Civic Arena site may take years to develop

Penguins: razing, grading takes time

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Even with the vote Thursday to demolish the Civic Arena, it could be at least another two years before any redevelopment takes place on the site.

Penguins CEO David Morehouse said the team wouldn't exercise any of its development rights to the 28-acre site that includes the arena until the building has been torn down.

"The reason we're not getting started is because we want to be sure the arena is demolished," he said.

Under a timetable presented by the city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority, bids for the demolition likely won't be awarded until February. The work itself probably won't start until March.

Demolition and site grading could take an additional nine to 12 months, meaning that it might not be until sometime in 2012 before the Penguins hire a developer and begin the work of transforming the land into offices, housing and commercial endeavors.

Consultants to the SEA, the arena's owner, estimate the site won't be ready for development until at least the spring of 2012.

Local preservationists, led by architect Rob Pfaffmann and his Reuse the Igloo group, have vowed to go to court to try to block the landmark's razing. That could further upset the timetable for demolition and subsequent redevelopment.

The 28-acre site includes not only the arena property but the 9.5-acre Melody Tent site near Crawford Square owned by the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority.

However, Mr. Morehouse argued it made no sense to try to start redeveloping portions of the land while demolition is taking place elsewhere on the site.

The Penguins already have talked to about a dozen developers with an interest in the site, Mr. Morehouse said.

Now that the SEA has voted to tear down the arena, the Penguins intend to follow up with them. At some point it expects to issue a request for proposals from developers interested in working at the site, which borders the Hill District and the new Consol Energy Center.

"We can start talking to developers and we can start focusing on the development side of it a little bit more than we could before when it was uncertain whether the arena was going to be demolished," Mr. Morehouse said.

The Penguins' plan to redevelop the site with offices, housing and commercial space has been years in the making.

It first emerged in 2005 when the team partnered with Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. and Nationwide Realty Investors of Columbus, Ohio, in an unsuccessful bid for the city's lone slot machine casino.

At the time, the Penguins and their partners put together a $400 million proposal that included as many as 1,700 residential units, a 400-room hotel, and up to eight parking garages.

The Penguins have since modified the concept. The latest draft, finished in February, proposes 1,200 units of housing, 605,550 square feet of office space, 254,750 square feet of commercial space, 5.8 acres of open space and 2,336 parking spaces.

In addition, the team envisions a 150-room medium- to high-end hotel on the site. The housing could feature a mix of apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes. The team hopes to develop some units that are affordable to younger, more moderate-income people.

While much of the debate has been centered on the future of the arena itself, Mr. Morehouse said it is uncommon for major cities these days to have a 28-acre plot of land available for redevelopment adjacent to Downtown.

"We don't take developing that land very lightly," he said. "It's a very rare opportunity to take a prime piece of real estate and turn it into something that can be transformative for the region."

The plan has its critics. Todd Poole, a consultant hired by Reuse the Igloo, panned one rendition that showed big box restaurants like Cheesecake Factory and a multiscreen movie theater, saying the city was oversaturated with such development.

He also questioned whether the proposal would steal businesses from Downtown and inflate vacancy rates. But Mr. Morehouse argued the various components of the plan had been backed by economic studies commissioned by the Penguins.

"The studies show that this market at this time can sustain 600,000 square feet of office space. Period. I think we need more office space before we need a bowling alley," he said, referring to one element in a plan for reusing the arena prepared by Mr. Pfaffmann's group.

In comments before the SEA voted Thursday to demolish the Igloo, Mr. Pfaffmann also predicted that the Penguins would use the land on which the arena sits for parking until at least 2015.

Under the deal reached with state and local leaders to build the Consol Energy Center, the Penguins, once the arena has been leveled, have the right to use the land initially for that purpose. Mr. Morehouse vowed it "won't be a parking lot for 10 years," however.

"Rob Pfaffmann will say anything he can to try to keep the arena up. That's his goal. He has no basis for any of it. We are committed to putting development there," he said.

As part of their Consol deal, the Penguins must develop 2.8 acres annually for 10 years or lose the rights to the land.


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


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