Hill District group asks why locals not part of Penguins project design opportunity
The Pittsburgh Penguins hired a pre-eminent Danish architectural firm to design apartments and public spaces at the former Civic Arena site in a move that raised concerns from a Hill District group about minorities and local businesses being overlooked.
Bjarke Ingels Group, known as BIG, is noted for groundbreaking designs such as a Copenhagen power plant with a ski slope on its roof and a 10-mile flood protection system for Manhattan that includes lush waterfront parks.
“The Penguins, (St. Louis-based lead developer) McCormack Baron Salazar, the city and (Allegheny) County made a misstep by not having a public process whereby local and minority-owned design firms could compete for this huge opportunity,” said Hill Community Development Corp. CEO Marimba Milliones.
Milliones helped broker an agreement with Penguins and government leaders that set conditions for redeveloping the 28-acre site, such as requiring a certain percentage of the work to go to minority- and women-owned businesses.
At a news conference Thursday, Penguins Chief Operating Officer Travis Williams said the team remains committed to meeting those goals overall but is not bound to seek public bids or meet goals for minority- and women-owned business participation for each of the many contracts that will be awarded.
“Minority- and women-owned contractors will have an opportunity to participate in the project,” Williams said.
Among other roles, a minority-owned firm will be selected to develop up to 250 apartments. McCormack Baron Salazar is lead developer for up to 850 apartments.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said he “would be shocked if Hill District residents would be upset to have the involvement of a world-renowned architectural firm” in efforts to rebuild the Lower Hill.
Peduto believes residents in neighborhoods such as Shadyside or Lawrenceville “would be honored” to have BIG involved in projects in their neighborhoods.
Founded 10 years ago by Bjarke Ingels, the firm employs more than 200 architects and has a major office in New York, where in addition to the “Dryline” flood protection project, it designed a 750-unit, pyramid-shaped apartment building and redesigned plans for Two World Trade Center.
Peduto said he became familiar with BIG’s work while visiting Copenhagen, then met company representatives again when they traveled to Pittsburgh this spring for a conference for the city’s P4 initiative (People, Planet, Place and Performance), which is aimed at spurring sustainable development.
Drew Armstrong, director of architectural studies at the University of Pittsburgh, called the selection “pretty remarkable in many ways,” noting BIG’s work is as highly regarded in the industry as it is high-profile.
“The way it has gone from zero to global is extraordinary. It can choose any project it wants right now, and people should feel good that Pittsburgh is willing to bring in a firm that has emerged in the last 10 years as being of the absolute top order,” Armstrong said, adding that BIG has a track record of incorporating public input into its designs.
He cited designs for a Copenhagen park that connected and celebrated the diverse cultural heritage of several city neighborhoods.
“BIG’s selection is a signal of sensitivity to the complexity of the (Lower Hill) site and the many voices that need to be heard,” Armstrong said.
But Milliones said: “This project is not just about community participation in the designs. It’s also about fair access to opportunity in order to create wealth. The fact that local design firms, minority or not, were not given an opportunity to compete given our goals here, it rings a bit tone deaf.”
Officials did not disclose terms of the deal with Bjarke Ingels.
Penguins officials proposed a $440 million Lower Hill project in 2010. They now predict costs exceeding $500 million.
Plans include nearly 1,100 apartments, 632,000 square feet of office space, 250,000 square feet of retail space and a 150-room hotel.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].