Historic status hearing for arena

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Consider, said engineer John Oyler, that the panels of the Civic Arena’s dome weigh 1,500 tons and are all suspended from a single cantilever, and that they can move from closed to open in two minutes.

There was nothing like it before and hasn’t been in the 50 years since.

“This is totally unique,” said Oyler.

The owners, the Sports and Exhibition Authority, were among those listening as Oyler and a series of architects, historians and preservationists made the case that the civic arena deserves to be designated a historic landmark.

But first they listened to Eloise McDonald, who lives in Oak Hill and who nominated the building for historic status.

“I believe it is historic and it should still be operating and making money for the city,” she said. “There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. But the Pittsburgh Penguins (which has development rights for the arena site) don’t care about their neighbors in the Hill. They’ve already torn up the inside. I thought they had to wait for a ruling.”

To get a historic designation, a candidate building need only meet one of 10 criteria. Those who want to see the building saved and adapted for new uses contend it meets several.  Lawyers for the SEA said it doesn’t meet any.

In addition to its engineering wonders, Architecture professor and author Franklin Tokar said the building is the most emblematic of Pittsburgh—more so than Paris’ Eiffel Tower or London’s Houses of Parliament.

But the Penguins, the SEA, City Councilman  R. Daniel Lavelle, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, Hill District Consensus Group Co-convener Carl Redwood, and Coro President Sala Udin all said they want the arena torn down because it is an impediment to development, and potential jobs.

Lavelle noted the Arena is also symbol of failed urban planning that removed 1,300 building and 800 people.  Udin said the building was “a symbol of genocide.”

But Preservation Pittsburgh Director Jeff Slack pointed out that historian Larry Glasco cautioned folks should be careful what you wish for. The same promises of development and jobs and housing being made today are the same ones made 50 years ago when the Arena was to be surrounded by luxury hotels, apartments, shops, an opera house and an art museum.

Redwood, at least, noted that federal subsidies for demolition, infrastructure, etc. may be years away, especially with potential budget cuts looming. He wants demolition delayed until a specific deal benefiting Hill residents is in place.

“We’ve seen this happen over and over where taxpayers subsidize for-profit corporations and assume there will be community benefits—but when the benefits don’t come it’s too late to do anything,” he said.”

The review commission will forward its final recommendation to city council next month. Either way, that will be followed by another public hearing on demolition before the City Planning Commission.  The matter should go to council some time in April or May. Council can reject or accept either recommendation.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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