Former Arena Site Controversy Lands In City Council

Jan 9, 2017

A piece of the roof on the Civic Arena in downtown Pittsburgh being taken down on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012. It was built in 1961 as the first retractable roof arena in the world.
Credit Gene J. Puskar / AP

Unrest over the lack of development on the 28-acre site that once included the Civic Arena has found its way to Pittsburgh City Council.

Council members will vote this week on a bill requesting the involvement of the city solicitor. The bill was introduced by Councilman Daniel Lavelle who represents the neighborhoods closest to the site.

“The community has asked me what rights as the owners of the land do we actually have? And my assumption was that we didn’t have much but I didn’t honestly know that and so I’m asking for a formal legal opinion to tell me what right I may or may not have,” Lavelle said.

The measure authorizes the solicitor to research the legal options for putting out a request for proposals from developers for the site.

When the old arena was closed prepared for demolition in 2010, the Pittsburgh Penguins were given the development rights to the land with the understanding that at least 10 percent of it would be developed each year or the development rights would be returned to the taxpayers.

In the last six-and-a-half years, very little has been done with the site. Penguins officials asked for and received extensions on the first parcel on three occasions. A similar request has been made on a second parcel. Lavelle said the Penguins can only ask for four extensions on each parcel.    

“Unfortunately, it continues to sit as a parking lot,” Lavelle said. “We have invested our resources into the infrastructure in the site. We’ve dedicated two new streets on the site, but now we really need to see development on the site and it’s in the city’s economic interest to see it.”

Residents of Lavelle’s district could stand to gain the most from development. Lavelle said an agreement called the Community Collaboration Implementation plan outlines how development would be beneficial to the area.

“But that is contingent on there actually being development,” Lavelle said.

Neither the Penguins nor the Sports and Exhibition Authority, which oversees the deal, returned calls for comment.

“This area has been through this kind of stuff before,” said City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, referring to the demolition of homes and businesses in the Lower Hill starting in the late ‘50s to make way for the arena. “Now, here we go again. It’s like this area is like constantly held hostage over development.”

During a televised council meeting last week, Kail-Smith praised Lavelle for his past efforts to keep the community involved in the development process and asked his constituents to be understanding if it turns out there is little the city can do from a legal stand point.

She said it may come down to the Penguins. 

“Pittsburgh loves its Penguins, we are very supportive,” Kail-Smith said. “I would hope that the Penguins would love Pittsburgh in return and do what’s right for that community.”