An illustration of one of the Lower Hill redevelopment's proposed open spaces.

On Monday afternoon the Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Redevelopment LP (PAR), the Penguins affiliate in charge of coordinating the master planning for the 28-acre former Civic Arena site, convened the second of its public meetings on the project. The meetings are a crucial part of the planning and approval process set in motion on September 9, when after 11 months of negotiation, city and county leadership, community leaders, and the Penguins reached an accord to move forward with development.

Here are some things you should know.

Who, what, where.  

The Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) own the land. The Penguins have exclusive development rights through an option agreement that was made in 2007 as part of the franchise’s lease negotiations for the CONSOL Energy Center. The 28 acres in question are bounded by Centre Avenue to the south, Washington Place to the west, Bedford Avenue to the north and Crawford Avenue to the east. The Lower Hill District Redevelopment plan is mixed-use and proposes to create: 1,188 residential units, 250,000 square feet of commercial and entertainment space, 632,000 square feet of office space and a 150-room hotel. It has the potential to generate substantial economic opportunity and attract an estimated $400 million in private investment. Ten percent of the development must be open space, and there are currently three big open spaces in the plan.


Under their option agreement, the Penguins must develop one tenth of the former Civic Arena site every year for 10 years. Planning for the development has been in motion in some form for almost eight years. Right now the Penguins are soliciting public feedback on their proposed plan (more on that below) in a series of official meetings. Then comes a planning commission briefing, another public meeting, a planning commission hearing, and then action. City Council also has to approve zoning changes. Sewer and water improvements on Centre Avenue started in August.

There’s still a lot to be decided.

In order to get moving on development and meet the obligations of their option agreement, the Penguins submitted a Preliminary Land Development Plan (PLDP). Required by city zoning for any large development, the PLDP acts as a kind of road map. It lays out how the general vision of a project will be accomplished. That text is accompanied by a legal document called the Specially Planned District (SPD), which gets down to the nitty-gritty of what the enforceable zoning restrictions will be: how much parking will be required, the width of the sidewalks, or how tall buildings can be.

The PLDP is like a picture book for developers and zoning boards—lots of diagrams and beautiful renderings that help the reader imagine what this huge new place could be. But it’s important not to get carried away. The specifics of the project, like contractors or signage or affordable housing, remain in flux.

Also still in progress is the tax increment financing (TIF) district, a program that allows the city to earmark revenue from property tax to fund improvements throughout the greater Hill District: Bluff, Crawford-Roberts, Terrace Village, Middle Hill, Bedford Dwellings, Lower and Upper Hill. Sixty-five percent of those monies, forecast to be at least $22 million over 20 years, will go into a fund governed by the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority. Its expenditures would be overseen by an advisory board comprised partly of community representatives. The remaining 35 percent would go to the city, county, and the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

This is all great, right? What’s the problem?

The history of the Hill District is one of severed connections. Ninety-five acres were razed in the 1950s to make way for a planned cultural center that never materialized, save for the Civic Arena. The demolition took out 1,300 buildings, 413 businesses and displaced 8,000 people. The I-579 construction further isolated the Hill, and transportation has been a persistent issue. The existing Hill District Master Plan outlines a vision of improved quality of life and a framework for directing public and private resources for community benefit. There is concern that the economic benefit generated by Lower Hill redevelopment will not reach the Greater Hill District and that climbing rent prices could squeeze residents out.

Affordable housing and minority and women involvement in business enterprise had been major sticking points in early negotiations, and Councilman Lavelle says the city needs to have a larger debate about affordable housing.

“It’s a serious concern. As we’re trying to attract new residents, are we also protecting the ones already here?”

Travis Williams, the Penguins’ chief operating officer, says addressing the community’s concerns is a central tenet of the development’s plan and why a Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan (CCIP) was created. Where the PLDP and the SDP are the vision and legal documents for the site, the CCIP creates a structure for collaboration between the Hill District community, other stakeholders, and the Penguins.

“The fact that we’ve collaborated and built those relationships already I think is a great start and I think they will only continue to build and get better as we bring wins, if you will, to the community.”

Oh, and parking’s going to be very different.

Housing is crucial. Jobs are crucial. Displacement is serious.

One of the lighter notes to come out of Monday’s meeting is how parking will change. Currently, there are 3,000 available parking spaces on the surface lots at the site and Cynthia Jampole, a principal of Trans Associates, says many of those commuter spots will no longer exist.

“There will have to be a change in travel patterns for the people who are coming to the site. That’s without doubt. It’s an urban solution, this isn’t one of the outlying communities…where you simply pave more stuff.”

The next public meeting will be held on Oct. 27 at 5:30pm in the Kauffman Auditorium next to the Hill House. The Planning Commission Briefing will take place Nov. 4 at 1:30 pm at 200 Ross Street. The public is welcome. Full documents regarding the project and its process can be found here.

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.