With issues unsettled, Penguins risk snag on Hill projects

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With talks over issues like affordable housing still unsettled, the Penguins may not make an October deadline for the start of their proposed office, residential and commercial development at the former Civic Arena site.

While the Penguins have not requested an extension of the deadline, Travis Williams, the team's chief operating officer, said that meeting it could be tough given ongoing negotiations with Hill District leaders and the city.

"It's very difficult as time continues to pass," he said.

The Penguins won the rights to develop the 28-acre arena site in the 2007 deal with local and state political leaders to build the Consol Energy Center. Under that agreement, they must begin work on the first parcel by Oct. 31 or possibly lose the rights to it.

While the clock has been ticking, the team has been locked in discussions with Hill leaders and city officials over a host of issues relating to the development.

A key one has been affordable housing. Hill leaders want 30 percent of the units priced low enough to be within the means of lower-income residents. The Penguins and their residential developer, St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar, have set the limit at 20 percent.

The disagreement and subsequent talks aimed at resolving it have forced the Penguins to delay the submission of a preliminary land development plan and a request for a new zoning district to city planners.

Team officials had hoped to make the submissions in December. The Penguins need to get approval from the city planning commission on the zoning district and land development plan and from council on the zoning before they can start the development.

Mr. Williams stressed the team still is striving to make the October deadline. But with the preliminary land development submission on hold, it "certainly puts us in a difficult position to do the first take-down by October," he noted.

"Ideally we would like to do it in October. But if that happens to slip, that doesn't mean everyone is not committed to making it a marquee development for the region and doing it in a timely fashion," he said.

Mr. Williams noted the Penguins have a developer, McCormack Baron, in place that is ready to start as soon as possible. The team, he said, also has been working very closely with the city, the county, the SEA, and Hill leaders to try to resolve the outstanding issues.

"This is a unique opportunity for the region. We want to do it right," he said. "It's better to do things in a thoughtful manner and take our time rather than rushing through it based on a deadline."

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said he sees the timing of the development's start as a secondary issue to the need for the Penguins to work with the Hill and all parties to shape the development.

As long as the team is engaging the community, "we're willing to work with them on the timing," he said.

City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill, said neighborhood leaders "would have to understand the reasoning for the extension before we could even consider it."

"Right now, the timeline is the timeline and everyone should be doing their best to stick to it," he said.

Mr. Lavelle believes there still is time to get the disputed issues resolved with the community and meet the deadline.

The Penguins have not made a formal request for an extension, said Mary Conturo, executive director of the city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns much of the 28-acre site.

Any extension would have to be negotiated. She would not say whether the team would face penalties, such as a loss of rights to parcels.

"The terms of an extension would need to be mutually agreed to," she said. "Right now we're focused on trying to keep everything moving."

Mr. Lavelle said there should be some type of penalty for missing the deadline if it comes to that.

Based on past plans, the team's proposed development would feature 1,192 residential units, 691,962 square feet of office space, and 200,101 square feet of retail space. There's also talk of a 150-room hotel and a 2,310-seat cineplex. The Penguins are hoping to kick off the development with housing on the east side of the site adjacent to the Hill's Crawford Square residential development.

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

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