Civic Arena backers lose plea before history panel

Review commission reverses position; preservationists say they'll fight on

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The Civic Arena has moved a step closer to extinction.

Reversing an earlier decision, the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission Wednesday rejected a bid to nominate the 49-year-old landmark as a city historic structure.

In a 6-0 vote, the commission decided that the arena, despite its retractable roof and unique shape, did not meet any of the 10 criteria needed to be designated as a city historic structure.

"It was a very difficult decision," said Ernie Hogan, the commission's acting chair. The other members said they struggled with their vote as well.

The decision is a setback for local preservationists, led by architect Rob Pfaffmann, who are trying to save the arena from the wrecking ball. The building is targeted for demolition by the city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority as part of a plan by the Penguins to use the site for houses, offices and shops.

Mr. Pfaffmann said afterward that he and his group, Reuse the Igloo, would take their fight to the city planning commission and to city council, which will have the final say in the arena's fate.

The city planning commission is expected to take up the matter later this month and could decide to hold a public hearing before taking a vote. That action is then forwarded in the form of a recommendation to city council.

He said he was disappointed but unbowed by the commission's decision.

"It's always been a tough battle. We're up against the most powerful economic and political interests in the region. Therefore we don't ever expect this to be easy. We're hoping we'll be able to bring public opinion around," he said.

Eloise McDonald, the Hill District resident who nominated the arena for the historic designation, chalked up the defeat to politics.

She alluded to the fact that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who appoints the commission members, supports demolition and proposed site redevelopment. She believes the panelists were following orders in voting down the nomination.

"You can't think for yourself. You do what you're told and we all know who they work for, period," she said minutes after the vote.

However, Mr. Hogan said he wasn't told by the mayor or anyone else how to vote. He said he ultimately decided that the arena did not meet any of the criteria to be designated as a historic structure. The criteria included exemplification of a rare, unique or innovative architectural style -- the one with which he said he struggled the most -- and unique location and distinctive physical appearance.

"I took my job seriously, I did some research, and it was a hard decision for me," he said.

Mr. Hogan said he wasn't sure that the arena qualified for the designation given that it's no longer used -- and hasn't been for some time -- for its intended purpose, as an open air amphitheater.

In that regard, "It's not something that should be celebrated. It's failed architecture," he said.

Another commission member, Joe Serrao, said that most of reuse proposals called for the gutting of the arena's interior. He said what the commission would be preserving was not the building, but the roof.

Commission member John Jennings, acting chief of the city's bureau of building inspection, added that those seeking to save the arena haven't secured financial backing or a developer.

Given that, if nominated, the building could sit vacant for years without any viable plan for reuse, he said. The cost of renovation also could be quite high, Mr. Hogan said.

As a result, the SEA, the arena owner, might be able to make the case at some point that the building should be demolished because it had become an economic hardship. City law allows for such action.

"I would have a real hard time not approving the demolition" under such circumstances, Mr. Hogan said.

Wednesday's decision was in contrast to the commission's 5-1 vote in January to give preliminary approval to the arena's designation as a city historic structure. It warned at the time the action was not a determination on the merits of the nomination.

In fact, it marked the second time the commission has changed its mind on the arena's historic value. Nine years ago, the commission also gave preliminary approval to the arena's designation as a historic structure only to reject it in a final vote.

Mr. Jennings said he has seen nothing in the intervening years that would make the arena more historically significant than it was considered then.

But Mr. Pfaffmann said the commission erred in its evaluation of the criteria for designation. He argued, for instance, that the city law is focused on preserving the outside of the building, not the inside. He said there are many examples of preserved structures being gutted on the inside and used for other purposes.

"Adaptive reuse is an inherent part of historic preservation," he said. "You can't make the argument just based on its current use. So we find that to be a real flaw in their logic."

Scott Leib, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, called the commission's decision "misguided."

He noted that the Penguins had yet to secure a developer or come up with a final plan to redevelop the site.

"I want to know what we're going to get in exchange for the loss of the arena and no one can tell us that," he said.

The Penguins, meanwhile, said they were very pleased with the commission's decision. The team has development rights over 28 acres of land that includes the arena.

As part of its proposed redevelopment, it wants to reconstruct a street grid that would reconnect the Hill District and Downtown, a tie lost when the arena was built nearly half a century ago.

The redevelopment would create jobs and help increase the tax base of the city and the region, said Travis Williams, the Penguins' senior vice president of business affairs and general counsel.

"We think it's the right thing," he said of the commission's vote.


Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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