employers in the city and changed perceptions of the city.”

A 2012 Harvard Business School study on Pittsburgh noted that the National Science Foundation established a supercomputing center here in 1986; Pitt and CMU opened a center for advanced training in computational biology in 1992, the Center for Biotechnology and Bioengineering in 1993, and the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative in 1994.

That year, Pittsburgh's reputation as a center for robotics was cemented through a deal between CMU and NASA, the study said.

In February, Internet search giant Google Inc. signed a lease to expand its East End offices, where the company employs more than 300 people.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com.

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