Friday, May 14, 2010

Greenfields Of Braddock

In the Rust Belt, there are two types of greenfield development. One meets the conventional definition of a blank canvass. The other is a brownfield left for dead. I call it the urban frontier. I found two stories today that represent each opportunity in the Pittsburgh region.

“In this environment of high fiscal constraint, it will be much harder to obtain government support for greenfield development at a time when we have such an extraordinary debt burden to maintain and support that which is already in place,” he said, pointing out the region continues to face long-term population decline.


Yet, Sabitino sees a development opportunity that will meet the preferences of a market seeking a new suburban ideal.

“It’s clear that this is a desired alternative to Downtown Pittsburgh,” he said.

Dan Adamski, a resident of Cecil Township and regional director for the Pittsburgh office of Jones Lang LaSalle, who has represented many companies involved in exploring the Marcellus Shale for natural gas, sees immediate overflow demand from companies that can’t find space in a Southpointe development more than 95 percent occupied. Several Marcellus Shale exploration and development companies already have moved into Southpointes I and II, tapping out the amount of available space in those locations.

Cool Valley already is being described as “Southpointe III” for the way it will complement its predecessors, Adamski said.

Real estate developers south of Pittsburgh are bullish on the Marcellus Play. That reminds me of Mike Madison's crystal ball reading about the region's suburbs:

True, Paz. Peters Township (residential) has grown substantially; the retail area around the Meadows is thick with stores and hotels (and a casino!); Southpointe looks bright (but is emptier than it appears from the highway); parts of Washington PA itself have come back nicely.

But I'm skeptical that it adds up to much. Here's why: For a long time, there was a Charles Schwab office on Route 19 in Peters/McMurray. Several years ago, that Schwab office was relocated to Southpointe. Following the money, you might say. Then Schwab closed that office and consolidated its operations in Downtown Pittsburgh. Similarly, Fidelity has its one and only Pittsburgh-area "Investor Center" in Wexford. I'm applying what you might call a Willie Sutton approach to demographics: I'm going where the money is. Pittsburgh's money is flowing north.

What a difference a few months makes. I wouldn't say the recent news about Southpointe III is a loss for points north of Pittsburgh. Growth at both poles now seems not only possible, but likely. Where does that leave the donut hole in the middle?

#1 on the list is the borough of Braddock. I've visited Braddock many times, and it reminds me of Harlem about 20 years ago. So much potential, yet so much destruction. The demolition companies can't knock the vacant and abandoned homes down fast enough. The population has shrunk from 20,000 in the mid-1970s to just over 2000 residents today. The building stock is largely vacant and uninhabitable, beyond repair and should be removed. A deconstruction project is due, rather than demolition. The resources- brick, stone, wood- are irreplaceable. But why would anyone care about the neighborhoods of it most vulnerable citizens? Why would anyone care about a hydraulic arm smashing into the side of the house next to yours? Well, I do. I see the beauty of Braddock, what once was, and what is yet to be. Yes, call me sentimental, but I feel for the structures being destroyed. I know they have generations of stories to tell. Every brick placed knows a song, an intimate moment, a whispered prayer....

Braddock is emblematic of the region's other kind of greenfield. But we don't know what the economic catalyst (like shale gas) would be. Furthermore, the greenfield preparation (i.e. demolition and bulldozing) is still a work in progress. One concern is that the energy boom to the north (nuclear) and south will retard core redevelopment. There would still seem to be a zero-sum game between suburban and urban.

Continuing the energy sector theme, the urban frontier might be the right geography for clean tech and alternative fuels. Again, Braddock:

Fossil Free Fuel's Colin Huwyler and Dave Rosenstraus are transitioning their business into two, possibly three business entities: a regional biofuel machine shop, a fuel distribution center and fueling stations. ...

... "It's interesting to see the evolution of the city from the mill and the industrial era," Huwyler explains. "The skill sets we're looking for are abundant in the region: welders, machinists, fabricators. Pittsburgh is a really exciting place to be.

In terms of the region's diverse energy portfolio, focusing innovation in the core makes sense. Each part of Greater Pittsburgh has a role to play, decreasing the competition between communities. Urban pioneers are well-suited to explore new energy ideas and sustainability paradigms. The industrial brownfields are ready to be sites for clean tech manufacturing. Even the research and development for the more conventional energy sources could be done in the city.

We shouldn't lament that Westinghouse didn't move from Monroeville to a location within the City of Pittsburgh. There exist other pieces of the economic puzzle that could be placed in the core, the greenfields of Braddock.


KVA SRU MS3 said...

I wonder if the parts are aware of what's occurring throughout the whole. (For example, I know people/ businesses are be looking at Allegheny County's Comprehensive Plan and taking their cues from it, but who are they?) You have an excellent grasp on the issues within the 100+ municipalities. Thank you for continuing to share your insights.

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for the compliment. I take a very broad view of the region. That's a function of writing about Greater Pittsburgh from miles away in Colorado.

Whenever I visit Pittsburgh, I'm overwhelmed with all the disconnect. Distance makes the heart grow fonder.