Civic Arena site's destiny on table

| Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011

Discussions that begin this afternoon could lead to Pittsburgh using millions of dollars to prepare the site of the old Civic Arena for development by the Penguins.

Representatives of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority will brief the City Planning Commission on the possibility of declaring the 28-acre site in Uptown blighted. That is one step toward seeking tax dollars for building roads and installing sewer lines and utility connections on the land.

"It's rare to have a 28-acre site in the heart of a city," said Yarone Zober, head of the URA and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chief of staff. "It's a blank canvas to be worked on."

The URA could use information from an outside analysis to consider whether any development is eligible for tax increment financing, which uses future tax revenue to repay development bonds. The planning commission and City Council would have to approve such financing.

The Penguins own development rights to the land as part of a deal to keep the team in the city and build the Consol Energy Center. The team has said it wants a mix of residential, commercial and retail development.

Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a Castle Shannon-based policy group, said he opposes TIFs when they're done for retail projects, hotels and residential projects.

"You don't need a TIF for that site," said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a frequent critic of spending public money on private development. "That should be some of the most prime real estate in the city. You should have developers champing at the bit looking to build on that property. I wouldn't be handing out money up front. That's not fair to taxpayers."

"Everybody's goal is to get jobs and residential opportunities on that site as soon as we can," Zober said.

The Sports & Exhibition Authority owns the site. It, the city and the Penguins could rebuild the roads that were removed when the arena was built, as well as redo utilities and sewer lines. Officials have estimated the work would cost tens of millions of dollars.

Demolition continues on the arena. The upper decks on both ends are gone, and just a few hundred seats on the upper decks on the other two sides remain.

Workers said they removed about 30 percent of the roof's skin, though recent wet weather caused a few delays. The arena still should be torn down by the end of May, they said.

Beginning Wednesday, the Penn State Center, an outreach of the university, will begin recycling plants and trees surrounding the arena with the help of the Rosedale Block Cluster, a neighborhood group in Homewood, and Bey Brothers Landscaping in Beltzhoover.

"It seemed there would be a lot of plant material on that site that would just be trashed," said Deno De Ciantis, center director.

The plants, including hollies, burning bushes and viburnum, will be replanted in Homewood and Beltzhoover nurseries, and sold or reused in community landscape projects.

De Ciantis said Bank of New York Mellon is paying the $9,000 cost for removal, including labor and equipment.

Also, talks continue between Noralco, which is overseeing the demolition, and Five Mile Development Group, which wants to buy some of the framework of the arena's roof.

George Boehm, vice president of Noralco, said the sale will hinge on whether it's more cost effective to sell it for scrap.

Donald P. Cella, head of the development group, said the framework could be used as a part of development at Stone Quarry Crossing in Ohio Township.

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