'Unified' redevelopment proposal emerges for old arena site in Hill District

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA), 2014-08-19

Aug. 19 --Some of the region's top political leaders are working on a unified plan to present to the Penguins in a bid to break the deadlock with the Hill District community over the redevelopment of the former Civic Arena site.

Consensus on a plan emerged during a two-hour political summit Monday convened by U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle , D- Forest Hills , and attended by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto ; Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald ; city Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle ; state Rep. Jake Wheatley , D- Hill District ; and state Sens. Wayne Fontana , D- Brookline , and Jay Costa , D- Forest Hills .

Mr. Peduto said afterward the politicians had agreed on the framework for a community agreement to be presented to the Penguins, with the specifics still to be put to paper. He described the meeting as a "big step forward in presenting a unified plan" to the hockey team.

He believes the consensus could pave the way for an agreement that could lead to the start of development this fall without the need for the one-year extension requested by the Penguins. The team, facing an October deadline, asked for more time to begin development because of the impasse over issues like affordable housing and minority participation.

"With the consensus of the elected officials, there will be a good-faith effort to put forward a plan that can get done without extending the deadline," Mr. Peduto said.

Mr. Wheatley said the proposal being advanced by the political leadership would be based on a plan put together by the Hill community.

"I think it was a very positive first step," he said.

Mr. Lavelle -- a Democrat who, like Mr. Wheatley , represents the Hill -- said he would take the plan back to the lower Hill working group that has been negotiating with the Penguins. He believes it will get the support of the community.

"What we discussed is what the community has been fighting for. This wasn't politicians saying we're going to create our own idea," he said.

Mr. Lavelle last week threatened to withhold his support for a $21 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant crucial to the redevelopment of the arena site unless there was a deal reached soon between the Hill and the Penguins. He was more upbeat after Monday's meeting.

"I would say there was definitely movement on all sides," he said.

Local officials are counting on the federal money to help pay for the roads, utilities and other infrastructure, estimated at more than $30 million , needed to get the 28-acre site ready for the team's proposed residential, office and commercial development.

Mr. Doyle said he decided to arrange Monday's meeting after seeing newspaper articles indicating that there was "some negotiating still going on." He said it was important for the region to present a unified front in the weeks before the grants are awarded in mid-September.

"To have a prayer at this, we have to have our ducks in a row and everyone has to be on the same page," he said.

The consensus on a plan, he added, "by no means guarantees us anything, but I think it at least puts us in a good position as we come down the home stretch." The region previously has lost out on two other bids for such grants for the arena site.

Neither Mr. Doyle nor any of the others interviewed Monday would give specifics on how they resolved thorny issues like affordable housing, and minority and women's participation in the development.

Hill leaders have been demanding minority and women's participation levels of 35 and 15 percent, respectively, while the team has countered with 25 and 10 percent.

On affordable housing, the Penguins have offered to make 20 percent of the 1,192 units they are planning available to those earning 80 percent of the area median income, while Hill leaders want 30 percent of the units available to those making 30 to 80 percent of the area median.

Even if the Hill community gets behind the agreement, the Penguins still would have to accept it. Mr. Doyle said much of that negotiating already has taken place in the team's discussions with the community.

"I don't see anything that would be troublesome," he said.

Penguins officials could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Peduto said the proposal crafted Monday not only would benefit the lower Hill, where the former arena site is located, but the Middle and Upper Hill as well.

While he cautioned that there was still work to be done, he called Monday's meeting a "high-water mark" in the efforts to bring about an agreement that would lead to the site being developed.

Mr. Lavelle will work with Kevin Acklin , Mr. Peduto's chief of staff, to put what was agreed to Monday in writing. It then will be circulated among the various politicians for final approval.

"This is something we want to see work. It can be a great thing," Mr. Doyle said of the arena redevelopment. "It has the potential to be a transformational development. We don't want a parking lot there. We want something that can benefit the Hill and the city."

Mark Belko : mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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