Hill residents rip proposal for former Civic Arena site housing

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The Penguins' plans to redevelop the 28-acre former Civic Arena site came under fire Thursday from Hill District residents who railed against proposed affordable housing levels and other aspects of the office, residential and commercial project.

Residents said they were growing frustrated over the lack of progress in negotiations over key issues such as housing and were incensed the team intended to submit a preliminary land development plan to the city next month without agreement with the community.

"If you submit, you do not have our support, and we will fight you tooth and nail on it," said Audrey Anderson, who has lived in the Hill District for almost 62 years.

Despite nine months of talks between the Penguins and their consultants and various Hill community groups and stakeholders, Frankie Harris, another Hill resident, said she had no faith in the outcome.

"We're not getting anything at all in this process," she fumed.

The most contentious issue involved the nearly 1,200 units of housing proposed for the lower Hill site, which the Penguins won the development rights to in the 2007 deal to build Consol Energy Center.

Residents want 30 percent of those units classified as affordable to lower-income households, as called for in the Hill District master plan. But the Penguins so far won't go beyond 20 percent.

One man, Sean McCaskill, said market rate apartments could be renting for $1,000 or more at the site.

Without units set aside for lower income residents, "you're pricing people out of the property."

"I don't think too many people at these tables can afford $1,000 a month," he said.

Vince Bennett, chief operating officer and executive vice president for McCormack Baron Salazar, the developer selected by the Penguins to do the housing, said that setting aside 30 percent of the units as affordable would create a financial gap in the project.

He said he's willing to explore the higher percentage but stressed that it would take collaboration with the community to find the funding to fill the gap.

"Is it achievable? It could be. But we have to work together," he said.

Craig Dunham, president of Dunham ReGroup, a Penguins consultant, said the preliminary land development plan the team intends to submit to the planning commission the week of Dec. 9 won't include any percentage on affordable housing. He said it would address street layouts, building heights, and things of that nature.

But that did not appease many of the Hill residents who attended the meeting at the Hill House's Kaufmann Center and urged the Penguins to delay the submission until there was agreement with the community.

However, Travis Williams, the Penguins' chief operating officer, said the team is under a tight timetable to start the development and needs to get city approvals so construction can start by next October.

"If we don't, we forfeit the property and development doesn't happen," he said, adding that the team will continue to work with Hill stakeholders to try to reach an agreement.

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

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