Highmark Stadium continues to develop

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Drive down to Station Square and take a look at the large parking lot just to the west of the Gateway Clipper Fleet.

It is a torn-up parking lot, its landscape dotted by a few machines and piles of rock. A few holes, as well.

But look closer at one of the fences bordering a sidewalk cutting through the construction zone. There hangs a banner announcing "Highmark Stadium."

Though a few months behind schedule, the Riverhounds' new stadium will appear piece-by-piece at the site and should be ready for play sometime this fall, perhaps as soon as late September. The stadium will become a reality after six years of planning from the soccer club's ownership.

"There were many times I was walking it, and would think, 'How is this going to work?' " Riverhounds midfielder and chief executive Jason Kutney said.

"I'd be standing near the river thinking about a corner kick, and I would hit a car from there."

The stadium was first announced in January and the expected completion date of the site along the Monongahela River was this summer. But as the torn-up parking lot, construction equipment and piles of rock indicate, that date was a bit ambitious.

"The timing of everything, obviously, you don't know," Kutney said.

"It looked like if we could click these things into place, we'd be able to start construction in March, coming out of the winter, with a five-month window of time, weather-dependent, where we'd be able to potentially be open for late summer.

"Then reality sets in. You hit some snags. Some things here and some things there take a little longer for approval, this signage variance or what have you."

The Station Square site now may be far from resembling a stadium, but much of the privately-financed $10.2 million project will be assembled off-site. Kutney hopes to have the field, seating, lights and scoreboard ready for use this fall for high school football games and other events. Offices, restaurants and suites would be completed before the Riverhounds open their United Soccer League season next spring.

The stadium site, wedged between Mount Washington and the Monongahela River near the Fort Pitt Bridge, presented little physical room for the imaginations at ThenDesign Architecture to roam, so the architects capitalized on the benefits of the tight fit.

"It's not an existing building, or surrounding any existing buildings. We had a nice clean site, kind of an easier site to work through," said Chris Smith, a partner in ThenDesign. "One of the views we had was, from the corner of the stadium, looking back up at the [Downtown] skyline, knowing how beautiful that was going to be."

Following the precedents set at PNC Park and Heinz Field, the majority of the 3,500 seats at Highmark Stadium will face the downtown skyline. A building on the western side of the stadium will house Riverhounds offices, locker rooms, suite seating, a restaurant and a bar.

"Every stadium of this size is a little different," said Smith, whose Ohio-based firm has designed numerous sports and recreation facilities. "This one had the emphasis on the fan experience and the player experience."

Kutney, a former player for Duquesne, understands the player experience. Before coming to the Riverhounds, Kutney spent two seasons with the Charleston Battery, a fellow USL Pro team. In Charleston, Kutney played at Blackbaud Stadium, the first privately funded soccer-specific stadium in the United States.

Kutney and the Riverhounds play their games at Chartiers Valley High School, on a football field with a track circling its perimeter.

"Playing [in Charleston], and then when I came to Pittsburgh ... it was tough," he said. "To move from there to a high school with football lines, a track around the field, and metal bleachers, no beer for the fans, even tougher.

"You show up at these games and it's harder to get up for the games."

Thus, when the Riverhounds were about to be disbanded in 2006 and Kutney and his partners at the Greentree SportsPlex purchased the organization, one of the first ideas he put on the table was a new stadium. Their pursuit of a suitable site brought them from alongside Route 51 near Neville Township to behind an IHOP in Robinson Town Center to, finally, Station Square.

"Really, bringing soccer to at least a professional level in a city like Pittsburgh, you have to be downtown," Kutney said. "You have to be in the mix with the other teams. And if you're not, then you're not real. So that's one thing we said years ago."

With that goal nearly realized after six years, a few months past an estimated deadline hardly fazes Kutney.

"The first time it really hit me, honestly, was when I drove, very recently. It was the first day our construction crews were going to be there. I was driving over the bridge and I saw the first vehicle there."

Usually a vehicle in a parking lot is far from noteworthy. A stadium standing where a parking lot used to sit qualifies as a bit more so.

In a few months, drive down to Station Square. Take a look just to the west of the Gateway Clipper Fleet.

Highmark Stadium will not be hard to spot.

sportsother

Douglas Farmer: dfarmer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @D_Farmer.


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