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On Arena Districts & the Hill District; Why the Pens Can't Ignore the Neighborhood (Tuesday Slew)

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The Penguins' still-new home is another gem in Pittsburgh's growing downtown revitalization. The town surrounding it is still awaiting its turn.

Justin K. Aller

Hockey arenas are nice, and it's nice to have a nice one. The Penguins sure do. Consol Energy Center is entering its fifth season of service, with thoughts of another postseason run and that still-hot sellout streak keeping the shine on The House that Mario Built.

The building itself is great for the Penguins, but perhaps just another feather in Pittsburgh's cap. The city that has seen such an influx of youth and economic development that its becoming a target of some very good satire.

That young, hipster demographic belongs to the Penguins, as local sports fare goes, and paying fans get the benefit of taking in games from one of hockey's most modern venues. All told, there are few NHL barns that offer the amenities Pittsburgh's hockey home can boast.

Inside, that is.

Five years after Consol's completion, the area surrounding the building in Pittsburgh's lower Hill District has yet to see all of the promised revitalization that a new arena is supposed to bring. And while plans for such development seem to finally be moving through the gears of local government, the area is still lacking -- both as a destination for hockey fans, and as a suitable, modern investment into the Hill District's local economy.

Why?

The obvious answer, as always, is money. It took a hell of a lot of hand-wringing to even get as much as an arena. Short of that, the team would be massaging sellout streaks somewhere in the midwest. The development of the surrounding areas would have to come second, and it has.

Now, the Penguins as a business are well in the black, and the 28 empty acres on which the Mellon Arena used to reside have finally got a plan in place to turn the land into both a fan destination and an extension of the Hill District -- a part of town which, according to city councilman Dan Lavelle, "had it's heart removed" when the first arena was built.

"Fifty years ago the Hill was severed, the heart, the center of our economic vitality, was removed when we destroyed the Lower Hill to build the Civic Arena," Lavelle said. "We've never recovered from that."

The plans, put forth by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Pittsburgh Sports and Exhibition Authority and with input from Hill District Residents (reportedly, more than 50 meetings took place between the Penguins and residents between the first stages of planning and now), have finally begun the process of mending the connection between the Hill and downtown Pittsburgh. Financially speaking, the Penguins are going to be a big part of that.

From The Pittsburgh Business-Times,

The Penguins' plans include mixed-used development of 1,100 residential units, between 500,000 and 600,000 square feet of office space, and retail space. That includes 20 percent affordable housing as low as $600 a month, according to information presented at the news conference. The lead residential developer is McCormick Baron Salazar, and the Penguins have agreed to bring in a minority developer to build at least 250 residences, said Penguins COO Travis Williams.

From other reports, the proposed redevelopment is slated to include "more than 600,000 square feet of offices, along with shops and restaurants, a hotel and as many as 1,000 units of housing," and could take "10 years to compete and cost as much as $500 million."

As for funding the redevelopment? Contributions from the Penguins, who have agreed to pay full market value for the 28 acres of former Civic Arena land, giving them a considerable stake in the future of the lower Hill. The city has also approved a tax increment financing (TIF) plan that could generate "at least $22 million - some estimates are as high as $50 million - over 20 years," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and city officials continue to seek out federal grants for development work on the lot.

Sounds like a plan, right?

Look, this new construction is going to be good for the team, and it's long overdue. The Columbus Blue Jackets have one of hockey's best arena districts built around Nationwide Arena. Detroit's proposed business district, to be built around its planned new arena, is set to follow a similar model.

That the Penguins have gone for so long with a modern building and precious little in the way of modern amenities to surround it is not what one expects of such a significant investment in the downtown economy. It's past time that the Penguins make the most out of the land surrounding their barn. These arenas (which are always a great way to collect public financing, mind you), are said to be local economic boons -- hence the justification for building them with tax dollars in the first place.

We know that this isn't true.

In Pittsburgh's case (where sports are tantamount to religion), the economic benefit to the city at large is at least a little more palpable. However, turning the unused land around the arena into an honest-to-god gateway between the Hill District and downtown Pittsburgh would be a slam-dunk, how-you-like-me-now statement by the Penguins that they are indeed committed to propping up the community around them.

After collecting tens of millions in publicly-financed bonds to help construct the CEC, that only seems fair.

The key to all of this? Don't shut out the natives. Pittsburgh is becoming a hipster town, and one of the worst-kept secrets of urban revitalization is the mad amount of gentrification that often accompanies exposed brick and bike lanes.

Don't kid yourselves -- the Penguins are a hipster hockey team (they were caught in the maw of local politics before it was cool). And if they are going to really help to revitalize the lower Hill, that's going to mean guarantees that new development won't come at a price point that, like the original Civic Arena, will keep residents cut off from the rest of the city.

The Civic Arena predates the Penguins, so they aren't the culprits in first dividing the town back in 1955, when original construction on the old arena displaced 8,000 residents and shuttered 400 businesses of Pittsburgh's lower Hill District. However, with a new arena in place and revenue streams that appear to be more than stable, it's time that the team delivers on its original promise of revitalizing the area on which the old building used to sit.

To construct a new arena district and price Hill District residents out of it would be tantamount to razing half the neighborhood all over again.

As that concern goes, it appears that the concerns of Hill District residents have been taken well into account, both by the Penguins and the city. The TIF plan, while still awaiting full approval, is set to provide funds for improving all of the Hill District, not just the area nearest to Consol and downtown Pittsburgh. It also makes provisions for "higher requirements for minority business inclusion, and requirements for affordable housing percentages that were still lower than some in the community wanted."

These are all good steps, but there's still quite a stretch between now and fully approved. In the end, the Penguins can have a proper arena district, and the Hill District can fully be part of downtown Pittsburgh once again.

It has to.

After all, it took a huge commitment on the part of the tax-paying public to guarantee a new home for the Penguins. It'd only be right that they return the favor by working to create a viable, affordable arena district in the part of town they can't help but call their own.

Tuesday Slew is a feature that runs Wednesdays throughout the season. Shower James with your praise and adulation on twitter, @SlewFooters.