Renovation for Hill District ‘green innovation’ project moves ahead

September 14, 2012
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Energy Innovation Center in the former Connelly Trade School on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District has its last piece of funding to begin the renovation and first phase of development.

The board of the city Urban Redevelopment Authority approved the $1.2 million loan Thursday.

The $38 million project of Pittsburgh Green Innovators Inc. has been five years in the making.

Deno DeCiantis, president of the consortium, said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, “pulled together 30 organizations and entities five years ago and asked them to come up with a plan to elevate Pittsburgh’s national and international presence relating to sustainability.”

The point was to build synergy around a green economy, he said. “We talked about how it should look and began planning and realized we needed a building. We looked at 25 locations.”

The trade school closed in 2004.

The Pittsburgh Green Innovators brought together businesses, universities and other research institutions, unions, utility companies and nonprofits. They will collaborate on projects to advance and demonstrate alternative energy, energy conservation and sustainable business practices. The center will also be a job training center and green industry incubator.

Money has come in chunks from individuals, corporations and public coffers, including a $12 million grant from the state last summer.

Robert Rubenstein, acting director of the URA, said the project is making use of $5 million in new market tax credits, which translate to about $2.2 million in equity.

Pittsburgh Gateways Corp. bought the building last year, when its president, Robert Meeder, said he expected the Energy Innovation Center would create a minimum of 435 permanent jobs in the first five years of operations, a minimum of 225 construction jobs and a federally funded university partnership for research in energy technology.

“The Energy Innovation Center has the potential to give a real boost to the region’s economy,” Mr. Doyle said. “We’ve now got the financing to a point where we can actually begin construction, and I believe it’s likely to start sometime next year. I’m pretty pleased with where we are now.”

Deconstruction of the 234,000-square-foot building is in progress. Reuseable materials have been recycled by Construction Junction and ACTION-Housing’s Green House in East Liberty. The first phase of redevelopment will account for about 85,000 square feet, Mr. Rubenstein said.

Research institutions that include the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University will have presences there, as will Local 95 engineers.

The Penn State Center, of which Mr. DeCiantis is the director, will also be a tenant. “As far as Penn State’s role goes, our engagement is going to be pretty robust,” he said. “We will be programming in a number of areas, from green infrastructure to energy to arts and architecture and business.”

Besides incubator space, there will also be laboratories for academic and corporate research, he said, adding, “We all have overlapping and synergistic types of activities being planned.”

Brian Knavish, a spokesman for Duquesne Light, said the utility “wants to be part of this. We’re excited about the opportunities there, having space for innovative work. What we do there will evolve and grow as the center grows, but we expect to showcase some of our latest electronic technology, particularly things that involve energy efficiency. We plan to have informational sessions with the public about things like energy audits, where people can plug in information about their homes online and find out how to save energy.”

Mr. DeCiantis said the building is seeking a platinum rating, the highest level in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program.

“That level is almost unheard of in a building with an historic standing,” he said. “It’s going to have some awesome technology in there.”