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Civic Arena Decision Coming Thursday

Wednesday, September 15, 2010
By Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The future of the Civic Arena, the iconic silver-domed structure that has graced Pittsburgh’s skyline for nearly half a century, could be decided Thursday.

City-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority members are scheduled to vote that day on whether to demolish the 49-year-old landmark to clear the way for an office, residential and commercial redevelopment proposed by the Penguins.

The decision to schedule the vote came after SEA consultants Oxford Development Co. and Chester Engineers concluded in a final report after an eight-month historic review process that demolishing the arena with its distinctive retractable dome was the “recommended” option for redevelopment.

Removing the building would create an “unencumbered development site” and allow for the restoration of the street grid that once connected the Hill District and Downtown, one destroyed when the arena was built, the report said. It also stated an unencumbered site “is more attractive to developers.”

The option favored by preservationists, keeping the structure in place, “presents a challenge to proposed site development, marketing and construction strategies,” the report stated. “Reuse considerations which keep the historic characteristic (the operational dome) require significant initial and ongoing public support and also fail to generate economic activity sufficient to justify forgoing redevelopment opportunities available [with demolition].”

The vote was scheduled the same day Reuse the Igloo, the group seeking to save the arena, came forward with its plan to transform the building into a venue for bowling, annual Christmas and Halloween-related events, bicycle polo, book festivals and weddings and other celebrations.

Todd Poole, president of Philadelphia-based 4ward Planning LLC, the Reuse the Igloo consultant, estimated the various events could generate as much as $2 million a year, enough to cover annual operating costs of $1.9 million.

Rob Pfaffmann, the Downtown architect who heads Reuse the Igloo, said that if SEA members vote to demolish the arena, his group would file for a court injunction to block it.

Mr. Pfaffmann said he is “extremely concerned” that tearing down the arena could amount to anticipatory demolition under the National Historic Preservation Act and jeopardize future federal funding related to the development.

“The battle is far from over from the point of view of Reuse the Igloo,” he said.

SEA board chairman Wayne Fontana wouldn’t say which way he planned to vote, and SEA executive director Mary Conturo refused to speculate about the outcome.

“All I can tell you is that it’s on the agenda,” she said.

The SEA has moved the start of its meeting up by one hour to 9:30 a.m. to allow for public comment in advance of the vote, Ms. Conturo said.

The Penguins, which want to redevelop the land with offices, housing and commercial uses, welcomed the vote.

“We think it’s clear that the best thing for the future of the city and the region is to tear down the old arena, clear the land for development and re-connect the Hill District to Downtown,” spokesman Tom McMillan said.

Board members will take up the matter even as Reuse the Igloo unveiled details of a reuse plan Tuesday that include the development of a 24-lane bowling alley in the bowels of the arena. It also called for conversion of some of the arena’s suites and luxury boxes into rental space for meetings and parties, weddings and other celebrations.

Reuse the Igloo is pushing its plan as an alternative to the Penguins’ proposal to demolish the arena and redevelop 28 acres of land.

Like the Penguins, the group also has plans for housing and office space on part of the site. But Mr. Poole said one of the advantages of the group’s plan is that it works even if no development takes place around the arena.

“Even if it didn’t happen for 10 years, you still have civic space that can be programmed and stand on its own,” he said.

Reuse the Igloo estimates conversion costs at $14 million. It believes the transformation to civic space would take three years.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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