As councilman eyes options, Pens say they are ready to build on old Civic Arena site
On the same day Pittsburgh City Councilman Daniel Lavelle proposed opening the former Civic Arena site controlled by the Penguins to other developers, the team announced it had hired a developer for the first phase of residential construction.
Penguins Chief Operating Officer Travis Williams said Thursday that he recently informed Lavelle of the team’s plans to announce in the “coming weeks” the start of Phase 1 of a proposed 1,200-unit residential complex on the 28-acre Lower Hill District site.
He said Lavelle was told the Penguins hired a developer to handle the housing project. Williams declined to name the developer. He said it is a minority-owned business.
“Less than two weeks ago, I gave Councilman Lavelle a complete rundown on where we were on the development,” Williams said. “I did not hear that there were any concerns about the progress that we are making or the commitment we have for this development.”
Lavelle introduced a bill Thursday that would authorize Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge to research the city’s legal options for opening the site to other developers.
The Penguins have owned redevelopment rights to the property since 2007. The Sports & Exhibition Authority, an agency overseen by Pittsburgh and Allegheny County government appointees, owns the land.
“The Pittsburgh Penguins still have a legally based option agreement for that,” Lavelle said. “What I’m asking our city solicitor to do is to also see what ability we have to move that development forward. I think if the whole site reverted back to the city, we’d probably see it done more expeditiously.”
Lavelle, a Hill District resident, has represented the neighborhood for two terms and is seeking re-election in 2017. Residents have complained for years about a lack of development on the arena site.
Williams said he was “surprised and disappointed” about the legislation.
Demolition on the Civic Arena wrapped in March 2012. A commuter parking lot covers much of the site on the edge of Downtown.
Consol Energy Center was built on the other side of Centre Avenue. It opened in August 2010.
The Penguins have discussed plans to build housing, office space and entertainment attractions on the site. None of that has come to fruition, but the team has received several six-month deadline extensions from the SEA and paid $75,000 per extension.
Williams said the team is working with a retail and entertainment developer to handle commercial projects.
“It’s not as if the Penguins have been standing by and, as (Lavelle) would suggest, collecting parking revenue and doing nothing,” he said.
Lavelle’s legislation says the Penguins have collected $30 million in gross revenue from parking fees, an estimate he said was based on SEA calculations.
The SEA in October announced it had finished construction of two streets on the site and installation of utility lines.
Lavelle said he is frustrated that no development has occurred. Mayor Bill Peduto also has expressed frustration, but his Chief of Staff, Kevin Acklin, said the administration remains committed to working with the Penguins, Lavelle and residents to complete the development.
“I think the legislation stands for itself,” Acklin said. “It’s a council member looking to seek legal advice as to what the options are of the city, which is his right. It’s not something we cosponsored or asked him to do.”
Lavelle said his bill is not an attempt to seize the team’s development rights.
“I don’t believe we have any legal ways to actually take it back,” he said, “but rather it’s to say — given that it’s still owned by us — how can we actually participate in its redevelopment as opposed to being sort of second chair to the Penguins.”
A preliminary vote on Lavelle’s bill could happen as soon as Wednesday.
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].