$5M digital innovation lab to be built on site of New Kensington community garden

Brian C. Rittmeyer
 | Tuesday, August 11, 2020 8:45 p.m.

LOUIS B. RUEDIGER | TRIBUNE-REVIEW
The New Kensington Community Garden on Fifth Avenue in New Kensington on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. Construction of a $5 million digital innovation lab is expected to start at the property this fall, with the garden being relocated.

A community garden once heralded as among the first efforts to revitalize New Kensington’s downtown will make way for a building that will bring digital tools to the area’s businesses, industries, entrepreneurs and students.

Construction of the $5 million digital innovation lab is expected to start this fall at the garden site along Fifth Avenue, said Jim Smith, president and chief executive officer of Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland. The two-story, 13,000-square-foot building will take a year to finish.

The lab, an effort between Economic Growth Connection, Penn State New Kensington and Westmoreland County Industrial Development, will make digital tools that large companies use to create simulations of products and equipment accessible to small businesses and manufactures in the area.

The Richard King Mellon Foundation awarded $5.5 million to the project in February.

“We hope it’s going to be something that fits into the city and honors the city but is also something that provides impact and a spark,” Smith said. “Hopefully we can put New Kensington back to where it belongs right in the center of innovation.”

Garden to move

The garden, which dates to 2012, will not be lost. It will be moved to where the lab was first planned to be built closer to The Corner, Penn State New Kensington’s innovation hub, Smith said.

Parts of the garden such as its rainwater collection system, two large sheds, and a pergola are able to be moved, said Patrick Coulson, director of Westmoreland County Community College’s New Kensington campus and the garden’s volunteer director.

“This was a concern from the beginning: What if someone wanted to purchase or redevelop this property?” Coulson said. “We made sure with every decision we’d have the ability to relocate it elsewhere if need be.”

The garden is at about the mid-point of the city’s “Corridor of Innovation” — five blocks of Fifth Avenue between The Corner and community college.

Smith said title defects arose with the first site, consisting of several parcels closer to The Corner and next to the building housing the Social Security Administration office.

Smith said their options were to move to the garden or tear down three buildings at the first site, which he said are in good condition with a “high potential” for redevelopment.

“We didn’t want to tear down one more building on a street that already has several missing buildings,” Smith said.

The garden was owned by the city and its redevelopment authority. City council recently approved a $40,000 appraisal of the property and transferring it to the redevelopment authority. Mayor Tom Guzzo said that was done because while the city can’t sell the property, the authority can.

Smith said he was grateful that officials with the city and redevelopment authority made the site available for the lab.

Penn State New Kensington Chancellor Kevin Snider said they expect to announce a director for the lab in the near future.

The covid-19 pandemic has already affected the project, Snider said.

“People are going to need these skills to get back into the workforce. The pandemic has shown us we are already in a digital world,” he said. “Our hopes with this digital innovation lab are we can help individuals and workers and companies in the area prepare for a different future. That future’s here. It’s come a lot faster than we thought it would be.”

How many tenants the building will house will depend on how much space each uses. While no tenants have yet signed leases, Smith said several have shown strong interest.

Smith said having the lab at the mid-point of the corridor should encourage more foot traffic along Fifth Avenue.

“Hopefully that will help add some energy in New Kensington and opportunities for other vendors,” Snider said.

Before volunteers created the garden, the lot had been an empty dumping ground after a fire in December 2006 destroyed two vacant buildings there, one formerly housing Pittsburgh Beauty Academy.

The produce grown in the garden has been given to food banks, churches and senior citizen homes.

Despite all the work put into the garden, Coulson said the lab is a higher and better use of the property.

“I’m glad it’s been successful this long,” he said. “A lot of initiatives, it’s not so difficult to start them as it is to continue them. I’m just glad it’s continuing on.”

Coulson said many were skeptical of the garden when he first proposed it to Guzzo. But downtown New Kensington is different now than it was then.

“A significant amount of investment has happened. There’s been a number of positive things happen,” he said. “It’s been interesting to watch.”