Affordability point of contention for Penguins, Hill District advocates

Tom Fontaine
| Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, 11:30 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and a Hill District advocacy group disagree on the meaning of “affordable.”

The most inexpensive apartments the Penguins plan to build for lower-income residents when developing the former Civic Arena site would cost up to $977 a month, preliminary estimates show.

The one-bedroom apartments and roomier ones costing as much as $1,511 a month are part of the hockey team's plan to establish affordable housing on the 28-acre Lower Hill District site. The plan includes market-rate housing and retail and office space on the prime real estate just east of Downtown.

“The Penguins don't define ‘affordable' the same way as we do,” said Carl Redwood, co-director of the Hill District Consensus Group, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Community leaders, led by the Hill Community Development Corp.'s Lower Hill District Working Group, are asking the Penguins to provide housing that costs less. They want at least 30 percent of the nearly 1,200 residential units to accommodate lower-income people; the team's preference is 20 percent.

The Penguins are not required to work with Hill leaders, Redwood said, but “we have the power of the people. If they don't, we're going to fight their plans.”

“We are certainly committed to making sure there is affordable housing on the site, but we have to do it in a way that makes financial sense,” said Travis Williams, the Penguins' chief operating officer.

“We want to be a partner with the community, but at the end of the day, we have to make this project work. If it doesn't, everyone loses,” Williams said.

A 2007 deal to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh gave the team rights to develop the site owned by the city's Sports & Exhibition Authority and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The team, which is required to develop the property within 10 years, demolished the Civic Arena last year and expects to start building in 2015.

The team's next step is to submit preliminary land development plans to the city. Williams did not say when that will happen.

The SEA plans to begin preparing the site in the spring. It lined up $15 million from the state but needs about $19 million to complete work that includes building three streets, rebuilding four others and installing utilities.

The Penguins shared their housing plan with community leaders. Williams told the Tribune-Review that it is “too early to talk about specific rents and rates,” noting that the team recently hired St. Louis-based residential developer McCormack Baron Salazar to finalize plans and numbers.

Office and retail developers will be sought next year, Williams said.

Williams said McCormack Baron Salazar has a track record of developing mixed-income housing developments across the country, citing Crawford Square in the Hill as an example.

“They know better than anyone else how to put projects like this together,” said City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District.

Built in phases in the 1990s and early 2000s, Crawford Square has apartments, town houses and single-family homes. Homeownership is an option in Crawford Square, but it won't be ­— at least not initially — on the former Civic Arena site, officials say.

Crawford Square is “a well-maintained, safe and highly desirable place to live that is income- and racially diverse. I think we can carry out the same principles” at the nearby arena site, said Hill CDC President and CEO Marimba Milliones.

Retired police Officer Tom Wilson, 73, has rented a one-bedroom apartment in Crawford Square for four years.

“The surroundings are really nice, but my rent goes up every year, even though my income hasn't changed,” said Wilson, who pays $885 a month for an apartment that cost in “the $700s” when he moved in.

Crawford Square Apartments' website says rates for one-bedroom apartments range from $506 to $905 per month and two-bedroom units go for $608 to $1,025 monthly.

“Rates in Crawford Square are increasing because the market is changing, but there remains a mix of affordability there,” Milliones said.

Under the Penguins' plan, affordable housing units would be for people earning 80 percent of the area's median income, a rate adjusted annually by the Department of Housing and Urban Development based on household size.

Hill leaders say the proposed one-bedroom apartments with estimated monthly costs of $977 would be “affordable” for those earning $39,100 a year, based on federal statistics. Four-bedroom apartments with monthly costs of $1,511 would be affordable for those making $60,450.

“Those incomes aren't common in our community,” Milliones said. Redwood said the median household income in the Hill is about $18,000.

“I'm not against people making a profit. But we have to find a balance between profit and public benefit,” Milliones said.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or

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