Consultant recommends demolition of Pittsburgh prison popular with filmmakers

PITTSBURGH — The former State Correctional Institute in Pittsburgh has been vacant for the last six years.

The nearly 22-acre prison, also known as Western Penitentiary, closed in 2017 and has been sitting on Pittsburgh’s North Side in decaying condition.

The state hired Pittsburgh consultant Michael Baker International to develop a plan for the crumbling, defunct prison on the bank of the Ohio River in the city’s Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood.

The firm recommended the state spend more than $44 million to tear down the 42 buildings on the property, some dating back to 1878, saying the facility is beyond repair.

“If you’re not using it, tear it down if you can build something,” said Jeff Novack, who lives near the site. “If you can build a park or something for the kids, that would be great. Give them somewhere to go, something to do.”

The plan calls for that, too.  Consultants recommended the construction of a five-acre green space connecting to the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which runs by the old prison.

The rest of the site would be cleaned up and prepared for sale.

“Anytime you can create a green space or a space where folks can come together and enjoy it, I think it’s good for any neighborhood,” said State Senator Wayne Fontana, whose district contains the old penitentiary.

Fontana supports the plan and predicts it will easily pass through the state legislature, especially since the state is still paying nearly a million dollars a year to secure the vacant prison.

“We have a rainy day fund of over a billion dollars. We have ARPA money. I would think, and I can’t speak for the Governor, but I would think those are possible sources to finish the taking down of the structures, to remediate the soil, and make it site ready,” Fontana said.

Not everyone is happy about the prospect of demolition, though.

“The film industry has been able to make great use of it and we’ve appreciated the ability to be able to film there,” said Pittsburgh Film Office Director Dawn Keezer.

According to Keezer, the city’s thriving TV and movie production scene pumps more than $150 million into the region’s economy each year.

That industry has made great use of the old prison, most notably by the Mayor of Kingstown.

“The nice thing about the film industry is we’re not requiring people to build things just to use,” Keezer said. “They like to use what’s here and what’s existing. When it goes away, we’re all going to be sad, but for now we’re going to use it.”

Once the Hollywood strikes come to an end, Mayor of Kingstown is set to return to the old prison to film season three, Keezer told 11 News.

Meantime, Sen. Fontana said all the demolition and cleanup work necessary to get the site ready for sale will likely take until 2027.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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