A Bjarke Ingels Group-led plan from 2015 has given way to a more “practical” design for the Lower Hill District. Concerns over true affordable housing remain.
For a moment, it was possible to forget that what may be the most controversial redevelopment project in Pittsburgh is, in fact, controversial.
When the Pittsburgh Penguins announced a new development team and master plan for the former Civic Arena site in the city’s Lower Hill District last month, the hockey team had already lined up the support of Mayor Bill Peduto, Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle (whose district includes the project), and others who had in the past been critical of the Penguins’ efforts to redevelop the 28-acre site.
Kevin Acklin, the team’s senior vice president and general counsel and the mayor’s former chief of staff, said, “We were charged by the owners of the Penguins to not settle for run of the mill development, but to make this a legacy project for the entire city, and that’s what led to building the new team,” including a new housing developer, the minority-owned Intergen. Lavelle tells CityLab that “the fact that we now have an African American developer leading the housing” is a “rewarding” moment in a story that has had its fair share of frustrations.
Little is guaranteed when it comes to the Lower Hill, where a neglected but vibrant majority black neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for the Civic Arena, parking lots, and highways in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. The demolition displaced about 8,000 people— mostly low-income renters—and hundreds of small businesses, while cutting the rest of the predominantly African American Hill District off from downtown.
The Penguins acquired the rights to redevelop the Civic Arena site in 2007, when they agreed to a deal that kept them in Pittsburgh. The agreement left a bitter taste in the mouths of many residents who maintain that the rights to redevelop the site should never have been negotiated away. Now, the team says they’re finally on track to break ground more than seven years after the “the Igloo,” as the old arena was fondly nicknamed, came down despite opposition.
“Tearing down the Civic Arena was a mistake. It was, for all its faults, an amazing architectural and engineering feat by Pittsburgh architects and engineers,” says Rami el Samahy, an architect at OverUnder in Boston and co-author of Imagining the Modern: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Pittsburgh Renaissance, which will be published in May and revisits the city’s 1950s and ‘60s-era program of urban renewal. “If you believe that the 1950s, ‘60s plan was an erasure of Pittsburgh’s history, then removing the Civic Arena was another erasure, that didn’t necessarily correct the first,” el Samahy adds.
Despite passionate entreaties by preservationists to save it, the Civic Arena was, by 2012, no more—replaced by Consol Energy Center (now called PPG Paints Arena) across Centre Avenue. Since then the Civic Arena site has sat mostly fallow, save for the construction of even more parking lots and new roads.
The Penguins made a false start in 2014 when they (and their lead developer at the time, McCormack Baron Salazar) struck a deal, which was later scrapped, to build a new headquarters for U.S. Steel on the site. Without a marquee tenant, the project foundered. Another serious setback came last year, when the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency denied a request from McCormack Baron Salazar for more than a million dollars worth of federal low-income housing tax credits.
For years, housing has been a sticking point. In 2014, the Penguins and local leaders signed a Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan (CCIP), promising that 20 percent of the units to be built on the site would be affordable—15 percent at 80 percent of area median income, or AMI, 2.5 percent at 70 percent of AMI, and 2.5 percent at 60 percent of AMI. The agreement also lays out a number of other “success metrics,” including minimum levels of participation by minority-owned businesses in the development, and a $25 million Hill District investment fund, financed by new tax revenues.
Nevertheless, a lawsuit filed by one of the CCIP’s signatories, the Hill Community Development Corporation, and alleging noncompliance, quickly followed in 2015. In 2017, the Penguins renegotiated with the city after delays putting shovels in the ground, and pledged to make 20 percent of housing units affordable to families making up to 60 percent of AMI—an increased level of affordability.
Last year, after losing their bid for federal low-income housing tax credits, the Penguins slid back to what they had committed to in 2014, under the CCIP. “For Pittsburghers, 80 percent area median income is not affordable. Pittsburghers earn far less than those in the broader metropolitan area, and so it’s not,” says Marimba Milliones, the president and CEO of the HCDC. “Is it sufficient, for a site of this nature given the history? No,” Milliones adds, while noting the need for creative solutions. “The nature of development, and in particular the nature of community development, is being able to work through difficult situations and oftentimes complex conflicts that lead to a better result for everybody,” she says.
Carl Redwood, who leads the Hill District Consensus Group, a community advocacy organization, argues that because the area median income of African American families is lower than the overall area median income, the development will be exclusionary. “We want 30 percent of the units to be affordable for very low and extremely low income families and there’s not going to be one unit in the development that would be affordable for people at 50 percent of [area] median income,” he says. Even 30 percent of the more than 1,400 units that may eventually be built on the former Civic Arena site, of course, would hardly be enough to replace what was lost in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
More pressing is the fact that several hundred units of affordable housing won’t make much of a dent in the housing crisis the city faces today. Pittsburgh needs more than 17,000 new affordable housing units for households at or below 50 percent of AMI, according to a 2016 report by the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force (which happened to be a byproduct of the settlement between the Penguins, the city, and the HCDC in 2015.) According to Lena Andrews, a senior development officer at ACTION-Housing, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing in Pittsburgh, the housing crisis citywide is acute. “Our biggest challenge is that it’s so much work to build forty units, that we just feel like we’re not able to keep up with the demand,” she says.
Based on the task force’s recommendations, the city recently established the Housing Opportunity Fund, which puts $10 million per year toward filling the funding gaps affordable housing projects, like ACTION-Housing’s, often face. Yet affordable housing developers are also being squeezed by Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Trump in 2017, which lowered the value of low income housing tax credits. “The big source of the problem is, it’s a federal problem,” Redwood says. “It can’t be solved in Pittsburgh. We can’t solve it with the Housing Opportunity Fund, with $10 million [per year].”
The Obama administration did award a grant for a cap over the Crosstown Boulevard, which cuts the Hill District off from downtown. The cap, which will feature a new public park, is key to the effort to stitch the former Civic Arena site back into the fabric of the city. Even so, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the federal government is the problem. After all, it was the federal government that gave the city the funds to demolish the Lower Hill neighborhood more than 60 years ago. Now, as Pittsburghers look to the former Civic Arena site to correct a historic wrong, federal dollars are far harder to come by.
A guiding principle of the redevelopment of the former Civic Arena site has been the restoration of the street grid between the Hill District and downtown. That’s why the master plan for the site announced in 2015—designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), with West 8, a landscape architecture firm, and the consultancy Atelier Ten—was somewhat subversive. “The Hill is a hill and downtown is flat and the distance between the two, in a straight line, just does not work well for pedestrians. It’s quite a climb,” says el Samahy. “I think the certain kind of genius of the BIG plan was to throw that narrative out. To say that it’s not about restitching a fabric that was erased a half century ago but to create a new fabric that made a lot more sense [for pedestrians],” he adds.
Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner at BIG, told me that their plan, which featured a “zigzagged” public park and network of gently sloping paths, deliberately encouraged walking and biking, instead of driving. “We prioritized connectivity,” he says. “The slope of Lower Hill is fourteen percent, on average. That means that you literally need a car to drive up that hill. It’s not a pleasant walk, it’s very difficult by bike. If you’re in a wheelchair, that’s almost impossible. So we tried to create a connective, equitable, space.”
But with a new development team in place, the Penguins have shelved the BIG-led plan in favor of a new plan designed by Gensler and OHM. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last month that “[t]he genesis for the team’s new vision came during a February 2018 meeting with Penguins co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle… Team officials toured developments like the 27-acre Hudson Yards in New York and The Wharf in Washington, D.C., in reassessing their plans.” For his part, Acklin says that the new plan builds both on the BIG-led plan and on feedback from residents. Lavelle told me that the new master plan is “a little bit more practical.” But if cost was an issue, Bergmann tells CityLab, BIG and its partners hoped to lower the price tag by using wood, rather than steel frame construction. That’s a difficult sell, however, in Steel City, where even the building codes disfavor timber.
Whichever vision wins out, some are skeptical of design’s ability to heal the wounds left by urban renewal. “Design straight of the box doesn’t have that patina of culture yet, and that patina comes with time and it comes with the ability of people to put their mark on the space,” says Christine Mondor, an architect at evolveEA in Pittsburgh and chair of the city’s planning commission, which will review the new plan for the Lower Hill site. “It takes years before we appreciate a new project in the way that we love many of our older spaces," she adds. “The best projects are those that allow people to make their mark.”
It’s a sentiment that rings true in the Lower Hill, which was once one of the capitals of jazz. “I don’t believe you can fully ever restore the legacy that was torn asunder 50 years ago, right? I don’t think you can ever truly rebuild that. But, we can get as close as possible,” says Lavelle. But, asks el Samahy, “What reparations do you make as a city to a population and a culture that you skewered?”