SEA votes to demolish arena; critics vow court fight
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Going, going, and perhaps gone for good.
In a span of 30 seconds with no discussion, the city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority board sentenced the Civic Arena to oblivion Thursday, prompting shouts of "gestapo" from one of those gathered in a last-ditch bid to save it.
The unanimous vote to demolish the iconic 49-year-old landmark did little to assuage critics who claimed that a nine-month historic review process launched by the SEA, the building's owner, to consider alternatives to demolition was little more than window dressing.
It also will likely move the battle to save the iconic building with the retractable dome into the courts.
Shortly after the vote, architect Rob Pfaffmann, the leader of Reuse the Igloo, said the group would seek an injunction to block the demolition. He believes that the SEA's actions could run contrary to federal preservation law and could jeopardize future federal funding for any redevelopment.
"This is the start of the next phase of the fight," he vowed.
He described the way the board voted, with literally no discussion, as "very disappointing," adding that he was hoping there would be "some recognition of the importance" of its action.
"When historians look back at this day, they will realize the lost opportunity when there is plain vanilla uninspired development, if that, on the site," he said.
Mr. Pfaffmann also characterized the SEA-led historic review process leading up to the vote as a "sham," adding there seemed to be pressure since last March "to get the deal done."
"We didn't get a fair shake," he said.
Nonetheless, before the vote, Mr. Pfaffmann made an 11th-hour attempt at a compromise, asking the board to move ahead with "nondestructive" elements related to the demolition while giving preservationists and others in the community time to generate consensus on a reuse.
Likewise, Gary English, another advocate of saving the arena, urged the board to put the fate of the building before voters in a referendum.
Both pleas fell on deaf ears.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, who called for a two-year cooling off period to consider alternatives to demolition, also criticized the board vote. He maintained there was no serious review process put in place to consider reuses.
"Talk about a rubber stamp. Give me a break. This group is like a goose-step cadre," he said.
"They should have just bought a big rubber stamp and said 'approved' and taken a group photo."
County Executive Dan Onorato and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who appoint the SEA board members, have both said they were in favor of demolishing the arena.
Asked how the board could vote on such a contentious issue without any discussion, board Chairman Wayne Fontana replied: "No one wanted to discuss it, I guess. Everyone felt confident that they didn't need to discuss it."
Mr. Fontana, a state senator, said he had read and reviewed all information from those on both sides of the issue.
Mr. Fontana said he was swayed by estimates in a final report prepared by SEA consultants Oxford Development Co. and Chester Engineers that it would cost at least $500,000 a year to mothball the arena for some future use.
The report, released this week, recommended demolition over three other options, including reuse.
Tearing down the arena would create an "unencumbered development site" that would be attractive to developers, the report said.
It would also allow for the restoration of the street grid between the Hill District and Downtown, a connection that was severed when the arena was built.
Demolition was anticipated in the 2007 agreement between the Penguins and state and local leaders to build the Consol Energy Center, which opened last month.
In that bargaining, the Penguins also won development right over 28 acres of land that includes the arena. They have plans to develop offices, housing and commercial space on the property.
The team is "very pleased" with the vote, said Travis Williams, senior vice president of business affairs and general counsel. "We believe they made the right choice. By leaving it there it certainly would be a hindrance, if not a complete impediment, to be able to develop that land."
The team already has had "several discussions with various national developers" about developing all or part of the 28 acres but has yet to sign any of them.
With the vote behind it, the SEA will move quickly to prepare the arena for its date with the wrecking ball.
Executive director Mary Conturo said the SEA will probably begin removing asbestos from the building and auctioning off seats and other "contents" within six weeks to two months.
A contract to demolish the venue that has played host to the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, the Harlem Globetrotters and countless others could be awarded in February. By the end of March, the arena, opened in 1961, could be little more than rubble.
The SEA estimates demolition and site grading will cost $5 million. The work will be covered through money generated from surcharges at the arena before it closed and savings on the Consol Energy Center development, Ms. Conturo said.
First Published September 17, 2010 12:00 am