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A Shining Star: National Design Awards Highlight SteelStacks’ Impact on Community and Nation

October 18, 2017 | Written by Mark Demko, Sr. Communications Director

When it comes to urban design awards, few honors rival the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence and the Urban Land Institute Global Award for Excellence. Over the decades, renowned projects such as New York’s Times Square, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Seattle’s Pike Place Market have all received one of these honors, signifying their important roles in helping to revitalize cities and transform communities. Only three projects, however, have captured both.

bethlehem-steelstacks-beforeOn Sept. 7, Architect Simeon Bruner, founder of the Massachusetts-based Bruner Foundation, visited SteelStacks to present the City of Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority, ArtsQuest and PBS 39 with the 2017 Rudy Bruner Gold Medal Award for Urban Excellence. With the acceptance of the award, SteelStacks became only the third project in the nation – joining Harbor Point in Boston and Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco – to win both the Global ULI and Gold Medal Rudy Bruner awards.

“The transformation of a portion of the former Bethlehem Steel mill into the SteelStacks arts and cultural campus provides an inspirational model for other cities facing similar challenges in redeveloping former industrial sites,” says Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez. “We are very gratified that both the Urban Land Institute and the Bruner Foundation have recognized our innovative approach to creative placemaking. Civic leadership and public investment have helped to redefine our community’s identity. SteelStacks is now a community gathering place and a significant source of community pride and has become a catalyst for community and economic development in Bethlehem.”

Over the past three decades, 83 projects have been awarded Rudy Bruner gold or silver medal awards, and this year SteelStacks was one of 48 projects from 21 states in the running for the award. Presented every other year, the Bruner Award is a national design honor that recognizes transformative urban places distinguished by their economic and social contributions to America’s cities. The other four finalists for 2017 were Chicago’s Riverwalk Phases 2 & 3, the La Kretz Innovation Campus + Arts District Park in Los Angeles, Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Boston and the Iberville Offsite Rehabs Phases I & II in New Orleans.

Earlier this year, a team from the Bruner Foundation visited all five finalists for extensive site inspections and interviews with the principal parties involved with the redevelopment projects. The team’s findings were then compiled into reports that were reviewed by a six-person selection committee comprised of urban planners, architects and Greenville, S.C. Mayor Knox White. Bruner says SteelStacks grabbed the committee’s attention for several reasons, but it was the size, scope and ambitious nature of the project that made it truly impressive.

“I think that that was the rock that rose above the waters of the (other) projects in terms of the scale and the complexity and frankly the importance of the steel connection in that town and American manufacturing,” Bruner says. “It doesn’t take a genius to understand that American manufacturing in this day and age is an at-risk proposition.

“This is an important site, because after all it is the Bethlehem Steel, and it’s a site where we need to recognize the importance of the history. It had to be in a way that it was different. You couldn’t turn it into condos or whatever because it wouldn’t support it. This was an absolutely innovative way to do it.”

Rudy Bruner Award Director Anne-Marie Lubenau, who was part of the SteelStacks site visit, says one of the things that set SteelStacks apart was the project’s role in addressing how a community handles the huge economic change when a major industry leaves or shuts down.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“What the selection committee observed with SteelStacks was the thoughtfulness and the approach in coming up with a plan to redevelop the former steel mill site in a way that embraces and engages the existing community,” Lubenau says. “It wasn’t simply a matter of finding a new purpose for something, but rather creating a place that not only reuses some of the existing structures of the steel mill, but also becomes a place that brings the community together.”

While the Rudy Bruner Award celebrates the transformative impact urban design projects have on communities, the ULI Global Award for Excellence recognizes projects that achieve a high standard of excellence in design, construction, economics, planning and management.  In 2014, SteelStacks was one of five U.S. projects and 13 around the globe to receive the prestigious honor. Bill Bonstra, of Bonstra Haresign ARCHITECTS in Washington D.C., was part of the ULI review committee that visited SteelStacks. As the team drove toward the site, he recalls, they caught a glimpse of the rusting blast furnaces looming above the houses in South Bethlehem.

“The sheer enormity of the facility was startling in scale as compared to the overhead photos I was shown previously,” Bonstra recalls. “The assemblage of furnaces, vent stacks and material chutes were unlike anything I had ever seen, like that first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower peeking out from the surrounding city when approached along the Seine.”

Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Tony Hanna, who worked on the SteelStacks project from day one, says winning both the ULI and Rudy Bruner awards is a major accomplishment of which everyone should be proud.

“As a planner who has been engaged in urban redevelopment for most of my career, winning either one of these honors is obviously something that’s very significant, but winning both is almost unprecedented,” Hanna says. “The ULI award has a lot to do with the way a project looks and the way a project is planned, and the Bruner Award is about how a project lives – it’s about how it connects to the community.”

artsquest-centerIt’s that connection to the residents of Bethlehem and beyond that has led to tremendous growth of the SteelStacks campus in just six, short years. Not only is the site home to major ArtsQuest festivals like Musikfest, Oktoberfest and Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem, it also hosts hundreds of free concerts each year including shows on the Air Products Town Square and the Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks, the latter of which draws about 90,000 people annually to its 50 free summer performances.

“The vision and the partnership between the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority, ArtsQuest, PBS39 and our partners helped transform this old steel plant into an arts and entertainment district, but it’s really been the support of our community that has helped to sustain this incredible investment,” says ArtsQuest President and CEO Kassie Hilgert. “As one might imagine, the first few years were a bit challenging as we unveiled a variety of new programming and focused on attracting people to what was essentially an unknown quantity. However, thanks to innovative programming and attractions like the World Cup Viewing Parties and the Musikfest Café presented by Yuengling, which hosts up to 30,000 people annually for its unique ‘dinner and a concert’ experience, the site quickly caught on with people from throughout the region.

“We’re only six years into SteelStacks, but the site already draws one million visitors each year and has an economic impact of more than $67 million annually. That’s very impressive, and it’s a result of the hard work and investment of everyone involved in the project.”

Both ULI and the Bruner Foundation develop extensive case studies of their award winners, which are then made available to the public so that other cities and communities can learn about successful urban redevelopment projects and how they overcame their challenges. And, while SteelStacks is seen as a shining example of how to bring new life to an old industrial site, the reality is that the project was anything but easy, especially in its earliest days.

A major player in the development of America in the 20th century, the Bethlehem Steel plant ended its more than 100-year history of steelmaking in November 1995. In the years following the plant’s closing, the community wrestled with the idea of what to do with the nearly 1,800-acre industrial site siting on the landscape.

historic-bethlehem-redevelopmeWith one eye looking well into the future, in 1999 the city’s three taxing bodies – the City, the Bethlehem Area School District and Northampton County – designated the site a Tax Incremental Financing District, which meant that any future tax revenues generated from development on the property would go back into redeveloping the site. Thanks to the opening of Sands Resort in 2009, the ensuing tax dollars led to the development of SteelStacks’ public plazas, Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks, the Visitor Center and eventually the Hoover Mason Trestle. Over the past decade, nearly $100 million has been invested in the SteelStacks site, with approximately 50 percent of it coming from the TIF and the other half raised by ArtsQuest and PBS 39 via public and private sources.

“For a city of 75,000 people that was already struggling because of the loss of its major employer – struggling in terms of the general economy – to take on a project of this size and this scope was rather daunting,” Hanna says. “We certainly thought this out, but it certainly was a daunting task when you look at the size of it.

“We started out to redevelop an industrial site and we ended up turning this into a community gathering place. I think that’s really the significance of winning both awards – the fact that we’ve created something that is not only special for us, but something that can be looked at by the entire country and say ‘that’s really special’.”

What They’re Saying About SteelStacks

To me, the most important thing is that people in the community think of ArtsQuest as available resources for creative ideas and community needs. People come to ArtsQuest to assist with special programs for arts in schools, promoting engineering as a field to students, allowing families with an autistic child to experience movies in a theater where the child can be himself, sharing the love of cars on a Sunday morning and even experiencing the soccer World Cup. ArtsQuest, with the Banana Factory and SteelStacks as resources, has helped to make this community a place where creativity is celebrated and everyone has access.Jeff ParksArtsQuest Founder and Former President

SteelStacks has provided Lehigh Valley and Bethlehem with an incredible destination for arts, music and history. We can look with pride at the number of visitors and residents who visit the site for multiple reasons. Visitors to Lehigh Valley are mesmerized by the view of the blast furnaces and, at the same time, become acquainted with the quality of programming available on site. The big payoff is that they return multiple times.Mike StershicPresident, Discover Lehigh Valley

I remember many people wanted us to tear down the blast furnaces because they were a constant reminder of the lost jobs and a failed Bethlehem Steel. It was difficult to get people to buy into the vision for the site; there were far more doubters than supporters. Very few people could understand what we were trying to build there and the long-term impacts SteelStacks would have.

The first year we held Musikfest over at SteelStacks I was in line when somebody from out of town said, “I wish we had one of these in our town.” I laughed to myself and thought nobody wanted the largest Brownfield site in the country in their town eight years ago. It’s amazing how this community made lemonade out of lemons.John CallahanFormer Mayor of Bethlehem

As PBS39 celebrates its 50th year — and launches its new strategic plan, WLVT 3.0 — there is no more fitting spot for us to be but here, celebrating the power of partnership, basking in the recognition of such an impressive honor as the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, and looking forward to the next chapter of the trip.Tim FallonCEO, PBS39

Working in the context of this immense steel mill – given both its history as well as its loss of driving purpose and economy – it was uniquely challenging to envision what sort of improvements could be done to the site that would be both respectful of the nature of the site, as it looked to recast it anew as a place that honored that history, but (also) looked resolutely towards the future.   Given the scale of the site, it was also challenging to envision a design that would not get lost or seem trifle on the site, and yet did not stick out like a sore thumb.Antonio Fiol-SilvaFounding Principal of SITIO architecture + urbanism; SteelStacks site plan designer with Wallace Roberts and Todd

Photo Credits: Zach Matthai, Craig Roberts & Historic Bethlehem Redevelopment