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Mellon Arena’s future still in limbo

By Stephanie Franken
Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Even as the public sounds off over the proposal to preserve Mellon Arena as a historic landmark, the question of what to do with it remains unanswered.
And those involved with plans for a new Penguins arena doubt there is room enough in Pittsburgh for two.

The Historic Review Commission of Pittsburgh today will hear public testimony about whether 41-year-old Mellon Arena has sufficient historic and architectural value to receive historic landmark status.

The proposal for a new $225 million arena and surrounding development Uptown calls for demolishing Mellon Arena, but a “City Designated Historic Structure” status would block or at least slow demolition plans. Today’s public hearings at 200 Ross St., Downtown, begin at 1 p.m. and comments about Mellon Arena will be heard beginning at 2:50 p.m.

Last month, the commission voted 4-0 to begin the process of determining whether the arena should receive historic status.

Today is the first step in a two-part process that will lead to a final vote on Aug. 7 to either approve or deny the historic designation, commission Chairman John DeSantis said. Ultimately, Pittsburgh City Council would vote to make the designation official after the Historic Review Commission puts forth a recommendation.

“The city’s going to be looking for the highest and best use for the land,” said Paul Anderson, a Marquette University law professor and associate director of the National Sports Law Institute.

The owner of Mellon Arena, the Sports & Exhibition Authority, already has made its position on Mellon Arena clear. It is working on a financing plan for a new Penguins arena — and those plans do not include the old arena, SEA spokesman Greg Yesko said.

“It was a marvel when it first opened. No one wants to downplay that,” Yesko said. But if the structure is allowed to stand after a new arena is completed, the SEA would bear the burden of owning and operating both facilities, he said.

“The overlap in the cost would be prohibitive. The cost of maintaining an obsolete facility with limited use is not a logical decision.”

In a handful of other North American cities, older hockey arenas that weren’t razed have continued to exist as spaces for entertainment and sports events. According to the National Sports Law Institute of Marquette University Law School, old hockey arenas in Calgary, Montreal , Philadelphia, Toronto and San Jose continue to be used for civic, social and athletic events.

In Boston, Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, New York City and St. Louis, older hockey arenas were demolished.

In Buffalo and in Washington, D.C., old arenas that weren’t demolished now stand vacant, according a Marquette report.

The SEA “doesn’t have a timeline, necessarily,” for a new arena, said Yesko, adding that the hockey team has a lease for the existing arena until 2006. But once construction of a new facility gets under way, he said, the old one should go.

Ken Sawyer, president of the Lemieux Group LP, said the Penguins view the historic designation of Mellon Arena as a separate matter from the team’s plans to build a new arena. “It’s definitely up to the public to determine the fate of the old arena,” he said.

Nevertheless, the Pens’ proposal to add housing, retail and office space near the new arena requires demolition of the old one.

“The only issue is that we do not believe the old arena should be used for events that could be held in that new arena,” Sawyer said.

In addition to hosting hockey games, a new arena would serve as a venue for events such as concerts — and it would be used for major events 140 to 150 days per year, Sawyer said.

Mellon Arena currently hosts hockey games, concerts and other major events an average of 130 days per year, give or take 10 to 15 days, said Doug Hall, general manager for SMG at Mellon Arena. In addition, there might be several smaller events taking place on any given day at the arena, he said.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Association, along with Preservation Pittsburgh, nominated Mellon Arena for historic designation in May.

History & Landmarks spokeswoman Cathy McCollom said her organization thinks Mellon Arena is an important building and should be saved but isn’t adamant. By nominating the site for historic status, it simply provides an opportunity for the public to weigh all possible uses for the structure — and choose the best one.

“While the nomination is in place, right now, the building cannot be demolished,” she said. But the Historic Review Commission could grant a demolition permit even after historic status has been granted.

Historic status only protects the exterior of a building. It would not prevent substantial changes to the inside of Mellon Arena.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633