With The Penguins Back At The Table, URA Board Approves Plans For The Lower Hill

May 21, 2020

The Pittsburgh Penguins will advance their plans for a 26-story office tower on the former site of the Civic Arena in the Lower Hill. The project won preliminary approval from the board of the Urban Redevelopment Authority on Thursday, a week after they moved to delay the vote, citing community concerns and documents received at the last minute.

Last week’s haggling was only the latest salvo in a long struggle with the Penguins over the future of the 28-acre site, bulldozed in the late 1950s to make way for an arts district that never materialized. State, county, and city officials gave the Penguins development rights to the land in 2007. The deal followed months of negotiations to prevent the team from leaving the city and included a new stadium, built with public money.

While board members said they had enough information to approve the Penguins’ selected developer, Buccini/Pollin Group, and conceptual plans for the project, “there are still outlying concerns that the community has that we must, and absolutely will, work through,” said Pittsburgh City Councilor and board member Daniel Lavelle.

State representative and URA board member Ed Gainey said many development projects have failed to benefit the city’s black residents, and that the Lower Hill must be different.

“Everybody’s talking about how they want to ensure that we’re one city, that we want to ensure that everybody’s inclusive. We have an opportunity right now,” he said. “We’re going to rebuild the Lower Hill. Let’s just make sure that we do it with black people.”

A week after saying they would pull out of the development, the Penguins and their partners now say they’re committed to community benefit. In an emailed statement, Penguins CEO David Morehouse said they look forward to rebuilding the Lower Hill “together.”

“We all have a lot of work ahead of us, and together we need to build a development process better rooted in transparency and accountability.”

The URA will only sell the Penguins the land if they can prove they are fulfilling their commitments to the greater Hill District community. Those range from cultural investments to wealth-building initiatives; in conjunction with Partner4Work, they will create a job and business development center in the neighborhood. Board members voted to create guidelines to evaluate the Penguins’ performance on those community benefits.

There are important protections in place, but everyone must work to make sure they’re enforced, said Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation.

“We want to see less of a focus on … marketing the deal to the community and more of a focus on working with the community to co-create the best deal,” said Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill CDC. “The URA and private interests can’t determine what’s best for the Hill District community.”

The parking lot outside the downtown hockey stadium.
Credit Jake Savitz / 90.5 WESA

The roughly $200 million office tower will be anchored by First National Bank and built by Buccini/Pollin Group on Block G-1, the third Lower Hill site for which the Penguins have sought URA approval. First National Bank will provide $8 million for investments throughout the Hill District, and $3 million for housing initiatives. They will recoup that money over time through two separate tax programs, a Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance, or LERTA, and a parking tax diversion.

The previous two lots for which the URA granted preliminary approval carry separate commitments to the greater Hill District. They include funding for the Curtain Call project, space for small businesses in the planned music venue, and renovation of the Ammon Recreation Center.