Many Pittsburghers expect the silver dome of Mellon Arena to go the way of Three Rivers Stadium. But Shadyside architect Rob Pfaffmann and other preservationists have resumed a four-year-old campaign to keep Mellon right where it is -- and put the structure to new uses.
"Imagine opening the dome [permanently] and having it a public space, a place to build some shops, a restaurant, a small hotel, a market" in the Lower Hill District, says Pfaffmann. "It has the potential to be a really spectacular space. Architecturally, it's way ahead of its time. It was cutting-edge."
Pfaffmann, board member and former president of Preservation Pittsburgh, became the arena's most passionate advocate in 2002 when he was hired by a developer to study the possibilities of investing in the land around the arena. Although no deal materialized -- and the developer, whom Pfaffmann would not name, is no longer pursuing plans in that area of the city -- Pfaffmann has remained an ardent champion for preserving the arena as a public space.
He and Steve Paul, executive director of Preservation Pittsburgh, met Jan. 5 with representatives from the city's planning department and Urban Redevelopment Authority, as well as the Hill House, to discuss preserving not only the arena but also other historical landmarks on the Hill. They agreed that any such buildings up for demolition should be reviewed first for their value to the neighborhood, Pfaffmann says. The group will work to produce a consensus plan for the arena this year.
During a June 2002 community brainstorming session at the Hill House, Pfaffmann says, participants envisioned fitting a hotel with a restaurant or a jazz club under the shining dome, with the interior structure gutted. According to a report produced after the meeting, participants proposed a "super kid center" with year-round ice and roller rinks, an "ethnic marketplace" and even a "biosphere" modeled after Montreal's re-used Olympic velodrome, which now serves as an environmental education showcase. Participants also envisioned new housing nearby, a crescent-shaped park around the arena, and an overlook on top. Drawings show a large slice of the city dramatically visible through the retracted arena roof.
Today, preservationists still believe the arena could have a new life, and that demolition shouldn't be the only option.
"Our view is that it's a unique building," says Arthur Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, a preservation group based on the South Side. "All of us have to get together to think this matter through before we assume it'll be demolished."
But Ziegler says there are many questions to ponder in preserving it: "Can it be preserved? How can it be preserved? How would it be used? How would the people in the Hill feel?"
The last question may be the easiest to answer. Many Hill District residents regard the structure as an obstacle to more beneficial development -- and a jarring reminder of redevelopment promises yet to be fulfilled.
"It represents too much of the past, of how we were dealt with in the past," says George Moses, a member of the Hill District Consensus Group, a coalition of dozens of residents and nonprofit agencies. "People don't want to maintain it in their community as being historical. That parcel of land could be better used to do a lot of development ... something that can boost the economic viability of the Hill."
Or perhaps something close to what the URA promised a half-century ago. Back in the 1950s, the public agency's promotional literature promised that "The Lower Hill is destined for a bright future as a distinctive address for gracious near-town living."
Approximately 1,600 families were displaced from the Lower Hill during the urban-renewal project that midwifed the arena. Of the 90-some acres cleared, 20 became the arena's site; a few more were devoted to roadways. The rest of the land was slated for housing and commercial development, but the only housing that materialized was Washington Plaza Apartments. (Crawford Square, a mixed-income housing development, followed 30 years later.) Parking lots dominate much of the rest of the site. The URA, which owns those parking lots, wields significant influence on future development of the site.
Today, that land is being eyed by PITG Gaming, the Detroit-based casino company that won a state license to build a slots parlor in Pittsburgh. Although the casino is to be built on the North Side, PITG has pledged $350 million for commercial and residential developments, a community garden and underground parking along Centre Avenue in the Lower Hill -- presuming that the state and Allegheny County convince the Penguins to fund a new arena on another nearby site.
Still, Hill District Consensus Group chairman Carl Redwood says his organization will be open to considering the pros and cons of keeping the arena when the preservationists present their case. "We haven't heard the full story," he adds. A nod from the group would be a significant community endorsement for the plan.
Preservationists say the arena's design and engineering complexities make it worth keeping. When it opened in 1962, as the Civic Arena, it was a gleaming icon of civic pride. Its dome was the world's largest, and the first retractable one. Made from 3,000 tons of stainless steel, the dome has no interior support but is anchored by an innovative arch-and-truss system. Shortly after its completion, the arena was put on the pedestal of iconic landmarks alongside Seattle's Space Needle (1962) and St. Louis's Gateway Arch (1965).
"All the evidence points to this as a significant period piece in our city's history," says Pfaffmann.
The dome shouldn't be doomed until other uses are explored and ruled out, says state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Highland Park), who as a city councilor in 1991 fought the demolition of the Syria Mosque, an Oakland concert hall designated as a historic landmark.
"I'd like to see the adaptive reuse of the Mellon Arena," says Ferlo, who chairs the URA board. "Before we demolish the arena, if it were to go forward, I'd like to see a process by which we put on our thinking cap to consider any number of potential uses."
In any case, preservationists say, they have no intention of preserving the arena merely as an architectural white elephant. Pfaffmann, who is designing the new Carnegie Library in the Hill, believes that renovations done in 1987 and 2001 should be sufficient to maintain the arena's exterior for future use. And once the scoreboard and audio fixtures are removed from the ceiling, the roof can open (and close) within minutes. This unique feature gives the arena the versatility to be an indoor and outdoor venue.
Pfaffmann says the arena can be redeveloped from money already earmarked for its demolition. The arena's owner, the city's Sports & Exhibition Authority, spent more than $5 million to implode Three Rivers Stadium in 2001, but the destruction of the arena is expected to cost more. SEA's Doug Straley, who oversees the arena's operations, says he doesn't know of an estimate for the demolition costs. Ultimately, he says, his agency will coordinate with the city's planning department and the URA in deciding the arena's fate.
Laurence Glasco, a professor at Pitt's history department who has extensively documented life in the Hill, says those who advocate preserving the arena should avoid a repeat of old mistakes: deciding what's best for the Hill without consulting Hill residents.
"The community itself needs to make the decision, rather than the experts," says Glasco. "Whatever form [the arena] is going to take, it has to be something [the community] helps build and form. It has to have a connection to the community and has a certain value."
Pfaffmann concurs: The preservationists' first priority, he says, is to win broad support for saving the arena. "Getting people to believe that it is worthy of saving," he adds, "is going to save the building."