The big piles of dirt move, sometimes.

So far, one might think that’s the extent of the excitement at the long-awaited Almono development in Hazelwood. As much as $1 billion in development has been mapped out for this vast stretch of vacant industrial land along the Monongahela River.

For 15 years or so, it’s mostly been anticipation, and piles of dirt.

But things are happening here. Big things. Most aren’t all that visible from the street. A new road now stitches together the site — the project’s 1.5-mile Signature Boulevard is in place.

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“Signature Boulevard is the largest complete street in Pittsburgh’s history,” says Don Smith, president of the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC), which partnered with The Heinz Endowments, Richard King Mellon Foundation, Benedum Foundation and McCune Foundation to buy the property in 2002. “Extensive trails, stormwater management, dedicated pedestrian and bikeways. It’s a very large piece of infrastructure. It plans for significantly more green space than what’s required.”

(As it turns out, those piles of dirt were important. The site was a polluted wasteland, requiring significant remediation.)

Next up is the gigantic steel remnant of the old LTV steel mill on the property.

“We’re removing all the skin of the building basically,” explains Smith. “We’ll keep the steel superstructure intact and in place. It’s in very good shape and built to last forever. We’ll use the superstructure as almost a framing or pavilion over three new buildings — self-contained, three stories — under that.”

RIDC just received permission to start demolition and remediation on the cavernous, 180,000-square-foot building, now called Mill 19. The superstructure will be “a tribute to the industrial heritage of the site,” says Smith.

Inside Mill 19. Photo by Harriet Stein.

CMU’s Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute — a consortium that brings together 220 universities, manufacturers, governments and nonprofits — is currently in negotiations to be the first tenant. The independent institute was created to make sure America benefits from the coming wave of automation and autonomy. In January, the CMU-led consortium won $253 million in public and private funding, including $80 million from the U.S. Department of Defense. It’s a national effort, to be headquartered in Pittsburgh.

Plans for Almono, which is an amalgam of Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio, came and went. One involved a casino, which ended up on the North Shore instead. Another took into account the Mon-Fayette Expressway, which was supposed to come through, and the CSX rail line, which was supposed to leave. Neither happened.

“Then there was a sense that the plan wasn’t ambitious enough,” says Smith. “This is a unique site, at a unique moment in history. They wanted to make sure they set aspirations as high as they could be.”

Someone has to make the first move.

“The Mill building is the catalytic investment to make the site go,” explains Smith. “We’re talking to a number of tenants to take space on the third floor, which is about 32,000 square feet. Some large international tech companies could take all or most of the second building, which is already designed and ready to go.”

The space is optimized for high-tech users, including research and development and advanced manufacturing. There has been a lot of interest so far, though they won’t say which companies are interested yet. They are “companies everybody would recognize,” notes Smith.

The plan is to integrate the site into the existing Hazelwood neighborhood by connecting it to the street grid, and making it accessible to everyone.

“We’ve done well over 100 community meetings since this whole process started,” says Smith. “In contrast to some other redevelopment projects in the region, we have strong support from the community. We’ve been clear about what we can and can’t do. We’ve sought out their interests and taken them into account when the master plan is being designed.”

“For example, you won’t see a retail center like Homestead. The region doesn’t need that.” Instead, Smith says, “We’re hoping a lot of retail activity takes place on Second Avenue in Hazelwood, serving the people who work and live on the Almono site.”

Already, long vacant buildings on Second Avenue are being refurbished, and new tenants, like the French bakery La Gourmandine, are moving into to Hazelwood.

The Mill 19 and its grounds are only about 4.5 acres. RIDC controls 7.5 acres toward Second Avenue, the main road and business district in Hazelwood. The idea is not to duplicate other redeveloped steel mill sites nearby, like the retail heavy SouthSide Works, or the adjacent Pittsburgh Technology Center, which is all offices.

“The plan [for Almono] calls for over 2,000 units of housing,” says Smith. “It’s 178 acres [total], so it’s a big site. We didn’t want to do the Pittsburgh Technology Center again. When it was done it was state of the art. It broke a lot of ground in re-using steel mill sites. We learned a bunch of things on the way. We really want to create this 24/7 neighborhood, not this suburban office park in the city.”