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Redeveloping brownfields of all sizes

Nonprofit works to transform abandoned industrial sites into new centers of activity

Friday, December 13, 2002

By Joyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Deborah Lange surveys the old industrial sites in the Beaver County communities of Ambridge and Harmony and envisions them humming with activity. What she hopes will drive the redevelopment is not limited to a new factory but a combination including stores, high-tech businesses and some existing operations.

Deborah Lange walks through the debris of a former industrial site in Ambridge, which her Brownfield Center is studying for potential redevelopment. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

As executive director of the Brownfields Center at Carnegie Mellon University, Lange's job is to help figure out how to revitalize these and other idled or vacated industrial properties. The 6-year-old venture relies on experts from local universities, government and the private sector.

But its studies aren't limited to the industrial river valleys around Pittsburgh. For instance, the center has links with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to provide those countries with expertise in how to reuse their former steel and industrial plants. And it has hosted other international groups including a delegation from Lebanon that was in Pittsburgh in October to tap the center for ideas on how to redevelop 445 acres of land in Beirut along the Mediterranean Sea.

Lange, who holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Penn State and master's and doctoral degrees in civil and environmental engineering from CMU, said she fell into her job because she "happened to be at the table" when discussions were going on to create the Brownfields Center.

The center is the "only one of our type dedicated exclusively to brownfields, not urban planning or neighborhoods," said Lange, 44.

The Plum native worked for U.S. Steel Corp. in environmental research while completing her master's work at CMU.

She left the steel giant in 1984, spent a year and a half at IT Group, then began a decade-long stint with engineering consulting firm Paul Rizzo and Associates. She left the corporate sector in 1996 to focus exclusively on her Ph.D. and became intrigued with the issue of redeveloping shuttered manufacturing sites. As part of her academic research, she became involved with some of the first projects undertaken by the Brownfields Center and was soon tapped to become its full-time director.

Created as a collaboration between CMU and the University of Pittsburgh, the center is funded mainly by grants from public and nonprofit groups including the National Science Foundation, Heinz Endowments, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Commerce Department's Trade and Development Agency, Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Lange credits Joel Tarr, a professor in CMU's history department, with recognizing that Pittsburgh had a rich opportunity to redevelop its many brownfields and that a number of people at CMU and Pitt "were working on brownfields projects but were not communicating or sharing" their findings.

"His vision was to bring disparate fields together to study brownfields at a higher, interdisciplinary level." The center's mission, Lange said, is a combination of research, education and outreach about brownfields.

Ambridge is just one example of the outreach effort. In that town, where steelmaker American Bridge once employed 4,500, "We're looking at not a single brownfield but the industrial corridor that straddles Ambridge to Harmony." After those towns approached the Brownfields Center for help, the center responded by bringing in outside experts to offer suggestions on how to raise local community awareness "and jump-start local action," Lange said.

Along that Ambridge-Harmony stretch, she said: "There are a number of small operations that supported industry. Some are abandoned; some active. That's the challenge in future development: to include existing businesses and integrate the land use plan."

In November 2001, the center held a workshop in Ambridge and as a result of its success, the center landed grants of $200,000 from the EPA and $30,000 from the state Department of Economic and Community Development to further study options for Ambridge-Harmony.

When the Lebanese group visited Pittsburgh, it toured the South Side Works, site of a former LTV Steel plant that's now a commercial center along the Monongahela River and that recently won a national award for brownfield redevelopment.

The 123-acre South Side Works is just one of a handful of former brownfields -- others include the Waterfront in Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall; Washington's Landing on Herrs Island along the Allegheny River; and the housing development Summerset at Frick Park on top of an old slag heap in Squirrel Hill -- that should put Pittsburgh on the map because of effective reuse of these sites, said Lange.

She doesn't have an exact figure of how many brownfields are ripe for redevelopment. "But I can say hundreds because brownfields can range from the large steel plants to gas stations and dry cleaners." To fulfill its educational mission, the center offers a graduate level course at CMU that assigns students hands-on projects in the community. Last spring, a class studied redevelopment issues in the Hill District with the Macedonia Development Corp.

The center also participated in a program for girls in city schools who are considering careers in engineering. Titled "Brownfield Makeover," the program included Lange telling the students to study a map of an old, abandoned steel plant and asking them how they would redevelop it if they were members of the local parent-teacher organization or chamber of commerce.

"Brownfields are a nice teaching tool ... to help them see engineering in context," she said.

Since her job requires lots of travel, from workshops in Central Europe to conferences at various sites in the United States, Lange said she relied on her "very understanding husband" to help juggle the demands of three children.

"I've been traveling since they were little, so they've grown up very independent," Lange said of her college-age daughter and two sons in high school.

When she's not attending her sons' many sports events or taking in football games at Penn State, where her daughter is a freshman, Lange likes to take solo drives on her Harley Davidson motorcycle, the gift she bought herself when she finished her Ph.D. last year.

"That is my escape."

Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.

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