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Pittsburgh’s industrial past fuels tech-focused future

New developments are poised to expand the ‘Burgh’s sizable tech boom; will it be a boon for the entire city?

Aerial photo of the Point, a state park at the edge of downtown, at the confluence of the city’s three rivers, the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio
Bridgett Kay Winters/Riverlife

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On a 178-acre section of riverfront a few miles south of downtown Pittsburgh, a former steel mill is being reborn into mixed-use development heavy on tech offices and incubation spaces for entrepreneurs. It’s a familiar pattern for the city, but given that Almono—a contraction of Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio, the names of the three intersecting rivers that helped shape the city—is the largest undeveloped piece of land in Pittsburgh, the impact could be an order of magnitude bigger than what’s come before it.

For decades, the site used to ring with the sounds of steelworkers and shipbuilders. Now, its supporters hope, it’ll hum with the sound of servers, tech workers, and the self-driving cars that ridehailing giant Uber has started testing earlier this year at a new facility on site.

“We think it has the potential to be the largest-impact project the city has seen in the last 50 years,” says Donald F. Smith, Jr., president of the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC), a public-private partnership that’s shepherding what could be a multi-billion dollar development that carves a new neighborhood out of the vast brownfield site on the city’s southeast side, near the Hazelwood neighborhood.

Aerial rendering of the Almono site
Aerial rendering of the Almono site, a 178-acre development southeast of downtown Pittsburgh

Much like the growing local tech scene that’s helped fuel its creation, Almono is a project years in the making, in the works since 2002. With roads and utilities laid down earlier this year, the development of new offices, homes, and tech spaces will start this spring, as numerous projects and renovations kickoff or break ground. A 260,000 square-foot former steel mill, the last remnant of the plant, will be remade into Mill 19, a research and development center that offers a little industrial grit amid its tailored workspaces.

Almono offers an object lesson on how a city historically known as a blue collar mill town, one that was devastated when industry left, can bounce back by focusing on intellectual capital, universities, technology, and entrepreneurship.

“Pittsburgh is an overnight sensation that took 35 years to grow,” says Smith. “A lot of the things bearing fruit now were planted all the way back in the ‘80s, when the steel industry declined, and the city was hit arguably harder than any city in the country.”

A rendering of the proposed Mill 19 tech hub at the Almono site
A rendering of the proposed Mill 19 tech hub at the Almono site

The Pennsylvania city’s rebirth as a center of technology and high-tech manufacturing still seems shocking to those who incorrectly picture the city as some Rust Belt casualty. With the intellectual capital of top-flight schools such as Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh attracting international talent, and companies such as Apple, Google, and Uber setting up offices, the city has been reborn over the last decade.

Neighborhoods such as the East End and the Strip District, home to Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, have emerged as tech hubs, but this is only the beginning. Tech employment in the city jumped 19 percent from 2010 to 2013, and the industry is predicted to employ more than 200,000 people by 2020.

One of Uber’s self-driving cars being tested in Pittsburgh.
One of Uber’s self-driving cars being tested in Pittsburgh. The company’s decision to locate a testing site in the city provided a big boost to the local tech scene.

Large-scale riverfront developments have transformed former industrial sites, and the bulkheads that used to welcome barge traffic, into valuable parks and real estate.

“Rivers should be the front doors of the city,” says Stephan Bontrager, Director of Communications for Riverlife Pittsburgh, a group that’s helped steer redevelopment along the city’s waterfront, including 15 miles of new riverfront parks. “Companies here now look at the river as part of their campus. Once American Eagle,” which moved its headquarters to the South Side along the Monongahela River in 2007, “and Uber relocated onto the waterfront, that sent a signal, and suddenly everyone’s antennae goes up.”

The groundwork for today’s tech boom was laid decades ago, when dire financial straits in the ‘80s inspired city leaders to start building upon the universities as pillars of strength. A number of state and local organizations, such as the Pittsburgh Technology Council and the Benjamin Franklin Technology Council, helped connect university researchers with entrepreneurs and bring research breakthroughs to market.

Lenore Blum, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon, helped found Project Olympus, a program that helped connect the university’s scientists and researchers with funders and founders, in 2007. Scores of companies, including the popular language app Duolingo, came out of these kinds of collaborations.

“The idea was to create an incubation space on campus, one that encouraged our students and faculty to stay and develop their ideas here,” she says. “It really bridged the business and research communities.”

Reed McManigle, who works at Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation, says the focus on innovation has paid steep dividends. He remembers arriving in Pittsburgh in the mid-1980s and feeling like “the entire city was for sale.” Thirty years later, things are a little different.

“There are so many startups and accelerators, as well as an active angel investor community, that we now have a virtuous cycle that puts Pittsburgh on the map,” he says. “We now have investors from the coast asking, ‘What do you have, what’s exciting?’”

The pace of development over the last decade has turned the city’s aging stock of warehouses and industrial spaces into must-have venues for startups and new companies, jacking up commercials rents and creating a wave of apartment developments. Nathan Martin, founder of Deeplocal, a Pittsburgh design studio that builds installations for advertising clients, has seen his company’s story mirror the tech scene’s rise.

Martin attended and taught at Carnegie Mellon, and in 2006, he spun out Deeplocal from the university’s Studio for Creative Inquiry, a multi-disciplinary research lab. The company initially moved into a $500-a-month space in East Liberty they shared with a hip-hop recording studio (“It did make investors a little nervous,” Martin says.) Now the neighborhood, home to a variety of incubators and tech startups, and companies such as Duolingo, is too expensive, which forced Deeplocal to move offices to the Strip District. Now, with a growing staff and fabrication lab, the company will need to move again, likely to the outskirts of the city.

“This city has been great for tech for a few reasons,” he says. “The university is really significant—so much tech has come out of Carnegie Mellon’s focus on robotics, such as automotive innovations and image processing. And it’s really affordable.”

Martin welcomes the growth and development in the tech world, but has a slightly less sanguine take on the residential development occurring in the city’s hotter neighborhoods. Tech-forward development, for all its claims to be a revitalizing force for the new economy, continues to stoke fears of inequality and affordability.

“There’s been a huge race to build high-end residential, and we’ve saturated the market,” he says. “Pittsburgh has so many awesome old buildings, and now you’re seeing some of them being torn down because it’s cheaper to build a crappy, ugly new building. You saw this in Dwell ten years ago, and now you’re going to do a shittier version of it?”

Many are worried about how new arrivals are challenging the idea of equitable development, and challenging the city’s reputation for affordability.

“The Strip District and Lawrenceville, which is further northeast, have already blown up,” says Smith. “If you had bought lots of Strip District real estate a decade ago, your heirs could live off the proceeds for generations.”

Brian Conway, the city design editor for Next Pittsburgh, believes that as a whole, people are happy Pittsburgh is developing this reputation as an enlightened 21st century city. But they are waiting to see what that means for the everyday Pittsburgh resident.

“People moving in from Austin, Cambridge, and San Francisco don’t mind dropping $300,000 on a new home or condo,” he says. “That’s a steal to them, while we get a little jaded.”

A rendering of BIG’s proposed Lower Hill masterplan
A rendering of BIG’s proposed Lower Hill masterplan

Other transformative projects are also in the pipeline. BIG, the firm led by starchitect Bjarke Ingels, recently created a proposed masterplan for the Lower Hill District, a historic African-American neighborhood. Located to the east of Downtown and south of the Strip District, the centralized area has been left out of much of the last few decade’s tech boom. The 28-acre scheme—a mix of steep, meandering walking paths, landscaping, and angular, hexagonal buildings—seeks to reconnect the neighborhood to downtown.

“We wanted to create an urban neighborhood where you can live and work within walking distance,” says Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner at BIG who helped lead the design effort. “Our hope is that this is viewed by everyone in the city as a way to bring more investment to the city center.”

Pittsburgh’s focus on research and connecting with universities isn’t unique, but the city has arguably done it better than most. As high-tech manufacturing continues to develop, the area’s machine shops and hardware expertise can play a big role in supporting new businesses, says Martin, and helping it continue to thrive.

A perfect example of that is AlphaLab Gear, a new accelerator space for hardware startups. According to Ilana Diamond, the lab’s managing director, the surplus of traditional manufacturing facilities has made it easy for startups to ramp up production.

“These old-school companies are looking to keep their pipelines busy,” she says. “They’re thrilled to death to see all these new companies begin here, and are more than willing to partner with these startups.”

The reality of rising rent and a hunger for more tech space informed the design of Almono. Amid the three million square feet of new buildings and 2,500 residential units, there are plenty of spots that Smith refers to as “landing party space,” ideal homes for new startups and companies to establish themselves. And since it’s not far from the universities, it’s the ideal space for spinoffs to take root.

Almono, as well as other tech-focused developments, offer a great opportunity for advancement; but will it also be a catalyst for gentrification? Smith cited two rising neighborhoods, Larimer and Homewood, on the opposite side of town, as potential beneficiaries as the industry continues to expand.

“Housing has always been cheap here, so any raise in rent has taken people by surprise, since there hasn’t been much of that in the last few decades,” says Smith. “Pittsburgh is coming late to the party in figuring out the pressures that come with growth and development.”