Local
10:03 pm
Tue November 8, 2011

Wheels Turning Slowly on Civic Arena Redevelopment

As Pittsburgh's 50-year-old Civic Arena is deconstructed bit by bit, the conversation on how to replace it is beginning to pick up speed.

Stakeholders are now meeting to hammer out a funding plan for redevelopment, which is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The city-county Sports and Exhibition Authority envisions a mixed-use site in the Lower Hill District, with office and retail space at the Downtown border of the property, giving way to housing as it extends further into the Hill. A street grid similar to that of the pre-Arena Hill would be installed, with green space throughout.

"The vision of what they're proposing is really a thoughtful one, the notion of kind of meeting downtown at the lower end of the site, and nesting into the Hill District at the upper end," said Rob Stephany, Executive Director of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority. The URA will be closely involved with the redevelopment process.

Stephany is conservative in his estimates for when the project will launch.

"Even if we had developers pounding at our door, saying 'We want to do this first phase,' that's a 24-month process before we start to see the fruits of our labor, and we don't have people pounding our doors down," said Stephany.

After the SEA finishes razing the Igloo and clearing its parking lots, contractors must lay down utility lines and roadways before any new buildings could be erected, a $40 million job that could take years.

Daniel Lavelle, Councilman for the Hill District, said that such infrastructure work won't begin until late 2013, at the earliest. But Lavelle said that he's more concerned with how the redevelopment will benefit the community.

"Generally speaking, the plan looks okay," said Lavelle. "Now, yes, will we be concerned about how the buildings look? Absolutely. Will we be concerned about green space? Absolutely. The height of the buildings, the density, et cetera — yes. The real conversation for many in the Hill will be in the economic opportunity that presents."

The Economics of Redevelopment

The demolition and reconstruction projects alone would generate thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenues for the city, the county, and the school district.

When the site is fully developed, the SEA estimates about 4,200 permanent jobs to be put in place. After property, payroll, income, and parking taxes are taken into account, local governments stand to gain as much as $27 million in tax revenue each year from the property, according to the SEA.

The costs of redevelopment would be substantial as well, and Lavelle said it appears as though local leaders will have to patch together a funding scheme to cover hundreds of millions of dollars in development costs.

"They'll be potentially tapping transportation funds that come from the state. There are funds that come from the gaming within the state that we may have to tap into. There may be federal funds that need shaken loose," said Lavelle. "So, it's going to be various pots of dollars being created to make this happen."

Identifying those funding streams is the main goal of recent meetings between city government, the SEA, Allegheny County representatives, and other stakeholders.

Lavelle also sees the Pittsburgh Penguins as another business partner who could get funding unreachable by local governments.

"They obviously have tremendous resources on their side, and they have their own reaches into government on the local, state, and federal levels, and may be able to shake some trees that we otherwise may be not able to," said Lavelle. "So, it's going to be a partnership, but we also need to be clear that this is not a Penguins development."

As part of the deal to build the Civic Arena's replacement, the Consol Energy Center, the Penguins were given development rights to the Igloo property. The team's management declined an interview for this story.

What's Going In?

Under the SEA plan, the property would be divided up into nine distinct blocks, with each portion of the development likely to be phased in as funding flows into the project.

The site's main thoroughfare would be Wylie Avenue, which would divide the property nearly in half to the north and south. Centre Avenue would anchor the parcel's southern border, while Bedford Avenue would constitute its northern edge.

Councilman Lavelle said that he'd like the housing elements to be introduced first. The plan is to put up nearly 1,000 "residential units" for rent and more than 200 for sale in the eastern end of the property. A community center, parking, and green space would flesh out the residential area.

Carl Redwood of the Hill District Consensus Group said that he'd like for at least 30% of the housing to be affordable to Hill District residents.

"So, it can't all be condos and market-red housing," said Redwood. "There has to be some housing that is affordable for folks who aren't in the top tax brackets. There also has to be some provision for allowing some of the people who used to live in houses where those parking lots are now to be able to return and live in that community."

The western end of the property would be home to offices, retail outlets, and a 150-room hotel. Some projects proposed for the retail space include a movie theater and a music hall, but Councilman Lavelle suggested that it's more important to find an occupant for the office buildings.

"If we land a major corporate tenant — similar to how Equitable went to the North Shore, similar to how American Eagle went to the South Side — if you land a major corporate tenant, that immediately allows you to develop at a faster rate," said Lavelle.

Redwood stresses that it's important to think of the site as part of the Hill District.

"We don't want it just to be a continuation of gentrification, where folks are further displaced from the community, and it becomes an enclave for the owners of the Penguins and the rich people within the Penguins franchise to make even more money," said Redwood.

URA chief Rob Stephany isn't too optimistic about the timeline for the project, or developers' interest in it.

"It's a huge field of parking with very restricted infrastructure, and, I think, generally understood without even being on a trajectory to have the infrastructure," said Stephany.

Getting the development on the governor's agenda will be key to gathering funds and attracting developers, said Councilman Lavelle. He's calling for the SEA, the County, Pittsburgh City Council, and the mayor's office to band together in advocacy to do so.