Bruce lead voice to save Mellon Arena

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As an aside while leaving a recent board meeting about development projects in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Rob Stephany, the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s executive director noted that there are no specific development plans for the Mellon Arena site.

aubreybruce
SPORTING LIFE—New Pittsburgh Courier sports columnist Aubrey Bruce proposes that ABA and WNBA teams make the old Civic/Mellon Arena home.

“People assume it will be demolished and some combination of retail, office and residential development will go there,” he said. “But it’s not a done deal. Remember, there are preservationists trying to save it and I wouldn’t just write them off.”

That group of preservationists now has another voice, New Pittsburgh Courier sports columnist Aubrey Bruce, who said the arena could serve as the home for WNBA, ABA and Arena Football teams. He said he has had preliminary discussions with officials from all three leagues and they have expressed an interest in the idea.

“The WNBA has been looking to establish a team in Pittsburgh for a few years, and the ABA has a team playing in Homestead now,” he said. “I think we have enough fan interest to support the teams and make this work.”

Though the Sports and Exhibition Authority owns the old arena, the Pittsburgh Penguins Hockey Club controls the development rights to the site.

The preservationists say why not use what’s there.

Bruce said adding smaller audience sports teams that venues as large as the Consol Arena won’t market could, when added to a mix of entrepreneurial opportunities a reconfigured Mellon Arena might provide, actually make it an attraction to compliment the newer facility not compete with it.

Bruce said architect Bob Phfaffmann, who was already campaigning to save the arena, has incorporated Bruce’s idea into some of his designs. His designs and arguments and financial rationale for saving the arena as a one-of-a-kind business are available on the Internet at http://www.reusetheigloo.org.

“We’re talking about a lot of different ideas; a neighborhood mall in the concourse, restaurants, a small bus incubator, small semi-pro sports, cult events like the jazz festival, farmers markets,” said Phfaffmann. “And the Hill could benefit from small biz generation right away, and not have to wait two years.”

Given the poor economy, Phfaffmann said there is no hurry to demolish the arena.

“I just had a brand new office building on the South Side cancel on me, so I know,” he said. “So, the Penguins are essentially offering a parking lot because they can’t build anything now.”

And the Penguins plan for the 28-acre site, Phfaff­mann said, offers nothing new. It offers a mix of retail, office space and housing when the city is rife with empty retail and office space.

“The key is to create a unique space like the Highline in New York City or Millennium Park in Chicago that developers want to be near. If you build the same old thing, what’s the draw? You want an attraction,” he said. “The rents in a new building are $35-$40 per square foot. We need space in the $15-$20 range. Theme it around a park so you get a little income here, a little there, and it’s enough to cover the cost of operating.”

The Penguins argue that the holding cost of the building is $1.2 million per year. Phfaffmann said it’s half as much.

“We don’t have to heat or cool the whole building, just maintain the mechanicals,” he said. “Todd Poole of 4Ward Planning, who did the economic analysis for the Highline is doing our analysis, and we will be presenting all of this in a few weeks.”

Bruce, who appeared on Tom Jackson’s ESPN radio show to promote the plan, said there is a growing national buzz about it.

“I’ve talked with Ralph Fredrich of the NBA which manages the WNBA and I’ve talked to Joe Newman of the ABA and Richard Tinkhan, one of the original founders of the ABA, and they’re all telling me we just need a building and enough to cover operating costs and they’re here,” said Bruce. “Our plan is viable. The Pens want to control the property to make sure there’s no competition—we don’t want to compete.”

Spokesman Tom McMillan said the Pittsburgh Penguins have not changed their position on the former arena site.

“We’ve always believed the best use of the 28-acre site is to tear down the obsolete arena, restore the historic street grid between Downtown and the Lower Hill District and create this tremendous development opportunity for the city and the region,” he said. “We very much believe in Pittsburgh and the potential for economic development that exists now and in the future.”

Carl Redwood, co-chair of the Hill Consensus Group, said their official position is the same as the Penguins, but it is not set in stone.

“We’re open to changing our position because our concern is the benefit for the Hill residents. If there is more benefit from keeping it than tearing it down, then we could change our position,” he said. “It’s not about sports or architecture for us. It’s about community benefit. We’re going to be looking at Todd’s study and from the Penguins, too. So far all we’ve seen have been drawings on both sides.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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