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Light shines on a parcel known as “Block E” in a much-debated section of the Lower Hill on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Pittsburgh. Decades after the Lower Hill was demolished to build the Civic Arena, plans to redevelop the former site into a music venue have some community members claiming that the Hill is not benefiting enough. Photo by Stephanie Strasburg / PublicSource.

This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.

By Eric Jankiewicz

People’s ability to objectively assess a situation is limited by their perspective, concluded LaShawn Burton-Faulk, as the City Planning Commission voted to approve development plans for the Lower Hill District despite ongoing community opposition.

Tuesday’s commission meeting concluded a series of sometimes contentious hearings over a developer’s application to build a live music venue with a small business incubator around Wylie Avenue between Fullerton and Logan Streets.

Burton-Faulk, the commission’s vice chair, acknowledged tensions between the Penguins-picked developer, Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] and the community, but noted her organization’s limited ability to address them. 

“The motion carries and this passes but I’m not excusing people yet. I want us to be careful that we are respectful with the community and the applicant,” Burton-Faulk said. “No party is a hundred percent accurate because it’s about perspective. It’s about fact versus perception.”

The commission’s approval of two items related to the development brings BPG, one crucial step closer to redeveloping part of the former 28-acre Civic Arena. The developers will now be able to take their plans to the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which own parts of the site and could meet early next month.

If approved, the plan calls for a 4,600-seat entertainment venue operated by Live Nation, and a parking garage with 900 spaces. The developers estimate construction to total $110 million. BPG is also building the FNB Financial Center nearby.

Because the URA cleared homes, businesses and churches to make way for the Civic Arena in the 1950s, the Lower Hill’s redevelopment by the Penguins has spurred demands for Hill-wide benefits.

Acknowledging that history, Burton-Faulk urged everyone to “keep communicating.”

Her urgings came at the end of an hours-long meeting that saw Hill District community members express skepticism at the developer’s commitment to include the surrounding neighborhood in the expected funds that will be generated by the completed project.  

Earlier this month the commissioners decided to reschedule final approval for Tuesday to allow community members time to review updated documents on community benefits from the development.

Burton-Faulk said Tuesday that she appreciated the “extra mile” the developers made in working through the approval process. 

Two weeks earlier the developers, in an effort to assuage community concerns, included a pledge of a $2 surcharge on paid tickets at the proposed music venue for 10 years. Funds from the surcharge would go to the Greater Hill District Neighborhood Reinvestment Fund, which received $7.18 million when construction began on the FNB Financial Center in September 2021.

Several members of the public complained on Tuesday that the developers didn’t do enough to reach out to the community to share their building plans.

Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation, said that BPG had not fulfilled several promises to the community.

Chavaysha Chaney, the Hill CDC’s policy and programs associate, said that BPG “refused to resubmit to the [Development Review Panel] process” after their plans initially failed to meet the Hill panel’s standards. A process allows community organizations to weigh in on, and score, a development plan’s merits and benefits. 

“The Lower Hill Development team didn’t honor the process,” Chaney said. “We asked the BPG and Penguins to support equity and to follow through on their commitment to work with the community instead of sowing division and confusion.”

But commission Chair Christine Mondor said that a developer’s lack of participation in a process by a Registered Community Organization like the Hill CDC is beyond the scope of the commission’s authority.

“There’s a lot of stuff you’re asking us to mediate and we’re not in a position to do that,” said Mondor. “Development and community can step up and be a part of that. At the end of day, we cannot be arbiters of all these issues.”

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at ericj@publicsource.org or on Twitter@ericjankiewicz.

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