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The evolution of Herrs Island

Sunday, September 23, 2001

From livestock waystation to island community

1930s and 1940s

Herrs Island is the site of rendering plants and a way station for livestock shipped by train from Chicago to the East Coast. Federal law prohibits cattle and pigs from traveling more than 36 hours without food, rest and water. Weakened animals are culled and sent to rendering plants on the island and nearby Spring Garden. By the early 1950s, fast freights can make the trip in the prescribed time and Herrs Island begins its decline.


Pittsburgh's Parks Department recommends acquiring the 42-acre island and turning it into a recreational site like Tivoli in Copenhagen or Skansen in Stockholm.


The Pennsylvania Railroad begins closing stockyards that had operated on Herrs Island since 1903. All that remains from the era of cattle are two packing houses -- Armour & Co. and Western Packers, which later were removed when the island was redeveloped.


The state of Pennsylvania announces a plan to buy the island as a first step in establishing a string of island parks in the lower Allegheny. A few months later, Mayor Pete Flaherty asks the Regional Industrial Development Corp. to study the feasibility of using the island as an industrial park, with a small recreational area. Plans call for expanding the island to 70 acres by filling the back channel of the Allegheny River. That expansion never occurs.


The city Urban Redevelopment Authority buys a half-acre from Herrs Island Packing Co. for $650,000 with hopes that it can launch a redevelopment project. The city at this point owns seven of the island's 42 acres. The rest is owned by the Penn Central Railroad, a rendering plant and a scrap yard.


Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri announces that the city has received $2.27 million from the U.S. Commerce Department and $500,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the Herrs Island Industrial Park, which is supposed to be built at an estimated cost of $6 million.


Removing the final obstacle to redevelopment, the state agrees to buy 2.8 acres owned by Inland Products Inc., a company that processes animal fats and bones into tallow and emits foul odors. The plant is required to move off the island by 1984.


City Council adopts a redevelopment plan for Herrs Island.


Herrs Island gets an additional name, Washington's Landing, in honor of a historic visit to a sandbar on the Allegheny River by George Washington. The city approves a contract allowing the North Side Civic Development Council to market the island as a mixed-use site for light manufacturing, research and office facilities and housing. The Howard Heinz Endowment lends $500,000 to the civic council, which teams with the Rubinoff Co. to build a $3 million office and technology center on the island. The Buncher Co., which owns the southwest end of the island, objects to the housing development.


Months after a gala groundbreaking, redevelopment is halted by the discovery of high levels of hydrocarbons and biphenyls, including PCBs, on a three-acre portion of the island still owned by the Buncher Co.


The Urban Redevelopment Authority and state Department of Environmental Resources agree to encapsulate and bury the contaminants at the eastern tip of the island, under the present location of tennis courts. The cleanup allows the URA to conclude an agreement to buy the property from the Buncher Co.


Three Rivers Rowing Association opens its first boathouse at Washington's Landing at a cost of $750,000. It is built for club rowers and crews of local college teams.


Construction is completed on a $2.4 million office-research building. A second 28,000-square-foot building would be built the following year. The city URA completes construction of streets, a public park and river trails.


URA holds a ribbon-cutting marking the official opening of the renewed island, which has a public park with tennis courts, a marina for luxury boats and a dry-dock storage building.


Sales agreements are signed on eight townhouses and deposits accepted on four other units. The houses, a joint venture of the Rubinoff Co. and Montgomery & Rust Inc., are priced at $139,500 to $250,000, but the prices escalate with subsequent development.


The final office building is built on the island.


The last of 88 homes is sold.

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