Civic Arena loses again: Pittsburgh planning commission rejects historic designation

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The noose is tightening around the Civic Arena.

City planning commission members unanimously rejected a historic designation for the 49-year-old building Tuesday, moving it a step closer to demolition.

The arena's fate now rests in the hands of city council, which voted against historic status for the Igloo eight years ago.

Tuesday's vote deals yet another blow to the efforts by local preservationists, led by architect Rob Pfaffmann, to save the arena from destruction by designating it a city historic structure.

Earlier this month, the city historic review commission also voted against the designation. Because both the planning and review commissions recommended against historic status, it will take the votes of at least six of nine council members to override that.

Nonetheless, preservationists said they were prepared to battle to the end to save the distinctive landmark with a one-of-a-kind retractable roof.

"I know it's a lost cause. The vote's apparently in from all the entities down here," said Eloise McDonald, the Hill District resident who nominated the arena for historic status. "So we have one more stop, which is city council, and I'm hoping they can see things as they really, really are."

The city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority, the arena's owner, wants to tear down the building as part of a plan by the Penguins to redevelop the site and adjacent land, 28 acres in all, for housing, offices and commercial activities.

It was that vision that swayed at least some of the planning commission members. The Penguins estimate that the redevelopment would create 4,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs, and would generate $25 million annually in tax revenue.

"That, to me, is a larger priority than an inanimate object," commissioner John Valentine said.

He also said redevelopment would give the city an opportunity to right a wrong that occurred half a century ago when part of the lower Hill was destroyed to make way for the arena.

"We have a chance to set the Hill back on the right path," he said. "And to me that economic development, along with that stigma of that building, the right decision is to reject historic preservation and move this project forward."

Another member, Monte Rabner, who once served as a ball boy for the Pittsburgh Triangles tennis team in the arena, said nostalgia should not be the guiding factor in deciding the building's fate.

"I have some emotion to it. I can't make a decision based on that," he said.

At the same time, commission members warned the Penguins that if the arena ultimately is demolished, they want to see unique development, particularly in relation to retail, at the site.

"We don't need another Cheesecake Factory," Mr. Valentine said, adding he also did not want to see the team or its developer cherry-pick businesses from other locations in the region.

Another member, Kirk Burkley, said planning for the site must be inclusive, with involvement from the Hill. He also stressed that the Penguins must deliver on what they promise.

Travis Williams, the Penguins' senior vice president of business affairs and general counsel, said the team was prepared to do just that. He said the team was "very pleased" with Tuesday's vote.

During his presentation, Mr. Pfaffmann said he had a developer, one he has not named, who is willing to pay $5 million for the arena as part of a potential reuse.

However, he said he had been stymied in bringing the developer to the table because the Penguins have threatened to sue if the SEA meets with anyone else.

The Penguins hold the development rights to the 28 acres that include the arena. The team said it was very skeptical of Mr. Pfaffmann's claim of having a developer and noted that no one had been identified to it or the city.

Mr. Pfaffmann says his redevelopment plan, which includes reuse of part of the arena as park space, coupled with retail and a potential hotel development within it, could create the same kind of economic impact as the Penguins proposal. He also envisions offices ringing the arena site.

Under the timetable for the historic nomination, council must vote on the proposed designation before Aug. 21.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.


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