New hockey arena or no, is knocking down historic buildings really the path to revitalization? | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

New hockey arena or no, is knocking down historic buildings really the path to revitalization? 

click to enlarge Iced: St. Regis Hall, by Epiphany Church, in the Hill District, is being demolished to make room for a new hocky arena.
  • Iced: St. Regis Hall, by Epiphany Church, in the Hill District, is being demolished to make room for a new hocky arena.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Are you happy that the Penguins are in the playoffs and that new construction is afoot, or do you worry about loss of historic structures, urban fabric and civic identity?

I want to be happy that the new stadium is moving forward. But when the city's youngest-ever mayor ever makes the decidedly old-school gesture of celebrating the destruction of perfectly serviceable historic buildings in the name of progress, I have to wonder.

On April 10, Luke Ravenstahl, Dan Onorato and a number of Penguins executives gathered on the proposed arena site to celebrate impending construction. Ravenstahl waxed eloquent about the Penguins' current playoff bid and the positive energy for the region. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he added, "... what better way to continue that than to build a new facility?"

Of course, they didn't actually celebrate the construction of anything, but rather the fairly wanton demolition of the four-story St. Regis Hall behind Epiphany Church, the first of 12 structures on the chopping block.

Advocates of demolition will respond that the property was purchased fairly, that a master plan sits on file in the Planning Department, and that the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission has determined that the buildings slated for demolition are not National Register-eligible.

But to synthesize the words of Karl and Chico Marx, who are you going to believe, accumulators of capital or your own two eyes? Don't stand among some of the most vast expanses of open asphalt near a major downtown anywhere and tell me that you still need more room for a new building.

The demolitions are taking place under a city-approved master plan, but that plan includes the all-but-dead Isle of Capri Casino. That leaves the vast proposed redevelopment site half-empty. Couldn't they re-site the building slightly, as architect Rob Pfaffmann has suggested in published statements and diagrams, to avoid tearing down all those ...

... and there they go! "I didn't know that there was any preservation issue," says Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer. Indeed, the numerous buildings on the north side of Fifth Avenue that are next in the demolition schedule were determined by the state's Bureau for Historic Preservation to be ineligible for historic designation. But they were eligible in 1993, according to assessments from that time by former City Historic Review Commission Chair Mike Eversmeyer. Did passing time make them less historic? You don't need a Ph.D. in architectural history to suspect strongly that the state bureaucracy doesn't want to be in the way of a project in which the governor has intervened personally.

Admirably, Preservation Pittsburgh has continued to advocate affirmatively for an inclusive process that benefits all participants. "We think a plan can be developed that meets everybody's needs. I think the Penguins can still get they want. I think the Hill District can get what they want," says Preservation Pittsburgh executive director Steven Paul. Indeed, his organization's efforts have resulted in funding for the Streetface Program, which will make available funds up to $30,000 each to owners of remaining historic structures to undertake façade renovations. But these are crumbs, really.

And so are the half-promises made thus far to civic groups in the Hill, who are concerned about getting serious planning input and financial benefits in redevelopment. Sure, community meetings are being scheduled in a way that was unheard of 50 years ago. But when neighborhood activists circulate a list of terms, including demands for $10 million in neighborhood funding and a 30 percent participation rate for minority contractors, Dan Onorato calls those "goals."

The 1960s development of the Lower Hill had goals, too. Numerous residential towers, blocks of rowhouses, an arts center, landscaped parks. Plenty of land got cleared, but only a small fraction of the promised development ever really got built. Tearing down the Lower Hill was criminal enough -- scholar Mindy Fullilove calls it genocide. Doing so under the questionable promise of an impossibly extravagant and unbuildable scheme was just a more visual manifestation of malevolence and hubris.

Now a huge chunk of the redevelopment has been canceled before the first brick is even laid. And the $350 million of additional construction? That's going to come from the economic stimulus of replacing a hockey arena ... with a hockey arena! Yet they are still tearing down buildings.

Yes, I want to be optimistic. But "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce." Karl knew his laughable ironies as well as Chico did.



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