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Arts, Sports & Culture

Historic Preservation in the Steel City Debated

90.5 WESA

The president of the group Preservation Pittsburgh says he's learned a valuable lesson from the protracted battle over the demolition of the Civic Arena -- a lesson he'll put into practice for upcoming conflicts over historic building preservation.

"I think getting into the process much earlier, and being much more proactive, and certainly working with the organizations that have the most say in the destiny of a lot of these buildings at an earlier point in the process -- that's really the best thing we could do," said Preservation Pittsburgh President Peter Margittai, at a public forum on architecture held by Essential Pittsburgh last week.

Margittai attributed the fall of the Igloo to "politics and money," still holding that the 1961 dome should've been reused after the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey club moved out in 2010. The arena's slow deconstruction started in late 2011 and finished in early 2012. The structure's footprint is now used for parking spaces, and any potential redevelopment of the site would be a long time coming.

John Martine, lead design partner at the firm Strada, agrees that politics and economics played a major role in the razing of the Civic Arena. Martine added that he thinks another factor leading to demolition was the building's relative isolation in the Hill District community.

"I think the scenario would have been very different, for example, if the area around the Civic Arena had been properly developed fifty years ago, with the proposed office buildings, apartments, retail, hotels and all of that. We would still have the arena," said Martine. "Unfortunately, the area around the arena was just a parking lot for fifty years."

Martine said many people agree that the Igloo was significant both historically and architecturally, but those weren't the only factors in consideration at the time.

Preservation Pittsburgh's Peter Margittai said he wants to argue for preservation earlier in the case of the Produce Terminal building in the Strip District. Part of the building sits within the plot of land where the Buncher Company wants to build a new mixed-used development, and the redevelopment would likely require the demolition of roughly a third of the long, historic market house.

Greening Up an Old Building

Sean Luther of the Green Building Alliance said his group helps owners of historic buildings retrofit the structures with green technology to reduce energy consumption. He said the process can be expensive, but there's an inherent cost-savings as well, as in the case of the Cork Factory in the Strip District.

"When you think about all the energy that went into building that building -- human capital, movements, transportation -- that's all still there, and you get to build off the bones of a really spectacular building," said Luther, "whereas, in new construction across the street, they're building some really cool apartments. You have to start from the ground up. You have to put that foundation in. You have to put that structural support back in."

Luther said it is buildings, not cars, that consume the most energy in the United States. He noted that older buildings are generally not as energy-efficient as new structures, and owners could save money on utilities with the investment in green technology.