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Arena for Debate 

As a child, Michael Wade didn't understand why his family was forced out of its Lower Hill District home near Epiphany Church. "I remember we just had to move," he says.

Wade was one of roughly 8,000 Lower Hill residents displaced to make way for what's now the Mellon Arena. An architectural marvel, equipped with a retractable roof, the building was a symbol of innovation when it opened in 1961. But for Hill residents, it was also a symbol of destruction.

"Urban renewal," as it was known, decimated the Lower Hill. Much of the housing wiped out by the arena's construction was badly dilapidated, but in getting rid of the blight, the project also swept away famed jazz clubs and other black cultural institutions. 

For the 67-year-old Wade, resentment still festers. Even so, he can't imagine why anyone would want to demolish Mellon Arena.

"I think they should keep it," says Wade. "You uprooted a whole community [to build it], so why tear it down now? You can't wipe away the past by putting something else there."

The fate of Mellon Arena has become a hot topic. The Pittsburgh Penguins, along with city and county officials, are moving quickly to demolish the building as they plan to redevelop 28 acres around the new hockey arena, Consol Energy Center. But local preservationists, who argue that the arena should be reused, aren't giving up. 

The issue is perhaps most pressing for residents of the Hill. Neighborhood leaders say the majority of Hill residents want the arena demolished. But an informal community survey by City Paper suggests there is plenty of sentiment that the building -- along with the good and bad history it represents -- should stay.

"Nuke it!" says 80-year-old F. Jones. "It never should have been built in the first place."

"I'd hate to see it go," counters Anne Miller, 59. "It's part of the Hill."

 

On June 26, folk-pop musicians James Taylor and Carole King bid Mellon Arena a final farewell. For many Pittsburgh residents, the 49-year-old arena's closing marks the end of an era, one filled with memories of legendary concerts and championship hockey seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

Hill District residents, meanwhile, have more complicated memories.

"There are mixed feelings about it," says Larry Glasco, a professor of urban history at the University of Pittsburgh. 

According to Glasco, Hill residents' disdain toward Mellon Arena stems in large part from broken promises made in the 1950s. Back then, he says, city officials promised Lower Hill residents better housing and jobs. Displaced residents, however, saw neither.

"That was what turned people against the arena," Glasco says. 

Even so, he adds, "The arena had events that attracted black audiences," like NAACP rallies, jazz festivals and basketball. "The people I talk with say they grew up with [the arena] as part of their childhood."

Late last year, the Hill Planning Forum, a group of community stakeholders, introduced a list of development principles to help guide the process of redeveloping the Lower Hill. The document expressly stated that there should be "no physical remnant of Mellon Arena" once development is finished. 

"The planning committee wants to see no part of the arena at the end of this planning process," Carl Redwood, who heads the Planning Forum, told CP at the time. "It symbolizes the destruction of the Lower Hill."

In March, Penguins officials assured residents that they planned to tear down the building and redevelop the 28-acre plot of land lost when Mellon Arena and its swath of parking lots were built decades ago. The team, which owns the rights to develop the land, envisions building housing, retail space and a hotel. 

Officials from the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns Mellon Arena, as well as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Executive Dan Onorato, have endorsed razing the arena. But local architect Rob Pfaffman, who has been leading efforts to save the building, says the Hill would benefit more from reusing the arena. As creator of the group Reuse the Igloo, he has drafted plans to transform the arena into a town square to support, among other things, restaurants, an open-air market and a hotel. 

"This could be an economic draw that brings in new economic dollars," Pfaffman says. 

In April, Oxford Development Company completed a study weighing the economic benefits of demolishing the arena as opposed to saving it. The SEA consultant concluded that the Penguins' plan would generate a public economic benefit of $103.5 million in wage and real-estate taxes over 10 years, while Pfaffman's plan would generate just $53 million.

"A cleared unconstrained site ... which will reconnect the Hill to Downtown presents the best opportunity for private developers to design cost effective and economically viable real-estate investments," Oxford's study concluded. 

Pfaffman disputes Oxford's findings, claiming the consultant's study failed to consider historic tax credits that would be available for reusing the building. He notes that his group has hired its own firm to study the economic benefit of reusing the arena. 

While the SEA has yet to rule definitively on the building's fate, the city-county authority has recently been scrutinized for the speed with which it is embarking on demolishing Mellon Arena. The state's Bureau for Historic Preservation recently cautioned the SEA against rushing toward demolition.

"We just need the Penguins and the SEA to sort of back off a little bit," Pfaffman says.

He suggests the two parties spend more time soliciting and analyzing alternative proposals to demolition. "Let's test them," he says. "Is it better housing with or without the arena? Do I get more economic benefit with or without the arena?"

 

Sala Udin remembers the pain he and his family suffered when they were booted from their Lower Hill home to make way for the arena. "But the reason why I would like to see Mellon Arena gone is not emotional or nostalgic," the former city councilor says. "It's business."

For Udin, Pfaffman's plan simply "doesn't make sense."

"Would I develop a [site] that had Mellon Arena in the middle, or have my options open?" he asks. "The answer is obvious: The arena must go."

"My preference is for the arena to come down," agrees state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who represents the Hill. "The overwhelming majority [of Hill residents] would like to see that spot redeveloped to their wishes."

But out of 15 Hill residents recently interviewed by a CP reporter, 12 expressed a desire to keep Mellon Arena. While nearly all of them lament the destruction its construction caused, many say the Hill District has moved on. 

"I remember when we used to have houses and places to go down there," says 63-year-old Henderson Hill. But the arena "is something we got used to."

"The damage is done now," agrees Ronnie Wright, 61, who likes the idea of restoring the arena for concerts.

Wright acknowledges that some of the arena's history is painful to remember. But in reusing the building, he says, "You could make [the arena] a symbol of good history."

click to enlarge Henderson Hill says the Mellon Arena destroyed the Hill District, but is still against its demolition. - JOHN PRICE
  • John Price
  • Henderson Hill says the Mellon Arena destroyed the Hill District, but is still against its demolition.
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