The Penguins scored another big victory yesterday, this one off the ice with city planning commission approval of the design for their $290 million arena.
A month after battering the design as bland and too mall-like, planning commission members voted unanimously in favor of the project after architects tweaked certain elements to address their concerns.
The decision clears the way for a groundbreaking this summer, with completion expected before the start of the 2010-2011 hockey season.
"Everything's falling into place," Penguins Chief Executive Officer Ken Sawyer said after yesterday's vote.
In some respects, getting to this point has been as challenging as the Penguins' quest for the Stanley Cup.
The team did not get an agreement on a new arena until March 2007, amid threats of a possible move. For months, the team and local government officials have been negotiating with Hill District leaders over a community benefits agreement, now nearing completion. Last month, it was forced to make modifications to the arena design after planning commission members raised objections.
The Penguins sought to counter some of the criticism yesterday by unveiling nighttime renderings of the arena that pictured the structure in a more favorable light. One showed the building's centerpiece -- a brightly lit glass atrium running along Washington Place and facing Downtown.
Those drawings, Mr. Sawyer said, really tell "the story of the design."
"The atrium in the front allows everyone to see the energy and electricity inside the building during events. When you're inside, you get to see the most beautiful city skyscape in the country," he said. "That's really the signature part and it came out today in those renderings."
Among the modifications to the design, architect HOK Sport reduced the amount of glass on the Fifth Avenue side of the arena and varied the storefronts to make the proposed spaces more individualized.
Planning Commissioner Todd Reidbord complained last month that the Fifth Avenue facade looked too much "like Disneyland, where everything is exactly the same." He was pleased with what he saw yesterday.
"What you've done is certainly a big improvement," he said.
The team also added more glass and removed banners from the arena's Centre Avenue side and the east facade facing Crawford Square, where some of the brick was removed in favor of panels at the request of engineers. The size of a video display board on Centre also was reduced.
Architects made changes to a parking garage to be built next to the building to address criticism that it was too generic looking.
Despite the modifications, there were lingering concerns about elements of the arena design, particularly the east facade facing the Hill.
Chairwoman Wrenna Watson, who initially raised concerns about that part of the building, was told, in response to her question, that much of the facade would be blocked by the parking garage and future development on that side.
Planning Commissioner Barbara Ernsberger said she found it "disconcerting" that anyone would count on future development to resolve design issues.
Another member, Barbara Mistick, said many of the design issues that developed over the past several weeks had been raised by the city's contextual design advisory panel months ago.
"We're talking about the same things over and over again," she said.
She added that the outside of the building, not the inside, is what most people will see.
Among conditions of the approval, the commission ordered that final design of the Fifth Avenue retail space be reviewed and approved by city planning staff before completion and that the final design of the east facade facing the Hill also be submitted and acted on by staff before a building permit is issued.
Another point of contention, a proposed walkway that is to connect Centre and Fifth avenues on the west side of the arena facing Downtown must be finished before an occupancy permit is issued for the building. That's assuming that funding for the connection, which is separate from the arena financing, is in place by July 31, 2009.
Instead of placing banners on some parts of the arena, the Penguins may commission public art to fill some of the space. The team, said HOK architect Wayne London, also is looking for sites for a "statue of a well-known player for the region," referring to Penguins Hall of Famer and owner Mario Lemieux.
Mark Belko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1262.