A Tale of Two Arenas: Detroit's Silverdome vs. Pittsburgh's Civic Arena

Two cities choose two very different paths in dealing with aging stadiums

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PIttsburgh's Civic Arena (Courtesy Wahlia Creative)

A 127-acre, 80,300-seat domed stadium, the all-purpose Pontiac Silverdome, once hosted NBA and NFL teams, the 1994 FIFA World Cup, and musical performances from Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd and many more.

But faced with decades of economic decline, the City of Pontiac—about 30 miles northwest of Detroit—was famously forced to auction the stadium in 2009.

Though the Silverdome was built for $55.7 million in 1975, it sold for a paltry $583,000 in 2009 to Toronto-based developer Andreas Apostolopoulos.

Major publications explored the sale as yet another metaphor for Pontiac’s downfall. One Pontiac resident told the Washington Post the sale made the city look like "the laughingstock of the country."

But in retrospect, the Silverdome sale doesn't look so bad. Instead of spending millions in tax dollars to demolish the stadium and clear 127 acres of land, the Silverdome is still operational; Apostolopoulos has spent millions of his own to rehab the facility and is working on a deal to host a Major League Soccer team.

The Silverdome deal, in fact, may have been rather sweet compared to the saga of a similar property in Pittsburgh.

Built in 1961, the Civic Arena—known as the Igloo—sits in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. It was the first retractable roof venue in the world and it hosted NHL and NCAA games as well as nearly every mainstream musical act to visit Pittsburgh in the last 50 years. While the Igloo’s construction arguably helped sever Pittsburgh’s economic center from its most prominent black neighborhood, the Igloo also represents much of the city’s 20th century history, both good and bad.

In 2007, the Lemieux Group, owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins, arranged with local and state governments to build a new arena, the Consol Energy Center, across the street from the Igloo, which would in turn be razed and converted into a parking lot. (Recent reports have laid out plans for new offices, residences, and chain restaurants like TGI Friday’s and Subway.)

Though Consol’s construction was complete by August 2010, debate over the Igloo’s demolition continued.

In the face of that debate, demolition was set to begin this year. Preservation Pittsburgh—a group that lobbies to conserve historic architectural and environmental sites—appealed to the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission to halt the Igloo’s demolition on the grounds that the building is a landmark.

That assertion was rejected. But a lawsuit filed in July put brakes on the demolition again. And according to Rob Pfaffmann, a local architect and key member of Preservation Pittsburgh, a main reason behind the push to delay demolition was a behind-the-scenes discussion with Silverdome’s owner, Andreas Apostolopoulos.

Pfaffman says Apostolopoulos expressed interest in purchasing the Igloo and contracting it to Montreal-based Cirque Du Soleil. The circus arts group had, according to Pfaffman, considered using the Igloo as a U.S. training facility. Cirque has never publicly acknowledged that it considered the deal but earlier this year, Pfaffmann, inspired by a tip from a high-level Cirque employee, unveiled an extensive proposal for a Cirque-centric Civic Arena that would, he says, bring “real jobs to the city, new viability for Pittsburgh’s failing airport and a plan that makes use of a historic building rather than tearing it down.”

That proposal fell on deaf ears.

Preservation Pittsburgh’s lawsuit was dismissed last month and a judge gave the go-ahead to begin tearing down the Civic Arena from the inside. The demolition should take months and redevelopment could take years.

While Pfaffman considers the issue closed, he says demolishing the Civic Arena will serve as an example of Pittsburgh destroying its assets unnecessarily.

“You’d think the city would be eager to use the Silverdome as an example here,” he says. “But they haven’t. They want more TGI Friday’s and Subways instead.”

Above image courtesy Wahila Creative

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