Pittsburgh’s willingness to accept a future not dependent on steel did not come in the 1980s but had to wait decades and came from an unlikely source: a school board willing to say no to jobs at any price.
(A condensed version of the following appeared on Postindustrial.com in May 2022)
Two days before Christmas 1998, a special meeting of the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education was being convened with a minimal agenda. Students and staff of the school district were already on holiday break, but the elected officials who governed public schools for the city of Pittsburgh were being called in for a previously unscheduled meeting.
Board president Ron Suber had scheduled the ad-hoc meeting in the hope — maybe the expectation — that at least one of the board members would reverse their vote on a matter that had recently come before the board. How the evening concluded became the singular point in history when the city of Pittsburgh finally accepted that the production of commodity steel would not define its future as it had for over a century.
Just a week prior, in an unprecedented 5–4 vote, the school board had narrowly rejected a motion endorsing the creation of a Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) along the Monongahela River in the city’s Hazelwood neighborhood. Less than three months earlier, the Pennsylvania legislature had enacted the Keystone Opportunity Zone Act which was a new program that provided an extensive range of tax incentives that could be offered for private investment in economically distressed areas. A new KOZ was intended to entice investment at a 168-acre industrial site in the neighborhood, and there was already a definitive plan for where that new investment would come from.
Pittsburgh’s school board was often forced to address such extraneous and decidedly non-educational matters because it also exists as an independent local government, as are most of the 500 school districts across Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh’s school district is even legally separate from the mostly coterminous city of Pittsburgh, a second-class city in the taxonomy of Pennsylvania local government. Because the school district, along with the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, was one of the three primary taxing bodies for the targeted area, its pro forma concurrence was a requirement to create the KOZ.
At the beginning of the year, the LTV Corporation was still operating a century-old coke works in Hazelwood, where high-quality and regionally sourced metallurgic coal was converted into industrial coke. The plant had been in operation since the 1850s when James Laughlin constructed blast furnaces to produce pig iron on the northern banks of the Monongahela River. When Laughlin merged his operations with rolling mills owned by B.F. Jones directly across the river, the Jones and Laughlin Corporation, or J&L, was born. With the addition of beehive coke ovens, the consolidated river-spanning complex became Pittsburgh’s first truly integrated metalworks by the 1860s.
The iron works shifted to steel production before the end of the 19th century, and the Pittsburgh works of the J&L was one of the largest employers across southwestern Pennsylvania through most of its existence. Though Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire started later, and eventually grew larger than J&L, the bulk of the Carnegie Steel Company — including his largest plants in Braddock, Homestead, and Duquesne — was located outside of the city proper. J&L remained the city of Pittsburgh’s single largest employer for more than a century.
The Texas Conglomerate Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) took control of J&L in 1974 and soon began consolidating the firm’s production in Pennsylvania. Blast furnaces on the northern side of its Pittsburgh works, including the historic Eliza Furnace, began to shut down in 1977. LTV acquired Republic Steel and merged it with J&L to form LTV Steel in 1984. Following the merger, LTV shut down remaining steel production in the city of Pittsburgh, and shuttered whole its operations in Aliquippa, just 20 miles downriver from the head of the Ohio River at Downtown Pittsburgh. By the end of the 1980s, only the coke works in Hazelwood remained in operation — the last holdout of ore-based steel production within the corporate limits of the city of Pittsburgh.
Industrial coke is made by baking coal at high temperatures in a series of batteries, a process which removes impurities and converts the organic rock into more perfect carbon. The transformed fuel burns smokeless and at the higher temperatures essential to modern steel production. Demand for American steel, and as a corollary, the demand for industrial coke, increased almost exponentially through the second industrial revolution and then expanded further because of the demands of World War I.
In 1917 nearly 1,500 small beehive coke ovens in Hazelwood were replaced by much larger byproduct coke batteries capable of much greater output and designed to capture the fumes which could be distilled into valuable industrial gasses. But the removal of byproducts from coal is an imperfect and difficult to control process. Even during optimal operations, volatile compounds inevitably escape into the atmosphere, a problem exacerbated as equipment becomes older and suffers inevitable breakdowns. But for virtually a century, Pittsburgh was more than willing to accept the environmental consequences of having a massive coke works in its midst. Coke production, and the codependent network of steel production it catalyzed, meant jobs for workers and prosperity for the city.
Long before 1998, the coke works in Hazelwood routinely ran afoul of environmental regulations because of unsanctioned emissions. As long as the coking plant had operated, emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) measured in Hazelwood had sustained levels far above what was measured in downtown Pittsburgh. A 1989 study documented the range of smells regularly emanating from the plant, which spread across the city of Pittsburgh and beyond. One of the most common descriptions of the smell was of ‘burnt moth balls,’ likely the result of toxic naphthalene produced by the industrial chemistry at work, but the plant produced excessive amounts of hydrogen sulfide and a wide range of volatile organic compounds, including benzene, that inexorably wafted over large parts of the city.
In March 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency filed a notice of violation against LTV for exceeding particulate emissions from its combustion stacks for more than 18,000 hours of the 29,400 hours the plant operated from May 1 through December 1, 1996. Four months later, LTV announced it could not keep the coking operation in Hazelwood open, claiming over $500 million of investment was required to address minimum regulatory requirements. Just shy of its sesquicentennial of nearly continuous coking operations in Pittsburgh, the plant began shutting down in February 1998. More than 700 of the plant’s remaining workers, many of who had worked on the site for decades, were permanently laid off.
No matter the scale of job destruction that had come before, or maybe because of it, bringing new industrial jobs to the site immediately became a singular priority for virtually all of the region’s political and business leaders. Economic development efforts soon centered around a proposal from Sun Coke, a subsidiary of Sunoco — one of the world’s largest energy companies — to build a new and even larger coke works on the same site. The new plant would not employ anywhere near as many workers as the plant shutting down but was expected to have a production capacity nearly 50% greater than the existing plant.
The possibility of keeping coke production in Hazelwood had immediate and bipartisan support from both Pennsylvania’s republican governor and the democratic mayor of the city of Pittsburgh, as well as support from all three members of Allegheny County’s board of commissioners. Even the region’s top newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, offered its de facto imprimatur with a July editorial titled “Better with Coke.” A complementary news article in the paper was almost fawning when it described the operations of a similar coke works in rural southwestern Virginia headlined “Sun coke plant sets a shining example.“
But the machinations of corporate site selection had evolved since the steel industry first found the riverbanks of southwestern Pennsylvania a nearly perfect geography for agglomeration. Not willing to leave the firm’s investment decision to the vagaries of the free market, the city that had birthed the modern steel industry in a torrent of entrepreneurism in the late 19th century was going to rely on government-directed incentives to close the deal. Designating the industrial site as one of Pennsylvania’s first KOZs would give investors an enviable package of tax incentives that included abatement of nearly all state and local taxes for 12 years.
Political leaders did not question the opportunity cost of foregone tax revenues, nor was there any meaningful discussion of any alternative redevelopment of the site. Despite revisionist hagiography that Pittsburgh decisively rejected smokestack chasing in the 1980s to become a hub of technology and service industries, at the very end of the 20th century Pittsburgh was again singularly focused on retaining and expanding the dirtiest of industrial operations in the very heart of the city.
The seemingly ubiquitous political support for a new coke works in Hazelwood was surprising given the examples of potential alternative uses for the site. In fact, just adjacent to the LTV coke works on real estate that was once part of the same J&L plant, Pittsburgh’s Urban Development Authority had created the Pittsburgh Technology Center, an office complex intended to incubate a range of technology-based firms. Just across the river, other parts of the former J&L plant were already being converted into a mixed-use retail and apartment complex.
But in both cases, alternative uses were pursued only grudgingly after efforts to attract new industrial production failed. Into the 1990s, Allegheny County — which encompasses both the city of Pittsburgh and a large part of the once heavily industrialized Monongahela River Valley — pursued reindustrialization based on recommendations of an extensive Steel Retention Study the county itself commissioned in 1989. The study had concluded that the former LTV plant on the south side of the river was the most viable site for industrial redevelopment. The adjacent Pittsburgh Technology Center had originally been slated for conversion into an industrial salvage yard and then was expected to be the location of a large-scale refuse cogeneration plant. Only when private investors failed to support any form of industrial redevelopment at either site did Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority acquire the abandoned real estate on both sides of the river and began crafting non-industrial uses.
Circumstances were different when LTV announced the closure of its plant in Hazelwood. There was no need to search out investors willing and able to finance the redevelopment of the site. Sun Coke had emerged with its plan for a new coke works even before LTV completed the shutdown of its operations. For its future, Pittsburgh was more than willing to look toward its past.
But at the end of the 20th century, Pittsburgh’s support for heavy industry was not quite as monolithic as it had once been. Despite the potential to save jobs, community opposition quickly emerged against the plan to rebuild a coke works within the city. A Hazelwood-based group, Citizens Helping Our Community (CHOC), spun out of a regional environmental group, The Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), to organize opposition to the proposed coke works.
The battle between Pittsburgh’s legacy industries and environmental activists was not new. GASP had been formed nearly three decades earlier to fight against pollution generated from another coke works operated by U.S. Steel at Clairton, still in operation along the Monongahela River 15 miles upriver from Hazelwood. Early in the 1970s, GASP had unprecedented successes prompting Allegheny County to pass new environmental regulations that had been vehemently opposed by industry. But those successes were limited, and no regional steel plant was shut down during the 1970s. Environmental concerns took an even-lower priority across the region once industrial job destruction accelerated at the beginning of the 1980s.
Opposition to a new coke works quickly coalesced around preventing the site from being designated a KOZ, seen as crucial to ensuring Sun Coke would follow through on its investment. However, the community group made little headway in diminishing the support the project had at state and county levels. Even the federal government — which had catalyzed the closure of the LTV coke works — was doing what it could to support the construction of the new plant. In October of 1998, Congress approved a $2 million grant from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to support the project. In early November CHOC was able to force an hour-long meeting with Pittsburgh’s mayor to present their concerns, but he remained unconvinced by their arguments.
While some city council members expressed concerns about the proposed coke works, there was insignificant opposition when Pittsburgh’s city council voted to give preliminary approval for creating a new KOZ on the morning of December 16th. While some opposition was anticipated at a Pittsburgh school board meeting scheduled for that evening, there was little concern that, in the end, the school board would not also go along with city council and approve the KOZ designation.
The Pittsburgh school board consists of nine members, each elected by district across the city of Pittsburgh and the borough of Mount Oliver. While it often was dragged into legal and political matters far outside its purview in education administration, on economic development matters the school board typically followed the lead of the city and county. Going into the meeting, board president Ron Suber and several board members had already publicly expressed support for creating the KOZ. A few board members had made critical comments about the proposed coke works, but it seemed likely opposition would add up to at most two or three votes. A majority or even a supermajority in support of the KOZ designation was not in serious doubt.
When the vote was called, Suber and just three other members voted in favor of the motion to approve a KOZ in Hazelwood. But a slim majority of five school board members: Liz Healey, Alex Matthews, Evelyn Neiser, Maggie Schmidt, and Randall Taylor, voted against the KOZ designation. While all five faced immense political pressure to support construction of the future coke works, the most surprising votes were nays recorded for two members.
Evelyn Neiser was an employee of the Allegheny County Clerk of Courts, an elected row office in Allegheny County, while Randall Taylor was a county employee working for the Allegheny County Treasurer. There was an unwritten rule that public employees who also held elected offices would be consistent votes in support of the political consensus. With the proposed new plant having nearly universal support from almost all other elected officials, it was a precedented expectation that both Neiser and Taylor would vote in favor of the KOZ designation. If the two had voted for the KOZ, the measure would have easily passed with a supermajority of board members in support. Without their votes, the proposal was tabled.
The vote should have definitively closed the matter as far as the school board was concerned, but supporters of the coke works were not quite willing to give up. The extraordinary circumstances prompted Suber to call yet another unscheduled board meeting just a week later on December 23rd.
When the board reconvened, groups in support and opposition to the proposed coke works gathered in force. Demonstrating in support of the plant was an amalgam of community and labor groups that needed no other rationale than the potential to save jobs. Standing opposed were environmental groups vehemently opposed to the project because of the inevitable environmental problems it would cause. So acrimonious were relations between the two sides that demonstrators eventually needed to be kept separate by a small phalanx of city and school district police that had been mustered for security.
Without any other business on the agenda, the meeting was called solely to give an opportunity for any of the members who had voted against the KOZ to reopen the matter. Just one reversal would have likely ensured Hazelwood would have been the home for a coke works for decades into the future. But no new vote could even be entertained unless one of the original dissenting board members made a motion to reconsider.
In the end, the death of heavy industry in the city of Pittsburgh came in a very anticlimactic silence. Following public remarks, the board president opened the floor for new motions. When none were offered by any of the board members, the matter died, as did the last vestige of steel production in the city of Pittsburgh. The city remained the home to several thousand steel industry jobs, but virtually none were production workers. Most all of Pittsburgh’s remaining steelworkers were office workers at the headquarters of U.S. Steel, located in the iconic Steel Tower downtown.
For a few months into 1999, Sun Coke publicly claimed it was still considering moving forward with the project without any public incentives. But both supporters and opponents of the plant were proven correct in presuming the investment relied on lucrative public subsidies. By the middle of the year, the company announced what had become obvious, that it was moving on and abandoned efforts to build a new coke works in Hazelwood.
The shuttered LTV plant presented Pittsburgh with yet another massive industrial brownfield needing both environmental remediation and redevelopment on a scale few regions have ever needed to address. Once abandoned, the Hazelwood site was so desolate that for a period researchers from nearby Carnegie Mellon University used the vacant landscape to test the operation of future robotic lunar landers.
Redevelopment of the site in Hazelwood took on a life of its own. The real estate would not be acquired by Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, the modal fate of several other industrial brownfields in the city, including the adjacent parts of the former J&L plant. In 2002, the abandoned real estate was purchased via bankruptcy proceedings by a collection of Pittsburgh-based foundations in a novel form of program-related investment (PRI).
PRI is distinct from the charitable giving that makes up the bulk of expenditures of public philanthropies. In Hazelwood, four foundations: the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the McCune Foundation, the Benedum Foundation and the Heinz Endowments, went beyond providing funding for others to redevelop the site, and instead collectively purchased the former plant to manage the site’s transformation themselves.
As redevelopment progressed, the site played an unexpected role in privatizing research activity emanating from the city’s major universities. In 2015, the Silicon Valley firm Uber hired a group of researchers from nearby Carnegie Mellon University to jump start their efforts in autonomous vehicle research. But the firm did not try to relocate its new workers to the firm’s existing headquarters in California, or to any other region. Instead, the company kept the newly-hired researchers in Pittsburgh to form the core of its new Advanced Technology Center that had recently been started in the city. By 2017, Uber was using 42 acres of the Hazelwood site as a simulated city to test robotic cars. Once the navigational algorithms were perfected at the test site, hundreds of robotic cars were then tested ‘in the wild,’ as the company described driving on the often-convoluted streets of Pittsburgh.
But the real impact of the school board’s veto of the coke works on Pittsburgh’s post-industrial transformation comes from the future it enabled. Following the contraction of Pittsburgh’s steel industry in the 1980s, the slow and steady growth in the collective “Eds and Meds” economy — much of it located within line of sight of Hazelwood — had been key to rebuilding jobs and a diversified economy in the following decades. Not only are the three largest universities in western Pennsylvania virtually within line of sight of Hazelwood, so were the region’s largest hospitals, and the adjacent neighborhoods of Pittsburgh’s East End were some of the city’s densest residential areas.
At the turn of the 21st century, the city began to attract a new types of private sector investment. Before Uber, hard drive maker Seagate set up a corporate research lab in Pittsburgh in 1998 to be followed by even larger national technology companies such as Apple, Google, and Amazon. The firms had not started in Pittsburgh, but almost all were setting up sizable operations in Pittsburgh to tap into the growing core of human capital located there.
But the workers powering Pittsburgh’s expanding core of advanced technology and research industries have much wider opportunities compared to the workers that made Pittsburgh a center for iron and steel by the middle of the 19th century. Pittsburgh’s early metals industries were tied to southwestern Pennsylvania by the high-quality metallurgic coal sourced nearby and the river access needed first by iron and later by steel producers. Workers that came to Pittsburgh a century ago for jobs in heavy industries had limited opportunities for better paying jobs elsewhere.
But the highly skilled workers driving Pittsburgh’s modern transformation are in demand most anywhere and have the luxury of factoring regional quality of life in a way many past Pittsburgh workers did not. The challenge to keeping workers in Pittsburgh was highlighted in January 2020 when a software engineer employed in the city Pittsburgh wrote a blistering op-ed explaining how the region’s air quality was prompting him to leave the region with his family. He very publicly advised his colleagues to avoid Pittsburgh because of poor air quality he said he never imagined before moving to the city just three years earlier. Pittsburgh’s continuing air quality challenges result from the continuing operation of legacy plants outside of the city proper. What workers in Pittsburgh would think of the city’s air quality if just a few miles away a coke works was operating day and night is unknown.
Could Pittsburgh have fostered any form of postindustrial transformation if the proposed coke works in Hazelwood had been built? Many communities across southwestern Pennsylvania provide a plausible answer. Whatever success the city of Pittsburgh has had at moving beyond its legacy of heavy industry, many other communities within southwestern Pennsylvania have not. The historic coke works at Clairton and even Andrew Carnegie’s first steel plant at Braddock both continue to operate as they have for over a century. It remains no coincidence that both areas remain untouched by the tech-based investment concentrated elsewhere in the region and continue to have some of the lowest incomes and highest poverty rates anywhere in Pennsylvania.
Of course, the school board’s veto of a new coke works also did not vanquish smokestack chasing in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. As late as 2012 multi-billion dollar public incentives were granted to the Shell Corporation to build an ethane cracker along the Ohio River in neighboring Beaver County, just 12 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh. At the same time calls to reindustrialize the region remain a common political refrain, even if there is little understanding on how that vision interacts with the competitiveness of regional industries that have seen the greatest growth in recent decades.
Today as always, Jobs Uber Alles remains the ethos of economic development policies that value almost all forms of job creation equally. Taken literally, almost any new job created in the short run can be seen as worth any cost and ought to have paved the way for keeping coke production in Pittsburgh. For a moment though, one vote meant Pittsburgh made a choice that was far more strategic than tactical. If not for the narrowest of votes, the city of Pittsburgh’s 21st-century evolution could have followed a very different path.