“Now what are they gonna do?”
That was the first thought that popped into lifelong Springdale resident Debbie Sigmund’s head as she watched the June implosion of the Cheswick Generating Station. Earlier that morning, she had made her way to her childhood home on the corner of Porter Street and Rosslyn Avenue to watch the dual smokestacks beneath which her husband, father and grandfather worked crumble to the ground.
Within 30 seconds, the two smokestacks that had watched over the borough for generations were gone, leaving behind a cloud of ash, debris and uncertainty.
“Good or bad, [the smokestacks] were there for many, many years,” said Sigmund, the borough’s tax collector. “They’re down now. We’ve gotta move forward.”
Across Springdale, residents like Sigmund — together with local officials supported by $150,000 in grant funding from the Heinz Endowments* — are looking toward a future that doesn’t involve the generating station. Conversely, the site’s owner, Louisville-based ash remediation company Charah Solutions, is hoping to maintain the industrial zoning of both the site and the broader riverfront district.
“What happens at the site will change the future of the [Allegheny] Valley. It’s all-or-nothing,” said state Rep. Mandy Steele, D-Fox Chapel.
Since the generating station’s closure in April 2022, residents have voiced the desire for a new vision for the site and riverfront district that involves as-yet-unspecified mixed-use development. Residents are especially hopeful for development that may bring businesses, like a much-needed grocery store, or recreational space for families.
“What do we have? We don’t even have a grocery store. There’s no jobs here. If we can bring anything back, it would be good,” Vickie Roolf of the Cheswick-Springdale Lions Club said.
“There’s a lot of food insecurity around here,” said Jennifer Novich of the Lower Valley Community Food Bank, in Springdale. “Getting in some business would help.”
Charah, though, has repeatedly voiced opposition to rezoning the property. The firm specializes in remediating industrial sites for future development by others.
Tensions between the borough and the company came to a head in May when the borough’s Planning Commission voted to recommend that the site be rezoned for residential use.
“I want to make it clear, rezoning to residential use would make the property unusable. It would sit idle,” said Sam Miller, plant manager for Charah’s Springdale arm, at the commission’s May meeting.
Miller said then that elements of the site, including underground structures remaining from the demolition, make any residential building impossible.
The company contends that any change to the base zoning of the site would amount to an unconstitutional regulatory taking and would be subject to a court challenge. At the meeting, representatives from the company said they believe the court will side with them in any rezoning-related matter.
The borough hasn’t acted on the commission’s recommendation. Instead, it has voted to solicit public comment on a proposed zoning overlay that would broaden permitted development of the industrial riverfront district to include other uses.
Both Charah’s attorney and vice president of operations declined to comment on the overlay proposal last week.
The zoning overlay proposal is set to undergo a 30-day public comment period, the dates for which aren’t yet set, before being voted on by the borough’s Planning Commission and council.
Generating station casts long shadow on borough
The Cheswick Generating Station was first constructed in 1920 by the Duquesne Light Company, and its modern chimneys were built by 1970. For many in the community that surrounds the site, the generating station represented not only opportunity, but home.
“You used to be able to work at PPG [Springdale’s Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant], and if you didn’t like that, you could work at the generating station,” Cheswick-Springdale Lion’s Club member John Zurisko said, recalling his upbringing in the borough.
“It was close to my heart,” said Sigmund. “It was a longstanding way to see that we were home.”
Before its closure, the 50-employee power plant also generated a sizable amount of tax revenue for the borough. The loss has been felt by both the taxpayers and the borough council.
“It’s been a big loss,” said borough councilman Shawn Fitzgerald Jr. “With our budget coming up, it’s definitely something that’s always on my mind.”
Proposed overlay may spur mixed-use development
As the station closed, the borough was approached by the Heinz Endowments, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropic organization, which granted $150,000 toward developing a new vision for Springdale.
The money is intended to help the borough set a “community-driven, market-based” vision for the neighborhood, according to Rob Stephany, the endowments’ senior program director for community and economic development.
“The world is their oyster,” Stephany said. “Maybe, instead of standing in Glen’s Custard looking at smokestacks, you’ll look across the street and see another Main Street and some neighborhood housing.”
The zoning overlay was conceived by Sharpsburg Mayor Brittany Reno, a consultant hired by the endowments to assist Springdale.
A zoning overlay augments but does not change base zoning. Typically, it is used by municipalities to guide development or protect natural resources.
In Springdale, the industrial zone runs down Railroad Street, covering the entirety of the borough’s riverfront. Under current zoning, development is limited to industrial uses.
Under Reno’s proposed overlay, mixed-use development would be allowed on certain parts of the riverfront. It would also increase environmental protections for residents and add focus on mobility infrastructure in the borough.
What mixed-use development would mean for the borough and area surrounding the generating station is not yet clear. Reno said the new zoning overlay opens up healthier, cleaner options for the borough that align with residents’ and lawmakers’ goals.
“Nobody wants their family next to something that is spewing carcinogens on them,” Reno said. “[The overlay] gets the community a bigger seat at the table.”
Charah did not send a representative to the council’s June 29 special meeting to discuss the proposal. Steele said the overlay is aimed in part at avoiding any possible legal challenge from the company.
Onto greener pastures?
“We saw the closure of the Cheswick power plant as this moment of hope, optimism and fear,” Stephany said. “As [the site’s] uses change over time, the quality of life changes for everybody as well.”
The Heinz Endowments funds come at a time of unprecedented investment in the nation’s climate infrastructure, said Stephany.
Under the Inflation Reduction Act [IRA] signed into law last year, developers are eligible for tax credits if they invest in green energy projects and infrastructure. Because the site sits in a former coal community, any development on the generating station site qualifies for an additional 10% increase on any IRA tax credit.
Steele is optimistic that federal funds will flow into Springdale. She said she has been in contact with several green manufacturers who are interested in the site.
“This is a game-changing moment for us. There’s a big pot of money at the federal level. This could be a story of what a shift to clean energy can do for this country,” she said.
Charah hasn’t declared its intentions for the site; the company’s Vice President of Legal Affairs Steve Brehm said no options were off the table.
Change in Charah’s ownership could dovetail with hopes for a focus on sustainability.
This month SER Capital Partners, a California-based industrial sustainability firm, bought all shares in Charah. Founded in 2018, SER invests in sustainable projects and companies across the country.
SER’s portfolio includes investments in Brightcore Energy, a clean energy company based in Armonk, New York, and Microgrid Networks, a New York-based energy generation and storage company.
Springdale’s future may be uncertain, but the importance of its riverfront — the location on the top of residents, lawmakers and business interests’ minds — is not.
“If we do this right, it’s the story we want to tell,” said Steele. “Either we go forward with this project or we’re going to see decline in the once-thriving community here.”
*PublicSource receives funding from The Heinz Endowments.
Lucas Dufalla is an editorial intern with PublicSource and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Elizabeth Szeto.
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