Ruth Ann Dailey: A delay for the better at Civic Arena site
August 4, 2014 12:00 AM
This photo, from the roof of the U.S. Steel Tower, shows the first panel of the Civic Arena roof coming down on Jan. 28, 2012.
By Ruth Ann Dailey
Since virtually every step leading to the demolition of the Civic Arena was fraught with political dissembling, historical revisionism and a discouraging lack of imagination, it might be tempting to take a smidgen of satisfaction from yet another delay in the site's redevelopment.
But there's no satisfaction in pettiness, and so much is at stake here for the entire city!
It's even easier to let go of the what-might-have-beens when the conversation now taking place -- the reason for this latest postponement -- offers some exciting glimmers of hope.
Delay might be a very good thing.
The Penguins were supposed to begin developing part of the 28-acre site by Oct. 31 and wrap up the whole thing by 2024, but they've asked for another year to start and to finish.
Planning for such a large and busy location would be arduous under the best of circumstances, but ongoing negotiations with Hill District leaders about housing costs and jobs for minorities also have held it up.
Black community leaders want to see more "affordable" housing units built and more contracts going to minority- and women-owned businesses.
The Penguins want lower goals on both fronts, in keeping with current practices.
In particular, black leaders want minority participation of 35 percent and female participation of 15 percent; the Penguins want 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Black leaders also want 30 percent of the 1,192 residential units to be affordable to people earning 30 percent to 80 percent of "the area median income."
The Penguins want 20 percent of the units to be within reach of people earning 80 percent of "the area median income."
A lot depends on how large an area defines "the area median income."
Cutting to the heart of what's at stake -- what the city could achieve -- are the words of Mayor Bill Peduto's chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, who last week affirmed the administration's commitment to "transformational" development and noted, significantly, the need in the predominantly black Hill community to build "generational wealth."
Decades of discrimination -- overt, in the form of "Jim Crow" laws, and covert, in the impulse many people have to favor their own race -- mean that black Americans have not had much opportunity to acquire and pass down wealth.
When recessions hit, the disadvantaged of any race have fewer assets to help their extended families weather the storm. Black grandparents in particular can't rescue their offspring if they were denied fair employment for 40 years.
These tragic facts also mean that current leaders should not set unrealistic goals.
America is still digging out from a housing bubble that burst, to a substantial degree, because home ownership was encouraged among people of every ethnicity who lacked the assets, intergenerational or otherwise, to keep their homes in a broad downturn or a personal setback.
So let's look at the Hill itself. According to city-data.com, the few hundred households immediately surrounding the former arena have a median income of about $41,000, but only 14 percent of these households are black.
A few blocks east is a neighborhood that is 83 percent black and has a median income of $13,500.
In the next small section east, the population is 88 percent black, and median income jumps to $22,500.
Every few blocks, these statistics shift a bit, but overall they're pretty grim, and they point toward rentals, not for-sale units. We are not showing compassion if we set people up for failure.
We must acknowledge sad reality and achieve tremendous follow-through if we want "transformational" change. So a delay to agree on statistical reality and achievable results is absolutely necessary.
While people's lives are more important than architecture, recent experience, here and elsewhere, demonstrates that what gets built, and what it looks like, is very important to the quality of people's lives.
No one is ever going to write an ode to the Consol Energy Center. It is ugly. It will never inspire the passion the Civic Arena did or attract visitors for anything besides events.
I'll always believe we shouldn't have had to choose between people and a building. It didn't have to be either/or. It could have been both/and.
Repurposing just part of the old arena, a la New York City's hugely successful High Line Park, could have created an international attraction that would have transcended the racial wounds of our city's past.
Instead of black and white, we could have gone green: our future springing from a remnant of the past.
But the arena is gone, and we must leave the past behind -- the building and its history -- in order to have a decent shot at a proudly shared future.
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