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The next phase of Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill development is off to a rocky start

Jake Savitz
90.5 WESA

The Pittsburgh Penguins and their development team hope to build a music venue in the Lower Hill — but at a meeting Thursday, board members at the Urban Redevelopment Authority seemed a long way from giving the green light.

“In my personal opinion, we shouldn’t even be having this briefing right now,” said Daniel Lavelle, a URA board member and Pittsburgh city councilor whose district includes the Hill.

While Thursday’s meeting was just an update on the project, Lavelle noted that the developers had yet to submit important information to the agency, such as financing documents and a plan for minority participation in the project. The URA board also can’t vote on the project until it has received the approval of the city’s Planning Commission, and the development is not yet on that body’s agenda.

“I could sit here and ask questions but we literally don’t have the answers to them,” Lavelle said.

The Penguins’ development arm, Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Redevelopment, or PAR, first submitted its plans for the site, known as Block E, in 2019. At the time, the project was intended to include a music venue to be run by Live Nation, retail space, and a parking garage. At a special meeting of the URA that year, the plans won the board’s approval conditioned on promises made to the Greater Hill District community. Those included renovating a recreation center, funding a neighborhood development effort through a diversion of tax dollars, and building an emergency services station.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the live-event industry collapsed, and so PAR and its lead developer, the Buccini Pollin Group, shelved plans for the music venue. Instead, they moved forward with the First National Bank tower.

Since then, the plans for Block E have changed. The entertainment venue is smaller, as is the retail and commercial space, and a planned outdoor amphitheater with underground parking was nixed. The site that would have been occupied by the outdoor venue is now slated for a six-story parking garage.

The developers’ commitments to the community, meanwhile, remain. But just how well those promises are being met is a matter of disagreement between the developers and some community members and organizations.

Marimba Milliones, the president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation, ran through a list of her organization’s view of the shortcomings, and summed up by saying, “While we would like to ensure that our community is developed, we must also ensure that there is shared prosperity.”

Presentations from Bomani Howze and Kimberly Ellis, of the Buccini Pollin Group, rebutted Milliones’ assertions. Craig Dunham, a Penguins employee, also ran through the developer’s commitments and discussed where each of them stood.

Chris Buccini, co-president of the Buccini Pollin Group, closed his presentation by saying, “We hope that you find that our efforts are sincere, that our commitment is firm.”

However, URA board member Sam Williamson seemed unconvinced.

“This might not be the forum to litigate each of those areas, but you all should expect the board … to dig into every single one of them in great detail,” he said.

Other board members raised questions about job creation, open space, plans for housing, and the developers’ participation in a community review process called the Development Review Panel, or DRP.

The DRP process is intended to ensure proposed development projects live up to the Hill District Master plan, and that they have resident support. But while PAR and Buccini Pollin have the approval of several community groups, their plan must be submitted to a vote by Hill District residents, which they have yet to do.