Civic Arena spared demolition for now
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Hold the wrecking ball -- for now.
Immediately after the city Planning Commission cleared the way for the Civic Arena's demolition Tuesday, Hill District resident Eloise McDonald nominated the 49-year-old landmark for designation as a city historic structure.
The move effectively prevents the silver-domed building from being razed while Ms. McDonald's nomination is considered by the city's Historic Review Commission and, eventually, City Council.
"You have to do something to take a stand against all this power," Ms. McDonald said minutes after the planning commission voted 6-0 to give the go-ahead for the demolition. She called its decision "very, very sad."
Her application was delivered to Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko at the commission's meeting following the vote and after about two hours of testimony, most of it opposing demolition.
The nomination was prepared with the help of Preservation Pittsburgh and Reuse the Igloo, two groups that have been at the forefront of the effort to save the arena.
While such a move has long been considered the "nuclear option" by those seeking to find a reuse for the building, Jeff Slack, a Preservation Pittsburgh board member, said there was little choice at this point in the battle.
"Preservation Pittsburgh and Reuse the Igloo are filing only as a last resort because we see the potential to benefit the Hill District, the city and the region to be greater with the arena in place as part of a long-term development," he said.
The nomination will go before the Historic Review Commission for a recommendation and then back to the planning commission, which would then make a recommendation to City Council.
Members of both bodies are appointed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who supports the arena's demolition.
In 2003, council turned back a bid by Preservation Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to designate the arena as a city historic structure. But Councilman Bill Peduto, who was part of that vote, said the outcome isn't as certain this time.
"If you think council's a rubber stamp, look at the parking deal," he said, referring to its rejection of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to sell off parking garages, lots and meters to stabilize the city pension fund.
Mr. Peduto said the nomination, even if it fails, could delay the demolition for nearly a year. The city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns the arena, wants to start tearing down the building in early April.
While some commission members were sympathetic to the pleas to save the arena, they said the SEA had met the legal requirements under city law to proceed with the demolition.
"I do love the arena. I would love to see its reuse. But I'm unable to support that consideration today," Chairwoman Wrenna Watson said.
Member Kirk Burkley said he found it telling that no one has stepped forward to offer to purchase arena for some type of reuse.
"Quite frankly, we've got to move on," he said.
Opponents of the move maintained the city and SEA could jeopardize federal funding for site redevelopment by demolishing the arena without following federal historic review requirements. That could be considered "anticipatory demolition" under federal historic preservation law.
Mr. Ravenstahl and County Executive Dan Onorato have said they plan to seek federal funding for road reconstruction around the Civic Arena site.
In a letter read at the hearing, the National Trust for Historic Preservation warned that the threat was real.
"The worst-case scenario would be to rush into demolition now, and then have the site lie vacant for years and years because the city's actions disqualified it from obtaining federal funding," the trust wrote.
Nonetheless, SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo said the agency has received assurances that it is in compliance with the law.
If the arena is demolished, the site would become part of a 28-acre mixed-use residential, commercial and office redevelopment proposed by the Penguins.
The team won development rights to the land under a 2007 agreement to build the Consol Energy Center. The SEA agreed to demolish the arena as part of that accord.
Travis Williams, the Penguins senior vice president of business affairs and general counsel, called Tuesday's vote "the right decision." He said the team is continuing to prepare a master plan for the site.
While the historic nomination will "delay the certainty of demolition," Mr. Williams said he was confident council would come to see razing and redevelopment as the "most economically viable option" for the site.
Others, however, claimed the Penguins plan to turn the site into a parking lot, as they are permitted to do initially under their deal with the SEA. The team insists that is not the intent long-term.
First Published November 24, 2010 12:00 am