Penguins' plans for Civic Arena site hit snag

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The Penguins are delaying the submission of formal plans to redevelop the former Civic Arena site after Hill District residents railed against the level of affordable housing included in the proposal.

Team officials had hoped to submit a preliminary land development plan and a request for a new zoning district to Pittsburgh planners next week but now have delayed that indefinitely.

The decision comes about two weeks after angry Hill District residents complained at a public meeting that the Penguins did not include enough affordable housing in the plans for nearly 1,200 units to be developed at the site.

They told team officials they wanted 30 percent of the units to be classified as affordable to households earning 50 percent of the average median household income, as called for in the Hill District master plan.

But the Penguins have refused to go that far. They and their residential developer, St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar, are offering to designate 20 percent of the units as affordable to households earning 80 percent of the average median income.

Travis Williams, the Penguins' chief operating officer, acknowledged Wednesday that the complaints prompted the team to cancel a community meeting this week and delay the submission of plans to the city.

"We heard the community. That's an important issue to them. We believe there needs to be a broader discussion," he said.

"I'm glad they listened to what the community had to say, although we haven't seen the final product yet," said Carl Redwood, head of the Hill District Consensus Group. He wants the 30 percent affordable housing included as a zoning requirement for the site.

Mr. Williams said the Penguins are talking to the city and county agencies and representatives for Mayor-elect Bill Peduto about whether increasing the level of affordable housing makes sense and what kind of implications that would have for the site, the Hill, and the region.

Part of the discussion involves what public subsidies might be available to help increase the level of affordable housing. Vince Bennett, McCormack Baron chief operating officer and executive vice president, has said that setting aside 30 percent of the units as affordable would create a financial gap in the project.

City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, whose district includes the Hill and the adjacent arena site, said the team has been talking to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority and the county about "how government can participate in the levels of affordable housing at the site."

But Mr. Williams said the conversations with the city and county are going beyond the issue of funding. They also are discussing what increasing the level of affordable housing would mean to the marketability of the site and the overall impact it could have on the Hill and the region as a whole.

He added it would be "premature" to say whether the team and McCormack Baron will be able to meet the demands for the higher level of affordable housing.

Asked whether the community would accept less than 30 percent, Mr. Lavelle replied, "At this time, I would say no."

He noted that the adjacent Crawford Square housing complex, which was developed by McCormack Baron, has varying percentages of affordable housing, including some as high as 30 percent. That development, he said, "is hailed as a good model."

The Penguins won the rights to develop the arena site in the 2007 deal to build Consol Energy Center. Under that accord, they must take down the first parcel by Oct. 31, 2014, or possibly lose the rights to it.

Mr. Williams did not think the delay in submitting the formal plans would affect that deadline at this point. But he added the more things get held up, the greater potential there is for that to happen.

The Penguins, he added, would like to be in position to submit a formal preliminary land development plan in the "near future" but won't do so until they finish their discussions with the city and the county and meet with the community again.

He did not view the delay as a setback.

"It's all part of the process. We would have loved to be in position to file the preliminary land development plan [next week] but we also understand that with developments, things take time," he said.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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