A year and a half ago, Katrina Flora returned to Pittsburgh after a decade away from her hometown.
She first left to attend the University of Washington in Seattle, pursuing a degree in political science and environmental studies. It was “the early days of Amazon building up its South Lake Union ‘campus'” but at the time, Flora says it “certainly didn’t register on my radar.”
It’s on her radar now. Flora is the special projects manager for Hazelwood Green, a 178-acre former steel mill poised for a massive redevelopment that will include housing, public spaces, and commercial offices. The site is considered a frontrunner if Amazon selects Pittsburgh for its second headquarters.
“I am working on one of the most unique and unusual development projects that truly has the opportunity to make a difference for this city, region, and nationally,” Flora said.
Both Flora’s parents are urban planners and her mother, Rebecca Flora, is leading the Hazelwood Green project.
“The project has been and will continue to be an incredible learning and building experience for all involved,” Flora said.
GeekWire interviewed Flora for this Pittsburgh Profile, a series of Q&As with some of the most influential people and interesting characters we meet during our month-long “HQ2” project.
Continue reading for her answers to our questions, and check out all of our Pittsburgh coverage here.
What do you love about Pittsburgh and what would you change?
Flora: I love the Pittsburgh degrees of separation, the that is so Pittsburgh. It is in some ways a very small city — when you meet someone else from Pittsburgh (adopted or native) you can consistently find a person in common. There are always stories of how people found their apartment or the living room couch, and stories of people helping each other. I’ve speculated the massive population dispersion in the ‘70s and ‘80s had something to do with the number of people with Pittsburgh connections and ties scattered across the country (and the world). Even when people leave the city, they don’t leave Pittsburgh behind. I imagine that breaking into a place where everyone knows everyone can be difficult for people who are new to the city, and that don’t have family or friends here. But maybe it is just Midwest enough, because Pittsburghers are generally very friendly and willing to help others out, to introduce people to their connections, and to welcome folks to the city (in a sense it is the opposite of the supposed Seattle Freeze).
Transportation continues to be a challenge for the city; its topography doesn’t help. As a longtime bicyclist and transit advocate, I don’t own a car and don’t want to buy a car, but getting around this city without one can be difficult at times. Some of this has changed recently (Pittsburgh has never really had proactive cabs, the growth of Uber and Lyft filled a significant void in that sense), but I would like to see more investment and commitment from all levels of government in public transit. Thanks to a lot of the work by Bike Pittsburgh, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure investments and advocacy are well on their way, though they can always use added support.”
Favorite Pittsburgh spot?
Flora: Walking or biking across the bridges – the Sister Bridges, Hot Metal Bridge, and the Smithfield Street bridges especially – and the park and trail system. One of my favorite things of both Seattle and Pittsburgh is the extensive park systems in each city; they’ve set the bar pretty high. Growing up, two of Pittsburgh’s parks – Schenley and Frick Park, both 400+ acres – felt like my backyard. A substantial portion of Pittsburgh’s park systems were gifted lands and/or former estates of founding families that left quite the legacy behind.
Favorite Pittsburgh celebrity?
Flora: I can’t say I pay too much attention to Pittsburgh “celebrities,” but you have to hand it to both Rachel Carson and Mr. Rogers!
Best food in Pittsburgh?
Flora: That is a hard one. Pierogis and Pittsburgh staples aside, to name a few favorite restaurants (and I apologize for the east end focus): Morcilla (best small plates), Pusadee’s Garden (best outdoor seating), Smallman Galley (best variety), Enrico Biscotti Company (best smells), and Hidden Harbor (most unexpected ‘new’ establishment – when I moved back).
Best insider tip for transplants?
Flora: Visit other neighborhoods! There are so many in this city, tucked away in valleys and up hills that you may never even know they’re there until you go.
Favorite Pittsburgh word or phrase?
Flora: I would have to say “nebby.” I don’t use it much, and I’m not entirely sure what its origins are or if it is even officially considered Pittsburghese, but it brings a sense of nostalgia from growing up here. FYI, you would call someone who is being nosey, “nebby.”
Pittsburgh’s most important innovation or invention?
Flora: I don’t know about “most important,” but I will say I am regularly blown away by the things that originated in Pittsburgh, and simply the amount that was produced here.
How would you describe the tech, innovation and startup activity taking place in Pittsburgh to an outsider who hasn’t experienced it?
Flora: While it inadvertently intersects with what I do – as the main focus for Hazelwood Green’s development – for the most part, I am not in that world on the day-to-day. I would say it doesn’t feel as omnipresent as it may in other cities. It feels more grassroots and isn’t always about the tech sector, but is about innovation in other industries, small and large. A large part of that is the affordability factor. Like many other burgeoning cities, people (especially younger people) can afford to take more risks, experiment, and try new models because cost of living is relatively low, and there is a large number resources and networks available here.
What do you think are the chances of Amazon HQ2 ending up in Pittsburgh?
Flora: Pittsburgh may not seem like an obvious choice to some, but it certainly hits most of Amazon’s criteria. Aside from the obvious (and stellar) connections to universities and talent, and a history of industrial innovation, Pittsburgh is also uniquely positioned. The city can absorb a substantial amount of growth (today, its population is less than half of what it once was) and it is in a relatively low-risk area for climate change impacts and stressors that, over the next couple of decades, will continue to increasingly impact coastal cities. Personally, I have mixed feelings about how Amazon approached this process and government agencies’ use of economic incentives for private companies. However, there is no doubt that if done right, the influx of jobs and investment that Amazon is predicting for HQ2 could greatly benefit Pittsburgh and the region.
Can you tell us about any memorable experiences you had in Pittsburgh that illustrate the character and nature of the city and its tech/startup/engineering community?
Flora: There has always been a local effort to bring more women into engineering and “the sciences.” In middle school, with the support from my sixth-grade science teacher, I applied and won a scholarship to attend space camp from CMU’s Society of Women Engineers. While I didn’t go on to become an astronaut, it was certainly a memorable experience and demonstration that I had opportunities, I had options. Today, there are even more programs (local and national), like Girls of Steel, Hive Pittsburgh, and Remake Learning to name a few, that have been working to bring diversity and eliminate entry barriers. All of these programs, and the continued, passionate support of educators, community leaders, non-profits, and others are what help make Pittsburgh’s community special.
If you were parachuting into Pittsburgh as a tech/business reporter, what’s the first story you’d want to cover? Who is the first person you’d want to sit down with?
Flora: See above, perhaps take a look at what Pittsburgh leaders and organizations are doing to prepare the future generations, or what the workforce gaps are in the tech industry.
Any other advice for GeekWire HQ2 in Pittsburgh?
Flora: You’re from Seattle, so you’ll do fine, but prepare for any and all weather!
LinkedIn: Katrina Flora