Viewpoint: Barden's loss should be Pittsburgh's gain

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No matter how you feel about gambling -- and I'm no fan -- I'd be willing to bet most of us would agree that the process of bringing a slots casino to our fair city has been an unmitigated debacle.

From start to finish -- well, Don Barden's finish, anyway -- Pittsburghers' stake in this sizable gamble with our city's future has been largely ignored. Once the powers-that-be decided to bless us with one of the casinos-to-be, we got precious little say on where and how it would be built, thanks to a heavy-handed gaming board with a nonsensical system for site selection and a license winner eager to issue an IOU for every public amenity when the going got tough.

But Mr. Barden's recent run of bad luck could turn into a respectable win for Pittsburgh -- especially for those of us who, though resigned to the casino's presence, refuse to accept its evolution from gaudy crime magnet to riverfront eyesore.

And the fact that someone with deeper pockets rushed in to take over Mr. Barden's hand just as he folded should also tell local politicos the cards they've been dealt are better than they think.

Late last week, an investment group led by Chicago-based Walton Street Capital Fund 6 claimed intent to take a 75 percent interest in the casino by making a $120 million investment in the project. Walton Street founder Neil Bluhm said he will honor all the community commitments Mr. Barden made: money for the new arena, jobs and development funds for the Hill District and the North Side and, most recently in the news, construction of the amphitheater, boat docks and riverfront trails.

Those riverfront development items made headlines last week when Mr. Barden sought to delay their completion for three years -- a request that provoked angry howls all over town.

The new owner's speedy reassurance that all deals are still on was welcome news, but he still faces one of the challenges that Mr. Barden says slowed his progress -- a lawsuit by the Riverlife Task Force over the size of the casino's parking garage.

Original plans called for two stories of the 3,800-space garage to lie below ground, but the planning commission allowed Mr. Barden to change it and put all 10 stories above ground.

That's two stories taller than the "preferred height" identified some years ago in the area's master plan, but the planning commission already let the city parking authority violate that standard with the nine-story structure near PNC Park.

How far can a guideline get stretched before it ceases to be a guideline? And why draft them in the first place if you're going to throw them out the window every time you're asked?

For an idea of these buildings' scale, the existing nine-story garage has only 1,255 spaces, compared with the casino's 10-story, 3,800-space behemoth.

But the parking garage lawsuit, unlike the Steelers' and Pirates' traffic-plan challenges, appears not to have delayed Mr. Barden at all. You can tell from a drive-by that his erstwhile parking garage is further along than any other structure at the idle site, all 10 controversial floors in place and concrete already poured, while the casino itself is just a metal skeleton.

It seems he was hoping -- like Lamar Advertising with its nearly completed electronic assault near Grant Street -- that it would be harder to say no to a fait accompli. It's impossible to feel sorry for such a finger-in-your-eye player when the game doesn't break his way.

If I'd written before Mr. Bluhm's Windy City rescue, I'd have urged authorities to practice the wisdom of Solomon by leveraging Mr. Barden's parking garage against his delayed public projects: "Let's divide your baby, shall we? You can build the ninth story if you deliver on the docks and trail, and add the 10th in exchange for the amphitheater."

But there's no need for the wisdom of Solomon when someone as rich as Solomon antes up. Mr. Bluhm's timely arrival should remind our rubber-stamp-happy officials that, even in an economy that supposedly doomed Mr. Barden's undertaking, there's plenty of money to be made here.

That's good reason to hold our own at the table. If one developer doesn't like our terms, another will show up soon enough.

Over and over again, though, Pittsburgh politicos fail to appreciate what a great hand they've been dealt. I know table games haven't yet hit the banks of the Three Rivers, but really, if they want this to be a world-class city, they're going to have to learn to play world-class poker.


Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1733.


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