Street grid proposal reconnects Pittsburgh's Hill District to Downtown

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For more than 50 years, the Hill District was separated from Downtown as a result of the Civic Arena development and the vast stretches of parking surrounding it. Now the first steps toward reconnecting the two, at least as much as possible, are in the works.

Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports and Exhibition Authority officials will be submitting to City Council this month the proposed street grid for the arena redevelopment -- one that may now include a cineplex in addition to housing, office space and retail.

It marks a first step in trying to re-establish the Hill-Downtown link that was severed when most of the lower Hill was demolished to make way for the arena construction in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Re-creating an exact duplicate is impossible, in part because of modern development standards, said Travis Williams, chief operating officer for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, which holds the development rights to the 28-acre arena site.

"But the idea of re-creating a neighborhood feel with streets that run through it and reconnect Downtown with the middle Hill District is certainly something we're trying to do," he said.

One Hill District leader criticized the timing of the submission, saying the focus should be on what the community will gain from the redevelopment, not on where the roads should go.

PG graphic: Lower hill development
(Click image for larger version)

"What they're trying to do is get us to discuss the merits of whether a road should go this way. They want us to get caught up in the weeds," said Carl Redwood, head of the Hill District Consensus Group. "The real question is development for who, and how we will benefit from all of the stuff they're proposing."

Under the plan, the triangular redevelopment area will be bordered by Centre Avenue to the south, Bedford Avenue to the north, Crawford Street to the east and Washington Place to the west -- all remaining virtually the same as during the arena years.

The most significant change is that Wylie Avenue, which now ends at Crawford Street, will cut the entire way through the redevelopment to Washington Place, where it will end. Because of the Crosstown Expressway, Wylie cannot go directly into Downtown. Officials are hoping to build a $20 million "cap" over the expressway filled with walking and bike paths to provide a link.

Two new streets will run north to south from Bedford to Centre. A third street will cut about a quarter of the way into the development from Centre and a fourth will serve as a cul-de-sac to the north of Wylie.

The Penguins considered extending Webster Avenue into the development from the Hill, but Mr. Williams said that elevation changes made it "nearly impossible" to do so in a way that was in line with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

"It would have been way too steep to be usable and compliant with all the codes," he said.

While few people who attended community meetings about the street layout were pleased with the cul-de-sac ending before Webster Avenue, that could be addressed with a pedestrian connection, said Marimba Milliones, CEO and president of the Hill Community Development Corp.

She said the larger issue is that traffic signals and flows in and around the site don't create conditions that would hinder growth in the neighborhood as a whole.

City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill, said he is comfortable with the proposed street layout. However, Hill leaders want to see the streets named after musicians, entertainers, artists or others who represent the neighborhood's legacy. Mr. Lavelle said it is "imperative" that the new development reflects that identity.

Mr. Williams said the team is open to such requests.

Submitting the street layout clears the way for the roads to be accepted as public rights of way. That could help in securing funding for the estimated $36 million in roads, utilities and other site infrastructure, said SEA executive director Mary Conturo.

The street layout was broken out from a larger preliminary land development plan that has yet to be finalized. The Penguins and Hill leaders are still debating issues like the percentage of affordable housing that will be built on the property and the level of minority participation in jobs, contracting and business.

Mr. Redwood said his group would oppose action by City Council on the street layout unless there is agreement on community benefits first. "They're trying to get us to support their stuff first and then ignore us on the back end," he said.

But Mr. Williams noted that it was the SEA, working with Mr. Lavelle, that was submitting the street layout for approval. He said the Penguins have been discussing issues like jobs, minority participation and wealth-building related to the site with Hill leaders for nearly two years.

As an outgrowth of those discussions, the Penguins hope to be able to discuss a plan of action related to such issues with the neighborhood as a whole in the near future, he said.

"We're not trying to pull a fast one over on anyone. We've been committed to working with the community and have been working with the community on all of those issues," he said.

Based on information contained in a recent transportation study of the arena site, the Penguins are planning 1,192 residential units; 200,101 square feet of retail space; 691,962 square feet of office space; a 150-room hotel; and 2,957 off-street and 330 on-street parking spaces on the property.

The newest wrinkle is a 2,310-seat cineplex. Mr. Lavelle said such a potential development has been discussed, although he noted nothing has been finalized. He said the team believes the lower Hill development could support such a complex.

Mr. Williams described the proposed cineplex as "just a possible use. ... Nothing's been planned related to that. They're just giving examples," he said. "There could be any number of uses related to entertainment. That could be a potential one."

The Penguins hope to begin development on the site, most likely with housing, next year.

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


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