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URA Waits To Vote On New Plan For Former Civic Arena Site

Jake Savitz
90.5 WESA
New development terms for a 28-acre site in the Lower Hill District could create more affordable housing. Parking lots cover much of what was once a densely populated business and residential district.

Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority on Thursday moved to delay its vote on a revised development agreement with the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose real estate affiliate holds exclusive development rights to the 28-acre former Civic Arena site in the Lower Hill District.

URA board chair Sam Williamson told a packed meeting room that the URA broke apart the Lower Hill when it demolished 96 acres of predominantly black businesses and homes in the 1950s as part of its urban renewal schemes.

“We have some opportunities to try to make amends, to try to make some degree of reparations, frankly, for those decisions,” he said.

The amended development proposal would make the site’s future tax revenue available up front to be used for investments in the Lower, Middle and Upper Hill. The city and the Penguins had already agreed that property taxes from the development would help fund neighborhood initiatives, but that money wouldn’t have been available until the buildings opened.

Now, half of the property tax could go to the Greater Hill District Reinvestment Fund as soon as construction on the Lower Hill begins. In addition, the Penguins offered to help fund a number of community initiatives. Those include the Curtain Call project, which honors the arts and culture legacy of the Hill, and a renovation of the Ammon Community Recreation Center. They promised to move an emergency services location station, invest in entrepreneurial space, and provide deeper levels of affordability in the first phase of housing.

The deal came together quickly. While expanded community benefits are exciting, the community must have a chance to weigh in, said Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation.

“When we have an opportunity to take in the information and to dialog, we can possibly come up with more inventive and creative solutions.”

URA board member and city councilor Daniel Lavelle said he had been ready to vote on the proposal, which was finalized in the last few days. But “at the end of the day, it’s my job to best represent [the community],” said Lavelle, whose district includes the Hill.

Under a plan floated in March of last year, 20 percent of the 228 housing units would have been affordable to people earning 80 percent of area median income, or AMI, for seven years. The current plan would make the same number of units affordable at 50 to 60 percent of AMI for 20 years. But Carol Hardeman of the Hill District Consensus Group said the new housing proposal still offers less than what’s laid out in the neighborhood’s master plan, and challenged Williamson to do more when it came to making amends.

“I appreciate your message, Sam, but if you really want to do us a real deal, put that 30 percent, 40 percent affordable housing back on the table.”

Adding more affordable housing would depend on getting project-based housing vouchers from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. Lavelle said he would encourage housing developer Intergen to apply for the vouchers, but without them, the first phase of housing would revert back to the previous levels of affordability. The housing authority did not immediately return a request for comment.

This is the first time in a decade that the Penguins have come to the table with real commitments and not just promises, said Kevin Acklin, senior vice president and general counsel for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“We’re ready and willing to work collaboratively, because we’re proud of the work that we’ve done,” he said. “We’re ready to go.”

After years of neglect, Lavelle said the Hill deserves the best deal possible, and asked for a longer review period.

“This was an effort to sort of say, ‘We know you screwed us, but again, we’re going to try to layer some good on top of it,” he said. “We’re going to keep rolling this ball downhill until we’ve extracted every possible benefit and everything that’s worthwhile for this community.”

In order to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh, the city, county, and state agreed in 2007 to build a new stadium and allow the franchise to develop the site of their former arena.

A special meeting of the board to vote on the new proposal will be advertised soon.

Before moving into a separate agenda on the Lower Hill, the URA voted in favor of a program that would incentivize small-scale landlords to offer affordable housing. The Small Landlord Fund will give low-interest loans for repairs to building owners with five units or fewer. Those repairs are intented to help landlords pass an inspection in order to can accept tenants that use federal housing vouchers, also known as Section 8.

Jessica Smith Perry, director of the URA’s Housing Opportunity Fund department, said the authority wants to make sure all landlords can participate if they wish.

“In some neighborhoods, landlords themselves don’t have a lot of money and may be lower-income,” Smith Perry said. “To encourage their participation we’re changing some of the parameters.”

Those parameter changes include reducing the required credit score of landlords and the amount of time they have to be on a tax payment plan if they owe money to the IRS.

At a July board meeting, Smith Perry said nearly 70 percent of Section 8 vouchers are returned to Pittsburgh’s housing authority because holders can’t find landlords to accept them.

The URA also announced Thursday that the agency is in a position to launch a new pilot program to provide bridge financing, offering loans up to $5 million to close funding gaps. The initiative would likely support four to five loans and be available to non-profit borrowers. The URA would prioritize  projects that include affordable housing and workforce development.