Houses to replace Monongahela River slag dump

$243 million project to produce 713 homes, apartments on 240 acres

`New Urbanism' in Pittsburgh

March 04, 2001|By Chriss Swaney | By Chriss Swaney,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PITTSBURGH - A one-time riverside slag dump where refuse from Pittsburgh's blast furnaces formed towers as high as 20-story buildings is being turned into the city's largest residential development since World War II.

Site clearance is under way for Summerset, a residential community intended to rejuvenate a former industrial dump along the Monongahela River into a community designed according to the tenets of the New Urbanism movement, with front porches, patches of green lawn and other touches of an old-fashioned neighborhood shared by people of many economic levels.

The $243 million project is to produce 713 homes and apartments on 240 acres in a section of the city's affluent East End and the infrastructure to support them.

As in most Rust Belt cities, Pittsburgh's riverfront was once home to mills and warehouses. Now, over $300 million in public and private money has been pumped into a half-dozen projects to restore the old industrial riverfront.

Stadiums for baseball and football are under construction near the city's downtown waterfront. They join other river-based entertainment venues including Sandcastle, a water-based amusement park that opened in 1989, and several new boat clubs featuring river sailing.

Summerset is one of the city's first major residential waterfront developments, and its backers say it has attracted extensive interest. Sally A. Pfaff, Summerset's project manager, said the developers plan to conduct a lottery to pick bidders for the lots.

`People are fascinated'

"People are fascinated by the New Urbanism," Pfaff said. "The chance to have porches, garages off an alley and a real pedestrian community has given us a waiting list of 500."

The development, which is near Beechwood Boulevard, a major street, and which provides direct access to Frick Park, one of the city's oldest attractions, is designed to have the look and feel of an old-fashioned city neighborhood.

Vince Sacca, a metals broker who is on the waiting list for a house in the project, said that for him Summerset's attractions include the project's design and the views of the water and the adjacent park, as well as its proximity to upscale restaurants and recreation.

"I want to live in a home that has all the modern amenities but has a traditional feel to it," he said.

Mark Jones, the architect in charge of the Summerset project for the Memphis, Tenn., firm of Looney Ricks Kiss, said the ideas summed up in the phrase "New Urbanism" were "spreading like wildfire." Jones said that home buyers are looking for communities where they can walk to the grocery store or the neighborhood playground.

"We have purposely put the garage behind the homes and created the old neighborhood alley, so people have room to interact from their porches and front yards," he said.

The riverfront site has played several roles. At the turn of the century, the property was used as a golf course. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., whose father helped plan Central Park in New York as well as Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, wanted the site to be set aside as a park. But the golf course was eventually razed.

A desolate moonscape

Between 1922 and 1972, over 20 million tons of slag was dumped at the site by local steel producers. Looking like a desolate moonscape, the old industrial slag heap had been home to a flock of migratory birds and a few stray dogs until the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority bought the 243 acres in December 1995 from Duquesne Slag Co., which had used it to dispose of the residue of steel manufacturing, for $3.8 million in the hope of developing the property.

A combination of public and private financing is helping to clean up a polluted stream running through the development. The watershed cleanup will also add 130 acres to the 455-acre Frick Park, named for Henry Clay Frick, whose stockpiles of coke helped the industrialist Andrew Carnegie turn Pittsburgh into a major steel producer.

Prices start at $180,000

The new community will include single-family homes, attached town houses and apartments, with prices ranging from $180,000 for 2 1/2 -story cottage-style homes with two or three bedrooms to $375,000 and up for 4,500-square-foot houses with four or five bedrooms, according to Mark Schneider, president of Rubinoff Co., the lead developer.

Over 122,000 tons of soil has been dumped on the site so far as part of the process of making it suitable for housing, and by the end of the decade a total of 203,000 tons of topsoil will be needed to cover all the slag.

Several community groups had voiced concern about the amount of dust created from grading the old slag site, so air-monitoring equipment was mounted on a hill overlooking the project.

Summerset is less than 15 minutes from the medical complexes and cultural district in the city's Oakland section, 10 minutes from the upscale Squirrel Hill shopping district and a 15-minute drive by expressway to downtown.

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