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UPMC's sports medicine facility leads renewal at South Side steel site

Sunday, June 04, 2000

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They call it "Freddie's building."

Not officially, of course. The new South Side structure, hard by the Monongahela River, has a jawbreaker of a name -- the Center for Sports Medicine of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System.

 
  UPMC's new Center for Sports Medicine facility on the South Side includes a sports performance complex, an indoor practice facility. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

But unofficially, it's known for its most famous occupant, Dr. Freddie Fu, a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon and longtime guru of sports medicine at UPMC.

And when the sports medicine facility opens in September, it will be a place for tending and mending the knees, shoulders, muscles, skulls and even the minds of athletes from high schools, colleges -- including the Pitt Panthers -- and the pros, including the Steelers.

"We want to have the most comprehensive sports medicine and performance clinic in the world," Fu said last week. And, by car or bicycle, "it will be only five minutes from Oakland."

Fu, who rides his bike 100 miles or more per week in good weather, plans to move his sports medicine operations to the South Side from his cramped quarters at Baum Boulevard and Craig Street in Oakland, where he opened his clinic in 1989.

It will contain offices for sports nutrition, sports psychology, physical therapy equipment, a whirlpool for "hydrotherapy," two X-ray rooms and a room for magnetic resonance imaging, a type of X-ray that shows damage to soft tissues such as ligaments, tendons and cartilage.

The MRI room had to be encased in five layers of steel plate, plus a sixth layer of copper, because of how close CSX railroad tracks are to the building.

Without sufficient steel shielding, the trains passing nearby could affect the accuracy of the MRI readings, said John West, project manager for Mascaro Construction Co., which is doing the construction for UPMC.

There also will be facilities for helping athletes recover from concussions and for neuromuscular research, studying issues such as why young football players are getting more shoulder injuries, or why female athletes are four times more likely to injure their anterior cruciate ligament, the main stabilizing ligament for the knee.

And golfers take note. The new clinic will also do "motion analysis" of a golfer's swing and recommend ways to improve his mechanics and performance, as well as to prevent injuries.

Patience pays off

"I have been patient in trying to get a bigger facility," Fu said. "We persevered and were able to convince the administration, the Pitt Athletic Department and the Steelers that this is a good thing to do all together."

Another big advantage of the new building compared with the Baum Boulevard location is more parking for patients, Fu said. The center handles about 60,000 patients a year, including athletes from 39 high schools and eight colleges, along with the Steelers, Panthers, Penguins, the Pittsburgh Ballet and runners from the Pittsburgh Marathon.

But "Freddie's building" isn't the only item of interest rising along the South Side riverfront, land that for most of the 20th century -- until the late 1980s -- was home to a sprawling, smoke-spewing Jones & Laughlin (later LTV) steel plant.

The new sports medicine building is only one of the three structures that will comprise the new $30 million UPMC Sports Performance Complex, with some offices opening as soon as July.

The Steelers and the Pitt Panthers will rent space from UPMC for new training and administrative offices, as well as four grass practice fields and a building housing an indoor practice field.

"It'll be great," Steelers President Dan Rooney said. The grass practice fields, each 80 yards long, are squeezed in between the railroad tracks and the river. The fields lie just a few steps outside the door to the training offices of Pitt and the Steelers.

"The players will be really happy about it," said Rooney, who plans to move into the new training building when the Steelers return from a preseason game in Mexico City Aug. 19. "The new building will give us a more functional facility, with the fields right outside."

The long, narrow site is a tricky one. On the southern border lies heavily traveled East Carson Street. Not far to the north lies an active CSX rail line, one of the busiest in the East, with more than 60 trains per day traveling by, said Mascaro's West. Then comes the sports complex, with the river trail just to the north and then the river itself.

Enough fill was brought in to raise, by nine feet, the level of the land where the practice fields are, in order to keep them out of the flood plain.

The UPMC sports complex, which has kept more than 200 construction workers busy, is just one of several major construction projects on the 130 acres of former steel mill property stretching eastward on the narrow stretch of land starting at 25th Street and lying between East Carson Street and the Mon.

Another high-profile building will be the new regional headquarters of the FBI, which is moving its operations from Downtown. Oxford Development Co. expects to begin construction on that four-story, $18 million structure this fall.

Another building, nearly completed on East Carson, is the new headquarters for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Its former building on the North Shore had to be razed to make room for PNC Park, the Pirates' new stadium that will open in April.

The site also contains other new or planned buildings, including a UPMC warehouse and medical equipment distribution center across East Carson from the Frank Fuhrer beer warehouse. Qualex, a photo processing firm, also is moving to the site from its current location in the Strip District.

Set to open June 19 is the old "hot metal" bridge across the Mon, which once connected two sections of the steel mill that lay on opposite banks of the river. The bridge has been retrofitted to handle cars, one lane in each direction. It will create a new entrance to the burgeoning South Side.

Also planned for the old LTV mill site -- now called the South Side Works -- are sections for commercial activity, including stores, restaurants and possibly new movie theaters, as well as new residences bordering 25th Street.

The stores and restaurants are to be created between 26th and 29th streets by the Soffer Organization of Pittsburgh, while the housing is to be done by Continental Communities of Columbus, Ohio.

The centerpiece

But the most notable new structures on the site are the three that make up the UPMC Sports Performance Complex.

Like the Freddie Fu medical building, the new indoor practice field and the building housing the Steelers/Panthers football offices and training rooms are now about 85 percent complete.

The project was designed by L.D. Astorino & Associates, and Mascaro Construction is building it. Construction began in June 1999. The UPMC project is one of several major construction projects Mascaro is currently doing, including the new Steelers stadium on the North Side, the renovations to the old county jail Downtown and a $400 million expansion project at the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority.

Pitt football officials will move their training facilities to the new sports complex from the old Pitt Stadium, now demolished.

"Our coaches are like kids at Christmas when they come over here. It's like Shangri-La," said Pitt Athletic Department spokesman E. J. Borghetti.

Pitt footballers used the new grass fields for a few practices last fall, as well as all their spring practices this year.

"The players remarked how much better their knees and joints felt when they practiced on the grass compared to the rock-hard artificial surface" of the old Pitt Stadium, Borghetti said.

He said the new training facility, as well as the new Steelers football stadium on the North Shore, where Pitt will play beginning in August 2001, is already helping Pitt recruit better athletes.

"It's a godsend for our program," Borghetti said, citing the decision of a much-sought-after fullback, Dustin Picciotti from suburban Philadelphia, to come to Pitt over 36 other colleges that had offered him full scholarships.

He and Tony Detre, UPMC's associate vice president of facilities and construction, said Pitt and Steelers officials researched pro football facilities in Cleveland, Cincinnati and St. Louis -- plus college programs at such top football schools as Tennessee, Ohio State and Nebraska -- in order to get ideas of what to include in the training and medical facilities.

Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson was "the mastermind" behind the new training facilities, since he'd worked at those three colleges and knew what cutting-edge equipment a training room should have, said Marc Boehm, Pitt's executive associate athletic director.

Paying the bills

The $30 million cost of the complex is coming from UPMC, Detre said. It includes a $6 million loan to the city for the cost of building internal roads and a trail along the Mon riverfront, as desired by Mayor Murphy and South Side residents. The trail will be divided into two parts, a section with asphalt pavement for biking and rollerblading, and a crushed limestone section for walking or jogging.

The city will repay the loan through annual property tax abatements for UPMC.

While the sports complex won't be taxable, Detre said, UPMC will make annual payments to the city in lieu of taxes at the fair-market value of the land. Detre said the Steelers and Panthers would rent space in the complex from UPMC but declined to give financial details.

Carey Harris, director of the South Side Local Development Corp., an influential neighborhood group, said she was glad about the payments in lieu of taxes, because residents wanted the old steel site rebuilt with tax-producing buildings or other ways for the city to get additional revenues from the site.

"Reuse of the old steel mill was intended to be for economic development," she said. "We wanted to make sure it generated revenue for the three taxing bodies." The new office buildings, stores, restaurants and residences to be built on other sections of the site will be taxable.

Another thing Harris likes about the UPMC sports complex is that South Side residents will get a chance to use the UPMC indoor practice facility.

"We have a community access agreement that makes the indoor field available to the community 24 times a year for structured activities," such as baseball and soccer clinics, she said.

She's also glad that UPMC has agreed to provide a one-time grant of $70,000 for South Siders to use in neighborhood recreation programs.

She said the development now under way is consistent with a master plan the city and South Side residents had done for the old LTV site five years ago.

"A driving principle [of that plan] is that this site be integrated into the neighborhood," she said. "We want the new development to be pedestrian-friendly, meaning you can walk onto the site and feel welcomed, with sidewalks and a street grid."

Some South Side residents have been dismayed that the commercial and residential portions of the site aren't under construction.

Soffer officials have pledged to build a street, Marina Boulevard, stretching from East Carson to the river, and they are hoping for future development that would include 50 restaurants, stores and possibly an Angelika Film Center, a cinema with eight or 12 screens that shows "niche" films by independent and foreign producers. There also may be a hotel built where Marina Boulevard hits the river.

Officials of the Soffer and Continental companies haven't said exactly when their developments are to get under way but said progress was being made.

Harris of the Local Development group said residents didn't want "big box" retail on the site, the kind of large stores that are being built a few miles down the river in the development called The Waterfront in Homestead and West Homestead.



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