State officials are eager to clean up a former state prison along the Ohio River in Pittsburgh and are working to advance laws that would revive the deadlocked process.
“It takes so long to achieve something,” said State Senator Wayne Fontana, whose district also includes the site of the former Pittsburgh State Correctional Facility. “With that we should be on the right track.”
In 2017, Governor Tom Wolf decided to mothball SCI-Pittsburgh. The state faced a major budget squeeze, and the government estimated that closing the 135-year-old prison would save $ 80 million.
At that time, more than 200 people worked in the facility. But officials said it was the only prison site that was “likely to be quickly recycled” because of its riverside location and what officials called 24 acres of “prime real estate”. Governor, Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald are all committed to finding a way to repurpose the site, create jobs and put it back on tax records.
State Representative Jake Wheatley, whose district the site is a part of, said the promise of support was why he and others could stand behind the shutdown.
“We will hold the state to this obligation,” he said.
There are many ideas for the floating terrain, from historical tourism associated with the oldest part of the prison to options like warehousing, light production, or even expanding a nearby medical cannabis facility.
But regardless of how the property is used, preparatory work will need to be done to redevelop the property, according to Wheatley. He said there have been initial talks with both the state and the Pittsburgh Redevelopment Agency to find the money to conduct environmental and engineering studies.
Wheatley said his constituents are eager to lead the planning process and have a clear goal.
“They want access to jobs,” he said. “You want access to opportunities for economic advancement.”
Wheatley added that residents want to be sure that the site is connected to the larger community and maybe even has a recreational space; There aren’t many places in the neighborhood for kids to play.
The state agreed to sell the entire site to the nonprofit Manchester Bidwell Corporation for $ 1, but the deal failed in 2019. Fontana said this was because analysis showed the site was contaminated. Wheatley said community groups have asked the state to back out and allow more resident-led efforts.
Calls and emails to Manchester Bidwell Corporation were not answered.
The Department of General Services, which oversees the properties in the Commonwealth, spends approximately $ 600,000 annually to maintain the site. This bill will be paid by the Justice Department, said a DGS spokesman. Film crews have used the prison as a backdrop, but the Commonwealth can only charge actual costs such as personnel and security and cannot make a profit. ALCOSAN, which is in the process of expanding its sewage treatment plant, is paying the state to rent parking spaces for union workers, agency spokesman Joey Vallarian said.
In June, the state’s Senate passed a Fontana-sponsored law that would allow DGS to prepare for the sale of the site through a competitive process. Fontana amended the bill to authorize the state to sell part of the land – a house formerly used by the overseer – to a couple for $ 140,000. Although it is bundled with the prison location, it is actually in Marshall Shadeland.
But with Wolf ending the last few years of his two-year term and with a gubernatorial election coming up in 2022, Fontana fears that redeveloping the site will not be a priority.
“It’s dragging on, that’s the most disappointing thing,” said Fontana. And while the pandemic didn’t help, he mostly cited the lack of progress on the party deadlock: Republicans control both houses of the state parliament, and Democrats complain that their bills are often slow-moving or ignored.
“I had to stand on my head to get [the bill] through, ”said Fontana. “I’m in the minority party.”
Although the Senate passage encouraged Fontana, he said it means nothing unless it is also approved by the House of Representatives. The bill is on the House Government Committee and the timing of a vote is unclear, although Wheatley said he expected the bill to be tabled this fall.