Cowan on Stoddard, 'Transformed: Reinventing Pittsburgh's Industrial Sites for a New Century, 1975-1995'

Author: 
Evan Stoddard
Reviewer: 
Aaron Cowan

Evan Stoddard. Transformed: Reinventing Pittsburgh's Industrial Sites for a New Century, 1975-1995. Pittsburgh: Harmony Street Publishers, 2016. Illustrations. 382 pp. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-9983996-0-7.

Reviewed by Aaron Cowan (Slippery Rock University) Published on H-Pennsylvania (December, 2021) Commissioned by Jeanine Mazak-Kahne (Indiana University of Pennsylvania)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53481

Evan Stoddard’s Transformed uses five redevelopment projects in the greater Pittsburgh area as case studies for understanding the complex processes by which regional brownfields were redeveloped. These include the redevelopment of Herr’s Island on the Allegheny River into the mixed residential-recreational development dubbed “Washington’s Landing”; the construction of the Pittsburgh Technology Center, along Parkway East on the former site of the LTV Corporation’s Pittsburgh Works; the clearance and transformation of the Homestead mill site into a waterfront shopping and recreational complex; and, finally, Duquesne and McKeesport, in which two former steel plant sites were converted to a variety of commercial and light industrial uses. These projects, Stoddard argues, “were central to economic recovery in their respective communities,” but, perhaps just as importantly, “they led public officials to develop more effective ways to encourage and support reuse of contaminated industrial land” (p. 245). Stoddard concludes his narrative in 1995, when the state of Pennsylvania passed several pieces of legislation, collectively known as the Land Recycling Program, which were intended to address many of the statewide challenges revealed in the process of redeveloping Pittsburgh-area brownfields.

Stoddard draws from his considerable experience in municipal governance. He served in the departments of City Planning and City Development under several Pittsburgh mayors during the 1970s and as director of Economic Development in the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) during the 1980s and early 1990s. In addition, he makes extensive use of records from the URA and the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC), newspapers, and a number of personal interviews. Each chapter opens with a helpful timeline of key events, provides a background history on the site’s development and a narrative of its redevelopment, and concludes with “general principles that the stories illustrate in hope that others can learn something from Pittsburgh’s experience” (p. xiii).

In all cases, overlapping layers of regulation, investor priorities, bureaucratic inertia, and community concerns made brownfield redevelopment a slow and halting process. Early efforts to redevelop industrial sites coincided with the “environmental moment” of the 1970s and the enactment of robust federal and state legislation that aimed to hold industrial property owners accountable for toxins and pollutants on their sites. In many cases, however, Stoddard argues that such well-intentioned regulations made redevelopment of former industrial land unattractive to potential investors, who could be saddled with the costs of cleanup even if they were not the original polluters. In addition, proposals to adapt industrial sites for other uses often met with resistance from the communities themselves. Accustomed to a world in which prosperity came from steel production, community residents frequently resisted adaptations, advocating a nostalgic vision of economic revitalization focused on bringing back the mills. In addition, most projects involved navigating local, state, and federal governmental authorities, as well as the agendas of both public and private corporations.

A consistent theme of Stoddard’s story is that there is no single formula for success that applies to every circumstance; rather, redevelopment approaches in Pittsburgh had to be customized to the particular circumstances of a site’s location and economic viability. In the case of Homestead’s waterfront, the Park Corporation cleared the former steel mill site to develop the Sandcastle waterpark and waterfront shopping complex, and public investment was limited largely to ancillary infrastructure upgrades. In areas where private investment was less immediately attractive (such as the Duquesne and McKeesport locations), the public sector played a larger leadership role. In the case of the Pittsburgh Technology Center, built on the former LTV steel site on the banks of the Monongahela River, the city’s research universities—in collaboration with the URA—were key partners. Ultimately, Stoddard concludes, his case studies “teach the importance of civic leadership, public-private partnership, resourcefulness and flexibility, and, above all, patience and persistence. Their transformation confirms that with those elements in place, success is possible” (p. 268).

Stoddard’s insights on the challenges of industrial site redevelopment are unquestionably valuable, both for historical insights and as lessons for contemporary urban economic development. That said, the manuscript would have benefited from a stronger editorial hand; at times the narrative is burdened by lengthy block quotations, sometimes running to a full page in length. Byzantine accounts of interdepartmental negotiations between various city, county, state, and federal agencies can leave the reader searching for the forest amid so many trees. The author occasionally switches to first person to describe events in which he was a participant, blurring the boundaries between the genres of historical analysis and memoir. This intimate familiarity with redevelopment process results in a text that often resembles a meticulous forensic transcription of the slow machinations of land development practices.

On the positive side, the timelines at the head of each chapter give the reader the essential points of each case study, and a refreshingly helpful feature is an appendix section titled “Notes on Selected Participants”—an alphabetized list of the primary figures in the book, along with two-three-line bios. More historical works should include this kind of reference.

Transformed has important lessons for planning and urban development practitioners and some value for scholars of postindustrial urban history as well. No one will fault this work for lacking in detail; careful readers will benefit from the gold among the dross.

Citation: Aaron Cowan. Review of Stoddard, Evan, Transformed: Reinventing Pittsburgh's Industrial Sites for a New Century, 1975-1995. H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews. December, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53481

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