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Carrie Furnace site can help local communities

| Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011

Carrie Furnace's 165 acres may bolster the future for a dozen communities.

There may be new homes, office buildings, light industry and highway links, as well as a section set aside to mark its steelmaking history. All that will depend on how much private investment Carrie Furnace can draw and how much taxpayer support it gets amid tightening budgets in Harrisburg and Washington.

"It is very important to invest heavily in the communities that surround the Carrie Furnace site," Allegheny County director of economic development Dennis Davin said last week. "It is not going to be walled off from these communities. It is going to be a part of these communities."

Davin said it is something he and retiring county Executive Dan Onorato believed from the start of redevelopment of this former U.S. Steel millsite along both sides of the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh's Swisshelm Park neighborhood to the Rankin Bridge. "If we continue to put the public investment into the communities while we're doing the remediation and infrastructure work," Davin said, "the communities can benefit."

Carrie Furnace reaches into Pittsburgh, Swissvale, Rankin, Munhall and Whitaker and borders on Braddock. Any action may affect Woodland Hills, West Mifflin Area, Steel Valley and Pittsburgh school districts. While part of the former U.S. Steel property is included in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area managed by Homestead-based Steel Industry Heritage Corp., the county owns most of the development.

It will be multi-use but not meant to rival the adjacent Waterfront on the former U.S. Steel's Homestead District Works property. "We don't think the market can justify another Waterfront there," Davin said.

The rest of the planning "is up in the air" but the county development director has a vision of light industrial and office buildings on that acreage. Retail does not appear to be in the mix. Most of the infrastructure work is done inside the acreage, including sewer updates. Both the county and SIHC are working on environmental assessments.

"We're meeting and working on environmentals with the state Department of Environmental Protection," SIHC president August R. Carlino said.

SIHC manages the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, which last July acquired rights to Carrie blast furnaces No. 6 and 7 and some surrounding acreage.

Once SIHC gets environmental clearance, Carlino said, "and we get final signoff and absent any major issues ... we'll be prepared to move forward with stabilization of the Blowing Engine House roof." Carlino expects work to begin on a new roof in the spring or early summer.

The county also is focused on two other pieces of infrastructure: Another flyover ramp, from the Rankin end of the Rankin Bridge, and a hot metal bridge across the Monongahela.

"That hot metal bridge goes into Munhall," said that borough's Mayor Raymond Bodnar. "It would lead right to Waterfront Drive, so it would parallel the Rankin Bridge."

Waterfront Drive links up with Route 837 over a flyover ramp whose expansion has been championed by the mayor for a decade.

"Every time I see Mayor Bodnar he tells me about that in no uncertain terms," Davin said. "He really sees a need and we see a need."

The county director expects a link to the Munhall flyover ramp will be part of the overall construction and rehabilitation of the hot metal bridge, something that could happen after a traffic study expected within 18 months.

First, however, the county will move with its proposal for a Rankin flyover ramp.

"It is critical for us to have another access point into the site, by means of a flyover," Davin said. "We have that designed already. This is a construction-ready project."

Davin said "a number of developers" have said they want to see a flyover from the Rankin Bridge.

"That is the one project we have to have," Davin said. "Then we think we can get a lot of good strong responses to a request for proposals." The county is talking to its congressional delegation in Washington, but was unable to get a share of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants handed out as part of President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funding.

A month before Gov. Tom Corbett makes his first budget address to the General Assembly, Davin is hopeful support will come from Harrisburg. "This administration is all about jobs," Davin said. "This is the kind of investment that creates jobs."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell provided Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grants that included $6 million in August 2004 for brownfield redevelopment and $5 million in December for the hot metal bridge. Tax Increment Financing that helped build the Waterfront may be employed in Carrie Furnace, but it would be a different sort of TIF. "A TIF for entertainment, retail, those generate a lot more tax revenue than for residential and light industry," Davin said. He said "a couple of speculative TIFs" have been done in the Pittsburgh International Airport corridor "and we are probably going to do a few more."

An organization watching out for RFPs is West-to-West Coalition, best known for brownfield reclamation from West Homestead to West Elizabeth. "We're looking to assist in the Carrie Furnace site," West-to-West chairman George Matta II said.

"West-to-West Coalition has contributed $135,000 to the current site assessment," coalition executive director Steve Pholar said. "We continue to believe that the Carrie Furnace site could be a showcase site in terms of new housing development and a planned urban site." "There is a potential there to build townhouses and patio-style homes," Matta said.

Pholar said West-to-West "stands ready to coordinate with a development partnership presenting a sequential plan of renewal." There also is the effort to promote the site's history by the SIHC, based in the Bost Building in Homestead.

Carlino spent last week in Washington, D.C., talking to staffs in the offices of U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, as well as House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over national heritage areas.

Doyle introduced a bill last summer to designate a Steel Industry National Historic Site in Allegheny County that includes Carrie Furnace. It died along with a companion Senate bill.

"It has to start all over again," Carlino said. "Doyle's office is looking at reintroducing the bill."

Casey co-sponsored the companion bill introduced by then-U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Philadelphia.

"Since (Specter) is no longer a senator, we've asked Sen. Casey's office to consider introducing the bill," Carlino said.

While Carrie Furnace extends into Munhall and Whitaker, there isn't much to develop on that side of the river. Davin hopes "to maximize as much activity as possible" between the railroad tracks and the river. Housing there is unlikely.

Still, Davin said, the county was able with that purchase to bridge a gap in the Great Allegheny Passage between Duquesne and the Waterfront, including construction of a new pedestrian bridge. "A part of what we are doing now is taking down two other pedestrian bridges across the tracks," he said.

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