Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Historic Review Commission Hears Arguments on Arena

While Penguins fans were pouring into their team’s new home last night, members of the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission were undertaking a marathon session that will lead to a decision on just how historic the Penguins old home may be.

A group of citizens have filed a petition with the commission asking that the nearly 50-year-old civic arena be designated as historic. Such a designation would make it harder for the Sports and Exhibition Authority to move forward with its plan to tear down the structure and redevelop the land. Those filing the petition say using the historic designation was their last resort to save the arena while members of the Sports and Exhibition Authority say razing the structure was their last option after looking unsuccessfully for a way to reuse the Igloo.

Both sides called several witnesses and spent nearly an hour and a half each outlining their case.

The petitioners argue that the arena meets several of the 10 criteria used by the review commission when it considers the “significance” of a structure. Among them is “Its exemplification of important planning and urban design techniques…” Preservation Pittsburgh President Scott Leib says the civic arena was one of the nation’s first attempts at large-scale urban renewal. “Unfortunately it’s a sad aspect of the building and what it represents, but at the same time it is part of our history and we need to acknowledge that,” says Leib. Pittsburgh City Councilman Daniel Lavelle countered that argument during the Sports and Exhibition Authority presentation. “Preserving structures without understanding the historical impact such structures had and continue to have on the community is comparable to those who defend the right to fly the confederate flag on state buildings in the south when there are clear negative connotations to many who would enter such buildings,” says Lavelle.

The petitioners also argued that the engineering and design that went into the building at a time when there were no computer drafting programs shows the need to preserve the structure. Sheet metal worker Harold Shetter has done work on the building, “this building represents the pinnacle of Pittsburgh’s ability to produce the materials for, and build a structure that has never been replicated anywhere in the world.”

University of Pittsburgh History of Art and Architecture Professor Frank Toker says the arena perfectly fits the review commission’s criteria that reads, “its unique location and distinctive physical appearance or presence representing an established and familiar visual feature of a neighborhood, community or the City of Pittsburgh.” He says, “I propose to you that the civic arena is historically the most representative building now standing in the city of Pittsburgh.” To counter that claim the SEA asked VisitPittsburgh Board Member Jeffery Letwin if he agreed. “If you go through our visitors guides of the past years, there is no place where the arena is a tour stop,” says Letwin, “ as a mater of fact, in our latest edition we have a section on historic places, historic points of interest, the arena is simply not listed.” He says from a visitor and tourism perspective it does not represent Pittsburgh. “we market the teams, not the venues,” says Letwin.

SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo says the Authority is currently working with the Heinz History Center, the NHL Hall of Fame, CMU and other entities to preserve pieces of the building and important documents related to its planning, construction and use.

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