Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Council Listens to Igloo Debate

Pittsburgh City Council will have the final say in the coming months when it comes to the future of the Civic Arena and Wednesday it took a step closer to making that decision. Both the City Planning Commission and the City Historic Review Commission have rejected efforts to designate the nearly 50-year old structure as being historic. The negative recommendations mean it will take six out of nine council members voting for the designation to get the Igloo listed.

Council has already held a public hearing on the matter in the Hill District and Wednesday it held a post agenda meeting where several experts and stakeholders were invited to give more testimony. Several hours later the council seemed no closer to a making a decision than when it started.

“I have to tell you I read [the application] and the argument is so well made as to why it meets the criteria that I could not understand how the commission could read it and decided that it didn’t,” said Frank Sanchis, World Monuments Fund Program Director, who was brought in by those fighting to save the Igloo to offer his expertise. Preservation Pittsburgh President Scott Lieb added that he felt it was odd that review commissions at the state and national level felt the structure met one or more of the city’s 10 minimum criteria for historic designation but the local panels did not.

City code seems to allow council and the members of the commission to not only consider the ten criteria but to also consider the worthiness and integrity of the structure.

Some have suggested that the decisions have more to do with backroom deals and politics than the value of preserving the mid-century modern structure. Gary English held up a sign through most of the proceeding reading, “Quiet: political corruption in progress.”

Councilman Doug Shields complained along the same lines while pointing at artist renderings of 28 acres of new development nestled up against the new Consol Energy Center, “This council did not even get a chance to pick the color of the bathroom [in the Consol Center] and now someone is coming in and saying we are going to do all that. And I don’t even know who gave them the authority to do that and what is my authority here as a council member? All I see here is a lot of deals getting made and the governing body is not involved.”

Representatives of the Penguins, which holds the development rights to the old arena site, and the Sports and Exhibition Authority, which owns the old arena, gave testimony in favor of razing the building. Those groups say they need to take down the arena before they can begin developing the site. Councilman Bruce Kraus was a bit skeptical. He used to run an interior design company, “I did not go in and gut someone’s home and then say, ‘I’ll come back with what my ideas are of what your house should look like.’”

SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo admitted that there is no developer in place at this time and no investors have stepped forward to build but she says unless a decision is made on the arena and a street grid is created they will not be able to move forward with the development.

The Penguins, SEA and the city are hoping to get federal grants to build connecting streets. However, preservationists believe those grants could be in danger of being denied if the proper reviews are not made before the arena is demolished. Developers offered their own experts who believe such a review would not prevent the Federal Department of Transportation from sending the money to Pittsburgh.

A date for a final vote has not yet been set but it must be taken before the end of July.

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