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Money Tagged for I-579 Project Could Be Used at New Arena

By Jeremy Boren
Monday, September 13, 2010

Federal money intended to plug an unsightly concrete gap next to Interstate 579 might be used at Consol Energy Center instead.

At the request of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, Sen. Bob Casey proposed redirecting the $974,000 earmark to pay for most of a walkway that would hug the exterior of the Penguins’ new home and connect its Fifth Avenue and Centre Avenue entrances.

People working on a master plan for the Lower Hill District and trying to preserve the Civic Arena question whether a Consol walkway is the best use of federal money in a neighborhood struggling with crime and poverty.

“If we’re going to move it around anyway, we need it for public safety on Centre Avenue,” said Carl Redwood, founder of the Hill District Consensus Group. “That takes priority.”

Redwood supports the concept of the $1.5 million walkway at Consol but said his group lobbied city police to address concerns about drug deals occurring near the Zone 2 station on Centre, not far from the arena.

Casey, D-Pa., declined to say whether he believes there’s a better use for the money, but he’s aware no consensus exists.

“If there are better ways to target the dollars, we try to be responsive to that. It doesn’t always work,” the senator said. “What I try not to do is to be an urban planner or a local government official. That really has to be a decision made here in Pittsburgh.”

The Consol walkway, dubbed “Curtain Call” by California artist Walter J. Hood, would feature 15-foot-tall stainless-steel curtains, a lighted path and photos of Hill District life embedded in the steel sheets.

URA Executive Director Rob Stephany said an “engineer’s sketch” of the I-579 “cap” project between the Hill District and Downtown would cost an estimated $15 million.

The original application for federal money from Casey’s office touts the cap as “a new urban green space that finally reconnects the Lower Hill District to downtown.”

After learning from the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns the new $321 million arena, that it lacked enough money to pay for Curtain Call, URA officials requested the money from Casey, Stephany said.

Rob Pfaffmann, a Downtown architect and frequent critic of the hockey team’s desire to demolish the Civic Arena and develop its 28-acre site, supports Curtain Call. Pfaffmann formed the grass-roots group Reuse the Igloo.

He believes the connection between Fifth and Centre is crucial because walking outside from one side of Consol to the other is difficult.

“Frankly, the Penguins should have paid for it,” Pfaffmann said.

In 2007, the Penguins agreed to contribute $4.1 million a year for 30 years to pay for part of the arena. Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino pays $7.5 million a year from gambling revenue, and the state funding fueled by casino taxes chips in another $7.5 million a year.

The city Planning Commission required the walkway at the arena, Stephany said, noting the team never wanted anything so elaborate.

“We kind of fell in love with that notion of a public art project and pedestrian way,” he said.

The walkway would be open to everyone, not just hockey fans, he said.

“Will it make for a great experience for people at a game? Yes. Will it make for a great connector for a student on his way to a grocery store? Yes.”

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