SEA gets earful on arena fate

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After three hours of public comment from 50 speakers, no clear consensus emerged on the fate of the, now vacant Civic Arena during the Sports and Exhibition Authority’s public meeting. But judging by the “boos” given to several attorneys and developers, and applause given supporters of reusing the facility, there appeared to be more supporters of the latter option.

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NO DEMOLITION DERBY—Eloise McDonald tells the Sports and Exhibition Authority Board that razing the Civic Arena is “asinine.”

Eloise McDonald of Oak Hill said it was “asinine” to tear it down for housing.

“People on the Hill won’t be able to afford to live there,” she said. “So how does that benefit the Hill?”

But Phyllis McClure, who watched the arena’s construction wipe out several hundred homes as a child said it has to be removed to not only physically, but also psychologically reconnect the Hill District to Downtown.

Regardless of the economics, several Hill residents expressed the sentiment that keeping the arena was akin to flying a Confederate flag, and that it had to be removed to redress the damage done to the Hill District when it was built 50 years ago. Others, like architect Howard Graves, said it had to be removed as a matter of practicality.

“I don’t harbor any negative feelings about it. It’s a wonderful structure and I was fascinated watching it being built, but I understand the wounds,” he said. “Still, we have to look forward and do so cooperatively. I don’t favor keeping it because its scale is too large to allow for anything else on the site. Even keeping a section of it would be like having a modern day Stonehenge.”

Graves’ sentiment were echoed by representatives from almost every local development firm that spoke and by Penguins President David Morehouse, who said all the developers the team has spoken with said working around the structure would make development impossible.

“In the last 20 years, there have been 25 new NHL arenas, 25 NBA arenas, 22 Major League Baseball ballparks, 22 NFL stadiums. An equal number of those arenas and stadiums have been demolished,” he said. “The reason for that is because there’s no real good economic viable reuse option for a structure of that size.”

Representatives of the Hill House Association agreed, as did representatives from the offices of state Rep. Jake Wheatley, Pittsburgh Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle and County Council Rep. Bill Robinson—tear it down.

Others, like preservationist Russell Guest from the East End said the possibilities for the structure are endless, and the Penguins development plan is flawed because, among other things, reconnecting the original street grid to Downtown doesn’t make sense today.

“Reconnect Wylie? Do you want traffic from Washington Street, Lemieux Way, Bigelow Boulevard the Crosstown Boulevard and Wylie all coming together? Is that a good idea,” he said. “Is saving it easy? Probably not. But this is Pittsburgh. We don’t want it easy, we want it right. Find someone smart enough to do it.”

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Lawrenceville, called for a two-year delay to study all the options, adding that razing the arena would be antithetical and “an embarrassment” to the region’s growing image as a “green city.”

“While many current and former residents of the Hill District are divided on the issue of demolition, I believe most would agree that we should exhaust all efforts to guarantee their inclusion in employment and wealth-building opportunities in any adaptive reuse or development plan,” he said.

Hill Consensus Group co-founder Carl Redwood Jr. said inclusion is his major concern.

“We expect that Hill residents will benefit from all future lower Hill development,” he said. “We will not support either plan if there are not clear benefits for Hill residents and businesses.”

The Penguins development plan calls for creating a mix of housing, office and retail space on the site and reconnecting the Hill District Street grid to Downtown. The preservationists want to reuse the arena as a mixed retail, small-event entertainment facility, possibly including a hotel. It would include more green space and pedestrian access to Downtown.

Neither SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo nor state senator and board chair Wayne Fontana would say when the authority would render a decision. Though the Penguins own the development rights to the 28-acre arena site, the SEA owns the building.

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