“A square peg in a round hole” or “What the heck are we gonna do with Greater Pittsburgh International Airport?”

In the pre-dawn hours of October, 1, 1992, the newest addition to Allegheny County’s transportation network was open for business. After decades of planning and more than five years after breaking ground, the Pittsburgh region finally had a new airport: Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT). This sprawling facility replaced Greater Pittsburgh Airport, more informally known as Greater Pitt (I’m going to call it GPIA because I feel like it; in fact, it became Greater Pittsburgh International Airport around 1970 to signify the addition of international flights). GPIA was located less than a mile from PIT and had been serving the area since the end of May 1952.

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“Won’t you be my [airport] neighbor?” If you look closely, the x-shaped structure  on the left (with a white box around it) is the current airport (PIT). Not too far away is GPIA, highlighted by a white box on the right side of the picture.
 So, when you open a new airport, you should tear down the old one, especially since it’s essentially next door, right? Well, in this case, not exactly. Instead of simply demolishing it, GPIA was allowed to sit, vacant and deteriorating, for more than six years. What? Why not just tear it down? There was no specific agreement in place to keep it. And it’s not like this was a grass airstrip with a rickety hangar and a ragged windsock. People noticed it was there, and it was taking up a lot of room. This was a major airport on a large plot of land. GPIA had handled 1.4 million passengers in its first full year of operation, and, by 1990, it had become the twentieth busiest in the United States. I’m not an expert in real estate, but it doesn’t seem like a sensible business decision to let a structure this large—when it opened, GPIA was the second largest commercial airport in the world, behind  what is now John F. Kennedy International Airport—slowly fall apart atop a quality piece of land. Also, let’s not forget that Moon Township, where GPIA was situated, would greatly benefit from something to make up for losing a major economic contributor (though nearby, the new airport was in Findley, a neighboring township). So, what to do with a seven-story facility that was praised in the 1950s as the “$42,000,000 Marvel of the Jet Age,” an airport that was, for a time at least, something Allegheny County was proud to show off (the featured image of this post, for instance, highlighted GPIA as one of the noteworthy sites in Pittsburgh).

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The unceremonious demolition of GPIA did occur, but not before millions of dollars and hours of collective thinking were spent trying to come up with a way to reuse the existing structure. Looking back, these various efforts look like people were just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what would stick. Among the different proposals that can be filed under the heading “What can Allegheny County put inside a non-functioning airport terminal (1990s)” are the following: an international trade center, described as a “cultural center with international restaurants, foreign money exchangers, and other services for foreign business people who would arrive on new overseas flights expected with…[PIT]”; the corporate headquarters for USAir; a shopping mall or outlet mall; a casino; a NASCAR racetrack (if you can believe it); an office complex; an aviation museum; a private jail; a “high-tech training center for emergency response crews”; a series of buildings that would be a combined office-warehouse space—“not a sexy or dramatic kind of use” Moon Township Manager Greg Smith admitted; and a USPS facility. About the outlet mall suggestion, I should add that one proposal–this one described a “factory outlet center”–offers this selling points that is rather cringeworthy today (or at least deserving of a facepalm): “the main reason for developing a factory outlet center is still that the American consumer loves a bargain; especially the female consumer.” Yes, those female shoppers and their unbridled enthusiasm for discounts!

Then there was the idea for transforming the old airport into an entertainment complex in the mold of Branson, Missouri (referred to in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as “Music America,” the entertainment complex was envisioned as having over twenty theaters, a theme park, an outlet mall, and children’s activities). Still more ideas were proposed. How about an “educational mall”? Dr. Robert Breuder, president of the Pennsylvania College of Technology—a Penn State University affiliate in Williamsport—was behind this plan. Set up the terminal like a shopping mall, he explained, where students could take courses related to applied technology in business and industry. Course listings would include topics like computer repair, fiber optics, robotics, biomedical technology, and telecommunications. Though Breuder’s college would serve as the “anchor store” of this mall, schools like the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, CCAC, and the Penn State campus in Beaver could have courses there, too.

Renaissance article
Here’s the front of GPIA around the time it opened (actually, this was probably just before it opened). Eventually, a fountain and landscaping would spruce up the oval in front of the terminal, and, to accommodate more planes and passengers, extensions would be constructed on pretty much all sides of the building.
This late-1980s airport brochure shows the modified version of GPIA after a series of extensions were completed over the preceding decades.

The takeaway is that county officials and developers heroically tried to repurpose the GPIA terminal, and lots of money was spent in the process (depending on your perspective, you could substitute “foolishly” for “heroically” and “wasted” for “spent”). By mid-January 1995, Allegheny County had coughed up nearly $900,000 for marketing studies. Going back to 1988, just under $950,000 had been expended for studies to assess the site’s health and environmental hazards and associated clean up costs. Even at this point–and, perhaps for many people, the white flag was already being hoisted up the flagpole for any terminal redevelopment plan–commissioners again backed off moving to immediately demolish GPIA. In another effort to spare the terminal, the County Commissioners agreed to fork over nearly $900,000 to remove an underground fuel farm and decontaminate the soil.

In hindsight, attempts to repurpose GPIA were kinda like trying to renovate the ridiculous mansion in The Money Pit (accompanying gif below),one of my favorite movies of the 1980s (in terms of being critically acclaimed, this film certainly was not; Tom Hanks even stated that the movie isn’t really that good). Reflecting on the different redevelopment plans, former Director of Aviation Scott O’Donnell maybe said it best. I’m summarizing here, but he told me that by the mid-1990s—given the high costs, structural limitations, and sad state of GPIA—any proposal to save the building itself was like trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. Ahoy!


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