Penguins Near Deadline On Lower Hill Site As The Affordable Housing Debate Carries On

Oct 19, 2017

The Pittsburgh Penguins' development arm, Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Development LP, is nearing its final deadline to start the first phase of development at the former Civic Arena site in the Lower Hill District.

The Penguins have until Sunday to draw down (which means to buy, sort of -- it's complicated) on the site’s first 2.14-acre parcel, the boundaries of which are yet to be determined. Pittsburgh’s Chief Development Officer Kevin Acklin said a number of issues still remain, but that the parties are engaged in good faith negotiations.

“In some cases, some of these deadlines are arbitrary,” he said. “We’ve been able to accommodate in the past certain delays when they made sense."

Councilman Daniel Lavelle, whose district includes the Hill District, said the agreement signed by the Penguins is very clear.

“If they don’t draw down on the parcel by Oct. 22, then it automatically reverts back to the city,” he said. “That is the process we should follow.”

State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline), chairman of SEA's board, said he’s confident everyone will come together in time, but agreed it’s a hard deadline.

“And it’s a deadline that everyone is waiting to see and hear a plan that’ll revitalize that 28 acres,” he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has dismissed a fair housing complaint filed against the project based on preliminary development plans.

In a letter of determination received Sept. 5 by the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority, HUD wrote “that no reasonable cause exists to believe that a discriminatory housing practice has occurred.”

However, the attorney representing the Hill District Consensus Group, which brought the complaint, was still encouraged by HUD’s decision.

“My sense is that it’s positive,” said Don Driscoll, an attorney with the Community Justice Project. “They did determine that the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan numbers [which prescribed the project's affordability levels] would disproportionately impact black families in Pittsburgh, disproportionately exclude them.”

The land in the Lower Hill is owned jointly by the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, or SEA, and the URA. The complaint was filed on behalf of the Hill District Consensus Group by the Community Justice Project on Feb. 29, 2016. Named as respondents were the City of Pittsburgh, the City of Pittsburgh Planning Commission, the URA and the SEA.

The complaint alleged that the project was in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 because it denied housing to the Hill District’s African American residents and pointed to the preliminary land development plan (PLDP) filed for the development.

According to the complaint, the PLDP failed to meet the city’s obligation to affirmatively further fair housing. According to HUD’s website that means taking “meaningful actions” to tackle discrimination and promote “inclusive communities.”

Though unfamiliar with the administrative complaint, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations Carlos Torres said in an interview earlier this spring, “The city has an obligation to purposely overcome patterns of segregation and the denial of access of opportunity that are part of our nation's history.”

In April, the Penguins and developer McCormack Baron Salazar filed a letter of intent for the site, proposing 20 percent of the housing on the 28-acre site be affordable to those making 60 percent of the area median income, about $32,000.

Because the median income for black families in Pittsburgh is only about $26,000, the Hill District Consensus Group alleged that the Penguins’ plan would largely exclude African Americans from accessing housing on the site, and that the respondents were failing to provide low-income housing on the site.

The respondents rejected that allegation, citing the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan (CCIP) signed in 2014, which promised that 20 percent of the development’s housing units will be affordable. That 20 percent was broken into three groups: 15 percent would be available to those making 80 percent or more of area median income (AMI); 2.5 percent would be available to those making 70 percent AMI; and the final 2.5 percent of units would be available to those making 60 percent AMI.

In the course of its investigation of the complaint, HUD found that, disproportionately, African American renters in Pittsburgh make between 0 and 50 percent of AMI, and therefore, "African Americans would be disproportionately unlikely to afford to live at the subject property if units were rented at the minimum numbers and levels of affordability identified as 'success metrics' in the CCIP,” incorporated into the preliminary land development plan.

But because a final land development plan (FLDP) has yet to be filed, HUD found that the actual level of affordable housing at the site could not be determined at this time.

Driscoll and the Hill District Consensus Group said they will continue to pursue deeper levels of affordability for the Lower Hill site. Driscoll said he wasn't sure whether that would come through the courts.

Despite HUD’s dismissal,  Acklin said the city still remains vigilant on the issue of affordable housing.

“Regardless of whether HUD’s looking into it, it’s our responsibility to make sure that the development that happens here is respectful of the history of the Lower Hill,” Acklin said.

HUD's letter of determination did not reach the Community Justice Project until this week; it was sent to an old address. 

The Penguins did not return repeated requests for comment.