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Pittsburgh’s New Arena: Back to the Future?

August 30, 2007

by Charles Rosenblum

HOK Sport unveiled conceptual plans on Tuesday for a new $290 million hockey arena in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, at the eastern edge of downtown. When the city’s Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA) and the Pittsburgh Penguins announced the project earlier this year, it reopened old wounds in the contentious relationship between development authorities and residents of the city’s storied Hill District.

Image: Courtesy HOK Sport
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The existing Mellon Arena, designed by Mitchell and Ritchey, is hockey’s oldest operating arena, opened in 1961. As RECORD reported in its November issue that year, the stainless steel building’s retractable roof was a first. But the Penguins, who have played there since 1967, threatened to leave Pittsburgh unless they got a new, publicly subsidized venue. The team’s owners complain about the building’s poor sightlines and outdated mechanical equipment—not to mention an insufficient number of luxury boxes.

In HOK Sport’s preliminary renderings of the new building, a metal- and glass-clad oval-shaped arena—with an estimated seating capacity of 18,000—fits tightly into its sloping urban site. It presents an 80-foot-tall crystalline entry volume to Centre Avenue, adjacent to Epiphany Church. On its Fifth Avenue elevation, a masonry facade—some 130 feet long and 55 feet high—alludes to the aesthetic of the few remaining historic structures nearby. Final designs could be ready as early as this fall and the building is scheduled to open in 2010.

Under an agreement brokered with help from Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, the bond issue will be paid with revenue from a soon-to-be-built casino on Pittsburgh’s North Side, owned and operated by PITG Gaming. The deal also gives the Penguins rights and a $15 million incentive to redevelop the old arena’s site.

That land, at the eastern edge of downtown, resulted from demolishing the culturally rich, primarily African American Lower Hill District during the 1950s to make way for a largely unrealized cultural and residential redevelopment. Adjoining neighborhoods continue to struggle economically and resentment runs high.

“The Penguins have never been a friend of the Hill District, as far as I’m concerned,” Lois M. Cain, a long-time Hill resident and activist, said at a public meeting in June. As to any agreements about community benefits and accommodations from a new stadium, she warned, “You better make sure it’s legal and it’s in writing.”

Neighborhood groups, led by the One Hill Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, are lobbying for grants, a share of development funds, and 30 percent minority hiring in development projects. Thus far, there are only agreements for the Penguins but not for the community.

To follow a city-mandated process, the Penguins and the SEA hired Don Carter, FAIA, of Urban Design Associates Architects, to conduct a separate series of community meetings. Numerous groups hope to give their input. Among them is Preservation Pittsburgh, whose executive director, Steven Paul, laments the demolition of historic properties earlier this year under an outdated master plan formulated in 2005 for a proposed casino that was never built. His group supports a plan to identify and preserve remaining historic properties such as the childhood house of playwright August Wilson, and the New Granada Theater, an Art Deco movie house that hosted both musical performances and political rallies.

But Carter cautioned that his community meetings will address only topics that relate directly to the arena, “not the 28 acres [of redevelopment] or the Community Benefits Agreement.” While many observers find these negotiations a welcome step, they believe that the current master plan, adjacent development, and the Community Benefits Agreement must be considered more holistically to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

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