A sham process to destroy the Civic Arena

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Three months ago I admitted I couldn't decide whether the Civic Arena should be saved or leveled -- but I asserted that no one else could possibly know either, because the Sports & Exhibition Authority's decision-making process has been, shall we say, far from transparent and complete.

Their autocratic deal-making was the Old Way, I opined -- a relic of Pittsburgh's corrupt past that, with the growth of our professional, collaborative class, was on its way out.

Well, ain't I the Pollyanna!

In the three months since, lightning didn't strike, no one got religion, nor did the scales fall from SEA board members' eyes. That august body voted unanimously Thursday to demolish the Igloo.

I understand that none of the SEA board members -- nor any local politicians, for that matter -- would want to heed a mere columnist's advice, but for them to choose, to knowingly choose, to end up like Cleveland? Have they no pride?

The board's vote came despite a Sept. 3 letter from the National Trust for Historic Preservation "strongly" urging the SEA "not to take any action leading to the demolition" and warning that "anticipatory demolition" -- one undertaken before a required federal review process has even been initiated -- "would severely jeopardize future federal funding for any element of the proposed redevelopment plan."

And to illustrate the perils of flouting federal law, the NTHP cited the Port Authority of Cleveland's continuing inability to obtain dredging permits along Lake Erie because it unlawfully demolished four historic iron ore unloaders -- structures far less attractive than the iconic Civic Arena.

This means there's a lot of, uh, sediment piling up in Cleveland -- which any self-respecting Pittsburgher already knew.

More important, it means demolition could trigger some pretty negative consequences -- something you might not know since the PG did not directly report on the National Trust's warning.

You'd also be forgiven for thinking -- wrongly -- that "only 49" people attended the Aug. 23 public hearing to weigh in on the Igloo's fate. A Post-Gazette editorial built around this statistic argued that if so few people cared enough to show up, the demolition (which the editorial board already supported) should go forward.

A PG news article correctly reported that 49 people spoke at the hearing, but eyewitnesses say attendance was easily three times that figure -- despite the Monday mid-morning schedule. (A rebuttal letter from a Reuse the Igloo member also noted that a majority of attendees were preservation-supporting citizens, not paid reps of demolition-desiring companies and unions.)

But only if you never read the PG online could you possibly believe the Penguins' false assertion that they'll "reconnect" the Hill District to Downtown by restoring the pre-arena street grid. Chad Hermann, in his PG blog "The Radical Middle," has effectively and repeatedly dismantled this claim.

Ironically, considering the PG editorial board's pro-demolition stance, architect Rob Pfaffmann launched his save-the-arena campaign on The Next Page in the Sunday Forum section. That was all the way back in February 2007. Unfortunately, most of us mere laypeople have enough going on in our lives that we don't begin paying attention until catastrophe is imminent.

And at this point, demolition seems, if not a catastrophe, at least ill-considered and rash.

Union leaders have argued that new development will bring much-needed jobs. Well, nobody's building much of anything these days -- not without rock-solid financing. And if federal money isn't available? Whose money will build that much-vaunted street grid if the National Trust is right about federal penalties for pre-emptive demolition?

Executive Director Mary Conturo says the SEA is relying on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, part of an agency within the federal government's Executive Branch (motto: "Preserving America's Heritage"), which contends that with no federal applications for redevelopment yet pending, no penalties for demolition would apply.

The National Trust's contrary assertion -- read it at reusetheigloo.org -- is more powerfully documented, citing federal regulations, case law and current practice (the Cleveland dredging debacle).

At the very least, given this serious difference of legal interpretation, we should have gotten a vigorous, thoughtful and public discussion of these risks by those appointed to represent the taxpayers' interests. Instead we got a no-discussion sign-off on whatever the Penguins want.

I now believe the Civic Arena should be preserved. Given the lack of due diligence, public input and transparent processes at SEA, any decision it has reached is likely the wrong one. Garbage in, garbage out.

Would the re-use of the arena present a challenge to developers? Yes, in the sense that they would be required to come up with something more imaginative than the brick and stucco boxes that pass for commercial architecture these days -- like those already littering the SEA and Stadium Authority's domain on the North Shore.

Some buildings are worth the effort, and Pittsburgh has quite a few of them.

We are not Anywheresville, USA. We have architecture, the experts say, that rivals Paris and St. Petersburg, Russia. Sadly, we also have a government that rivals the old Politburo.

Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com .


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