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Preserving, improving Pittsburgh with Art Ziegler

By Bill Steigerwald
Saturday, May 11, 2002

Four decades ago, Arthur Ziegler was a grassroots activist fighting to preserve Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods from the rampaging bulldozers of urban renewal.

Today, as president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, he is a major player in the city’s development and preservation scene.

In addition to developing Station Square into the city’s premier tourist draw for out-of-towners in the late 1970s, his group has been nationally acclaimed for preserving architectural landmarks and for restoring inner-city neighborhoods without dislocating their residents.

Ziegler played an important role in challenging — and ultimately improving — Mayor Murphy’s original, primitive plan for redeveloping Fifth and Forbes avenues Downtown. And this week his group joined with Preservation Pittsburgh to nominate the Mellon Arena for city historic designation, a move which, if enacted, would make it difficult to demolish the 41-year-old landmark. I talked to Ziegler by telephone Wednesday.

Q: Knowing what you know about the historical preservation business in this town, what are the odds that the Mellon Arena is going to be standing five years from now?

A: The odds I can’t predict. What we are asking for is simply time to see if any feasible new use can be found for the arena. If none can be found, I don’t think it will be standing. But if we can find good uses, I think it will be.

Q: What, realistically, can it be used for without competing with a new arena next door?

A: I’m assuming that it has to be uses that do not compete. That the Penguins need their new arena and they need it exclusively, so we have to find altogether different uses for this building.

We proposed one already to be studied, having it as a maglev stop for downtown Pittsburgh. If maglev is built, it would make a fantastic train station and intermodal center. It could have two floors that could be developed for restaurants or entertainment, themed perhaps — African-American or nationalities.

Q: Could it end up being used for a sports museum, a jazz museum, shopping?

A: Yes. It could end up being anything. We think the people from the Hill District should be deeply involved in leading this effort, and it should involve all the surrounding land, to weave the Lower Hill and the city back together. Maybe this building could be the principal address.

Q: Fifty years after the city wiped it out. I guess there’s irony there — also indictments there, but that’s another story.

A: I’d agree with all of that.

Q: So in other words, the arena could be changed considerably inside and still hold on to its historical value.

A: I’m assuming it cannot be a sports arena, that we have to find altogether new uses for it. But it is an incredible structure. It’s unique.

Q: It’s almost like a work of art now.

A: It’s interesting also that Edgar Kaufmann, who really was the proponent behind moving the Civic Light Opera there (in the 1960s), is represented. His legacy to Pittsburgh is two fabulous early-modern buildings, Fallingwater and the Civic Arena.

Q: Switching over to Station Square, which you once had quite a hand in, is it still healthy and evolving in a good way?

A: Yes. It has had a transition here, as the hotel was totally renovated and had another 100 rooms added. The new buildings are going in and will open I think in July or August.

There’s going to be a new food court in the shops building and hopefully a direct connection from the shops right to the incline – right from inside the building, up an elevator and across Carson Street into the incline. I think you’re going to see a great revitalization there.

Q: What about Plan C in Downtown at Fifth and Forbes? Are you optimistic that it is going to be done in the right way?

A: I think everyone is together on the plan – the city, the merchants, us. I have heard no dissents from the plan.

Q: Not counting eminent domain?

A: Right. Eminent domain has been put to the side.

Q: Does the plan lack anything?

A: I think the plan is really good.

Q: And it includes residential, retail, keeps the local merchants there?

A: It has all the residential we proposed in our plan (three years ago), both new buildings and loft buildings. It has a market house, which we need Downtown, and new retail and restored retail.

Q: What’s your synopsis of what has gone on over the last three or four years at Fifth and Forbes?

A: I think the winners are all of us, because we now have a plan that all of us believe in. I think the problem was that so often Pittsburgh planning is not grassroots in origin. It tends to be top-down. And here, I think that top-down and grassroots finally came together and we have a good, solid plan.

Q: I’m looking here at an article that says that big malls are dying – super malls, anyway – and that American shoppers are seeking more offbeat, unique shopping options. Have we lucked out. Is Plan C going to appeal to this new trend?

A: I think it’s very timely. People are back looking at downtowns as they have existed in the past. That’s what they seem to want. They’re back to main streets like Carson Street. Carson Street is an enormous success, without any public subsidy and, in fact, without any real planning.

Q: I always say that the places people would want to live in are the places that planners have not touched – South Side, Bloomfield, Squirrel Hill, Shadyside … .

A: That’s right. It’s all the places that are grassroots, that respond to a genuine market … . And they all have residential all around them.

Q: You started out as a grassroots guy. Are you still a grassroots guy? You’re more of a player now.

A: Well, I know that what we try to do is play on behalf of the community. It’s the same with the Civic Arena. What we’re saying is, “Let’s not have the Penguins or Landmarks lead this thing. Let’s have the interests of the Lower Hill lead this, and Downtown interests, and come together on a plan that we all think will work.”

Q: So you are obviously learning from the mistakes of the past.

A: That’s right.

Q: If you could turn the clock back 40 or 50 years, what’s the most important thing you could have done to stop or change some decision that would have kept something around that isn’t here now?

A: I wish we could have started 10 years earlier and stopped the urban renewal plans of the ’50s and ’60s, including the Lower Hill, Allegheny Center, East Liberty.

I think that those demolitions wiped out potentially vital ingredients in the city and did a great deal of permanent harm. They focused on the cores, and removed the hearts of these areas.

I think we’ve got to address — and we have the opportunity with the Lower Hill — how to get them going again. There’s good work going on in East Liberty now to get it back into the physical configuration it once was.

Bill Steigerwald is the Trib’s associate editor. Call him at (412) 320-7983. E-mail him at:

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. © The Tribune-Review Publishing Co

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