Penguins seek more time on Civic Arena site development

As negotiations with Hill District leaders continue, the Penguins are looking for more time to get started on a proposed office, residential and commercial development at the former Civic Arena site.

The hockey team is under a deadline to begin the work by Halloween, but is seeking approval from the city and the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority to push that back a year.

Travis Williams, the Penguins’ chief operating officer, said the extension is warranted given the ongoing negotiations with the Hill residents, the need to put roads and utilities in place at the arena site, and trying to finalize a more detailed agreement governing the development of the land.

“Putting together a large, sophisticated development takes time,” he said. “It’s not cookie cutter, one size fits all. Between the negotiations and working with the SEA on the infrastructure, we felt it made a lot of sense to push back the development period a year.”

The Penguins won the rights to develop the 28-acre site, owned by the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and the SEA, in the 2007 deal to build Consol Energy Center.

Under that agreement, the team was to draw down the first parcel by Oct. 31 or possibly lose the development rights. The Penguins have 10 years, or until 2024, to develop all 28 acres. Under the proposed extension, the end date also would be moved back a year.

Mr. Williams said the original deadline was established in a vacuum without the context of the Hill negotiations or what was involved in getting the infrastructure in place.

As a result, it makes more sense to give the team “some time to get it right as opposed to putting artificial deadlines on people that don’t really serve a purpose,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the region. We’re trying to get it right and make sure everyone benefits from it.”

Kevin Acklin, chief of staff for Mayor Bill Peduto and URA board chairman, said no decision has been made regarding an extension.

He said he saw the Penguins’ request for more time as part of a broader discussion aimed at crafting an agreement that builds generational wealth in the Hill and creates a “transformational” development at the former arena site.

“The extension is an element that is on the table. There have been no formal concessions by the SEA or the URA or the city or the county on that point but we are engaged in robust discussions almost on a daily basis with the Penguins and the community to find a resolution to the open issues,” he said.

The team has been trying for more than a year to reach an agreement with Hill representatives on a host of issues relating to the development.

City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, D-Hill District, said the team and Hill leaders are still divided over the proposed levels of minority and women participation in the project and how much affordable housing will be built at the site.

Hill leaders are demanding minority participation of 35 percent and women participation of 15 percent in the pre-development, construction, and post-development phases of the project. The Penguins have countered with 25 and 10 percent, he said. The 25 and 10 percent requirements have been in place on city projects for years, he said, and have not done enough to help minorities and women.

“I said from day one that this is an opportunity to lift minorities in the city out of poverty. We’re not willing to commit to a lower goal,” he said, adding that accepting 25 and 10 “will maintain the same poverty levels we’ve had for the last 30 years, which is not my goal.”

The other big sticking point has been over the level of affordable housing to include in the 1,192-unit residential phase of the development.

Hill leaders have been pressing the Penguins and their residential developer, St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar, to price 30 percent of the units so that they would be affordable to people who make 30 to 80 percent of the area median income. The team has offered to make 20 percent available to those earning 80 percent of the area median.

Mr. Lavelle said he’s opposed to giving the Penguins more time to start the project unless it’s part of an overall agreement between the team and the Hill community.

“At this point in time, I see no reason to extend it,” he said. “I believe they should be held to that timetable as opposed to just pushing development further and further off and leaving a parking lot there.”

Mr. Williams said higher levels of affordable housing at the arena site would require greater subsidies, money that could be used instead to improve the housing stock in the middle and upper Hill. He said the Penguins’ goals for minority and women participation are in line with those of the city and the SEA.

Nonetheless, he doesn’t believe either issue is a deal breaker.

“We feel we’ve made a lot of good progress with the community. There are still open issues to be resolved but by no means do we think they’re insurmountable. But it requires everyone to collaborate,” he said.

Mr. Peduto has said in the past that holding the Penguins to the October deadline to start the project is less important to him than is getting an agreement that will benefit the Hill and produce quality development.

Until development takes place on the arena site, the Penguins have been using the land for parking, generating revenue it gets to keep. But Mr. Williams stressed that the team’s desire is to develop the land.

“We’re actively involved in negotiations with the community. We wouldn’t be doing that if we wanted to keep it as a parking lot. That’s not our intent by any means,” he said.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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