State preservation group urges delay in razing Civic Arena

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A local group seeking to prevent the razing of the Civic Arena has won an ally in its battle.

The state Bureau for Historic Preservation is urging the city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority to delay any demolition until the local group Reuse The Igloo and others trying to save the structure have more time to develop an alternative plan.

In a letter Thursday, Jean Cutler, director of the Bureau for Historic Preservation, said a delay would allow the SEA to "more fully engage in assisting" those advocating a reuse and help to cement Pittsburgh's reputation as a sustainable city.

"Promoting and implementing the adaptive reuse of existing assets is a necessary component to any city's claim to sustainable development policies," she wrote. "Premature demolition of the arena could tarnish Pittsburgh's claim to be a leader in sustainable development."

While Ms. Cutler acknowledged in her letter that there are "carrying costs" associated with delaying the demolition -- estimated by the SEA at $76,362 to $122,244 a month -- she noted that there are also "significant" costs associated with razing the building, formerly known as Mellon Arena. The SEA estimates those at $5 million, including the cost of asbestos removal.

Aside from that, the state History Code requirement for consultation with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission before any demolition speaks to an "understood intrinsic value to pursuing adaptive reuses of historic properties beyond that of expediency or cost," she wrote. The bureau is part of the museum commission.

Ms. Cutler said in the letter that the bureau also believed that the Civic Arena was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, as it embodies a "significant and distinctive type of classic mid-20th century civic architecture." While those on the list are considered worthy of saving, the designation doesn't prevent the demolition of a structure.

The SEA has yet to make a formal recommendation on the future of the 48-year-old silver domed arena, but a consultant has dubbed demolition as the preferred alternative.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, county Executive Dan Onorato, and the Penguins also are pushing to tear down the building as part of the team's plan to redevelop 28 acres of land, including the arena site, for offices, residences and other uses.

The museum commission and Bureau for Historic Preservation have no power to stop the demolition if the SEA decides to move forward. However, Rob Pfaffmann, the Downtown architect who leads Reuse the Igloo, said the recommendation to delay gives the group "important influence" with leadership in the Pittsburgh community.

"We think it's a positive step in the right direction toward creating an authentic process" in determining the future of the lower Hill District and the arena site, he said.

He added that if the SEA were to move too quickly toward demolition, it could end up endangering, under a separate process, any potential federal funding for redevelopment, including plans to restore the street grid to reconnect Downtown and the Hill.

The bureau's recommendation to delay demolition "will be considered" by the SEA board, Executive Director Mary Conturo said. She added the board does not intend to vote at its Aug. 23 meeting on whether to tear down the arena.

Instead, the SEA plans to devote much of that meeting to taking public comments about the future of the arena and the redevelopment of the land surrounding it.

While the Bureau for Historic Preservation recommended against demolition, Ms. Conturo said she was heartened by the fact that the letter also stated the SEA had met the consultation requirements of the state History Code regarding the future of the Igloo.


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


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