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Mellon Arena labeled historic

Preservation groups’ push could hamper development plans

By Tom Barnes,
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 07, 2002

Calling Mellon Arena “unique in the history of modern design,” two historic-preservation groups yesterday nominated the eye-catching, silver-domed structure for a city historic designation.

If City Council grants it that status, it would make it much harder to demolish the 41-year-old building in the lower Hill District.

In turn, that could hamper efforts by the Penguins to have the city build a new $225 million hockey arena between Centre and Fifth avenues. Part of the plan includes razing Mellon Arena and seeking companies to erect new office buildings, stores, housing and a hotel on its 25-acre site.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and Preservation Pittsburgh are working together to have the arena, which opened in 1961, designated as historic.

“Here we have a very important building in Pittsburgh,” said History & Landmarks President Arthur Ziegler. “It’s unique. There’s no other building like it anywhere that I know of. We don’t want to discard that building if we have a chance to see if there are alternate uses. Let’s have an open process and take a look at other uses.”

Rob Pfaffmann, a local architect and member of Preservation Pittsburgh, said, “Mellon Arena is an engineering landmark. At the time it was built, it was the largest clear-span dome in the world. It was, and is, a good piece of modern architecture.”

The two groups have asked Penguins officials for a meeting to discuss the future of the arena. It’s expected to happen within a couple weeks, said Ken Sawyer, president of the Lemieux Group, the investors that Mario Lemieux brought together in 1999 to buy the then-bankrupt team.

Ziegler and Pfaffmann said there should be a broad-based community process, including much input from Hill District residents, before deciding what to do with the arena.

In a letter to Sawyer, preservationists said, “We are quite concerned that the [Penguins’] plan was done secretly. One of the sad legacies of the Lower Hill is that the mid-20th century planning was carried out without significant citizen input.”

The new arena would be built across Centre Avenue from Mellon, down the hill toward Fifth Avenue. The Penguins hope city and county officials will come up with a financing plan for it by June 30.

Along with plans for the new arena, the team also recently unveiled a plan to build new housing, stores, office buildings and a hotel on the site. They said these new buildings would generate additional taxes for the city.

But Pfaffmann and Ziegler said other uses for the existing arena should first be sought. They said the building might be suitable as a station for a proposed high-speed “magnetic levitation” train that would run from the airport through Downtown and eastward to Greensburg.

But Patrick Hassett, a city planner, said yesterday that the high-speed maglev group, called Maglev Inc., had looked at the arena as a “magport” and concluded it wouldn’t be feasible. The maglev train station, if built, would go closer to being atop the Crosstown Expressway, he said.

Pfaffmann said Mellon Arena might be suitable for housing or some other reuse. Sports arenas in Europe have been turned into housing, he said.

Sawyer said the Penguins’ biggest desire is for the city to build a new hockey arena. The team’s goal isn’t to demolish the existing building, he added.

However, the Penguins don’t want the existing arena, if it survives, used as a competing venue for circuses, wrestling, concerts and other events in such a way to take business away from the new arena, he said.

In drafting a development plan for the land where Mellon Arena now sits, Sawyer said the Penguins were simply trying to show the city the kind of tax-producing buildings that could occupy the site.

Ziegler, however, expressed doubts about whether the local market could support enough offices, hotel and stores to make the Penguins’ intensive development plan viable.

The city has an eight-month process for deciding whether a building deserves historic status. After hearings and recommendations by the Historic Review Commission and the city Planning Commission, City Council makes the decision.

If a building is rated historic, it can’t be demolished or have exterior changes made without approval from the Historic Review Commission.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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