URA Vote Sets The Stage For Lower Hill Development In Spring 2020

Oct 18, 2019

On Friday the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority cleared the way for the Pittsburgh Penguins to begin development of the former Civic Arena site in spring 2020. The particulars of the deal have been the subject of intense negotiation for years.

The Lower Hill was bulldozed by city officials in the late 1950s to make way for an arts district that never really materialized, with the exception of the Civic Arena. Thousands of black families and businesses were displaced. In 2007, city, county, and state officials offered the Penguins exclusive development rights to those 28 acres. Since then, community residents and advocates have fought to ensure its redevelopment benefits the greater Hill District.

The amended development agreement provides the URA an opportunity to prioritize people over profit, said board chair Sam Williamson.

“We can ensure access to affordable housing, ensure access to workforce development opportunities, preserve the cultural legacy of the greater Hill District,” said Williamson.

A tax abatement on the site is expected to generate $40 million for the Greater Hill District Reinvestment Fund, while another $40 million will go to the developer to be used for infrastructure. Under an earlier agreement, money for the reinvestment fund would have been distributed to the URA over 10 years as the development generated property taxes. Now, the Penguins will secure a loan to provide that money up front. That money is needed to stabilize the community so that future development doesn’t create displacement, said Diamonte Walker, the URA’s interim executive director.

“But for this investment, the Hill District will rot around us,” she said. “If we don’t act today, if we don’t act now … our children will not get the material investments they deserve,” Walker said.

However, community members worry that proposals to support small businesses, renovate the Ammon Recreation Center, and create more affordable housing are mere promises rather than enforceable actions. The public’s financial obligations to the Penguins are firm, while the Penguins and their development partners are just required to try, said Justin Laing, a Hill District resident and business owner.

“There’s no guarantees on your side,” he said to the Penguins, noting that public officials are required to help the organization secure state, federal, and foundation funding for future work.

Developer Bomani Howze said Intergen, the team that will build the first phase of housing, will work to create deeper levels of housing affordability than earlier agreements required.

“To make our community more beautiful and beneficial than the way we inherited, it’s an honor, it’s a charge,” Howze said.

That increased housing affordability is dependent on Intergen receiving project-based vouchers from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh; everyone present at Friday’s URA board meeting acknowledged that is a competitive process with no guarantees. Carl Redwood of the Hill District Consensus Group said the only tangible benefit for average families in the community is the Ammon Recreation Center.

“Why do we, as a poor city, give huge public subsidy to corporations to billionaires and millionaires?” he said before the meeting. “That’s the fundamental problem.”

The Penguins want to be a partner to the Hill and live up to their commitments, said Kevin Acklin, the team’s senior vice president and general counsel and former chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto.

“That’s my word. I know it isn’t worth much, but hopefully as we move forward you’ll see actions where we’re going to be engaged with the community,” Acklin said.

A letter from Hill District development stakeholders urged the URA board to change the language in the agreement to “include clear financial commitments” to the public benefits. The board voted to create a working group to identify how the contents of the stakeholders’ letter could be incorporated into the development process.

“Hopefully, people's intent, and everyone is saying that they want to do the right thing, will be lived out,” said Marimba Milliones, executive director of the Hill Community Development Corporation.

In the first phase of development, the Penguins plan to build housing and an entertainment venue, among other amenities.

Various parts of the agreement must now go before the Sports and Exhibition Authority, City Council, Allegheny County, and the school board. In addition, it will next be reviewed by the Hill District’s Development Review Panel, an 11-member body comprised of residents from different community groups. The panel was created to ensure that development plans align with the Hill District Master Plan.