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Penguins’ development plans hinge on Civic Arena demolition

More than 130 letters urging the Sports & Exhibition Authority to preserve the Civic Arena or at least delay its demise couldn’t compete with the message the Pittsburgh Penguins sent.

“If we went the other way, the Penguins would have sued us,” Sen. Wayne Fontana, a member of the authority board, said about its 5-0 vote Sept. 16 in favor of demolishing the arena. “So there we are in the middle, getting pounded on both ends of the debate.”

The pounding is expected to continue today when the city Planning Commission votes whether to demolish the silver-domed arena in April to make way for a 28-acre mix of offices, homes and shops the Penguins plan to build over 10 years.

The Tribune-Review obtained dozens of letters and a complete list of correspondence the SEA received during the past year while deciding the arena’s fate.

A two-page Aug. 26 letter from a lawyer for the Penguins reminded SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo that the 2007 agreement signed by Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority was a “material inducement” for the team to remain in Pittsburgh. The agreement gave the team development rights for the arena site when it moved across Centre Avenue to Consol Energy Center.

“While the Penguins will continue to work with the authority, the Penguins expect the authority to meet its obligations under the agreement,” Reed Smith attorney Dusty Elias Kirk wrote.

“We never talked about suing anybody,” said Penguins President David Morehouse. “We’ve always believed that the best use of that land was to demolish the arena and put a mixed-use development there.”

Fontana, the SEA’s chairman, said those trying to save the Hill District arena should have attempted to persuade the Penguins, not the authority’s board.

“If the Penguins wanted it up, then we’d keep it up,” Fontana said. “But we gave our word through the (option agreement) to give them the development rights, and part of that was to bring it down.”

Anthony Ross, another SEA board member, said he listened to both sides before making his decision.

“My decision was made based on everything I had heard,” he said, declining to comment on Fontana’s assertion. “It was not a hastily made decision.”

If the Planning Commission approves and the arena is demolished, the site temporarily would become a parking lot, Morehouse said, until the Penguins and Hill District residents — guided by the URA — each complete a planning process.

It’s unclear how long that could take.

If the commission approves demolition, Reuse the Igloo, a grassroots preservation group, plans today to nominate the 49-year-old arena as an historic structure under city rules, said founder Rob Pfaffmann, a Downtown architect.

Nominated structures typically are prohibited from demolition during the review.

“There’s no need to do this right now,” Pfaffmann said. “We would love to see the Planning Commission have the spine to stand up and say, ‘No, this is not good planning.’ ”

Many who agree in principle with Pfaffmann wrote to the SEA’s board before its critical vote.

SEA officials carefully logged letters, e-mails and phone calls; monitored comments posted to Reuse the Igloo’s Facebook page; and summarized newspaper, TV, radio and YouTube accounts of the debate.

All of it went into a meticulously compiled catalogue that lists the source, date and point of view of each of the 441 items.

The catalogue shows 31 letter- and e-mail-writers favored demolition; 62 suggested a delay or additional planning; and 69 urged preservation of the arena.

Some offered unique reuses such as a jazz performance center; hockey hall of fame; farmer’s market; public ice skating rink; indoor “blizzard-themed” water park; and women’s roller derby rink.

“Women’s Roller Derby is in need of a venue that can accommodate its growing fan base,” wrote Mark Rivett, 32, a web developer from Green Tree.

Rivett, whose girlfriend plays in the league, said it would require varying small and large sporting ventures to cover the arena’s operating costs. He said that would be more valuable than office space on the edge of Downtown.

“I’m not saying Pittsburgh roller derby could save Mellon Arena, but I think the development plans currently are just out of whack,” Rivett said.


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