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Potential Civic Arena developer has 'truly special proposal'

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By Bill Vidonic
Monday, May 23, 2011

A group that preservationists tout as a potential developer of the shuttered Civic Arena hasn't visited Pittsburgh, hasn't seen the inside of the building and hasn't talked with any city officials about it.

Even so, members of the Apostolopoulos family, who bought Michigan's Pontiac Silverdome in 2009, say they are serious about saving the Igloo, the former home of the Penguins hockey team.

"We will have a truly special proposal for Pittsburgh," said Edward Rensink, vice president of new business for Toronto-based developer Triple Properties Inc., the family's development arm.

For now, "special" means secret.

"I can understand the interest that this potential reuse plan may generate in Pittsburgh. However, at this particular point in time, public disclosure of our plans may prove to be counterproductive," Rensink said.

No one from the family has been in touch with the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns the Civic Arena and wants to demolish it so the Penguins can develop the 28-acre site.

"We have not had any communication -- either written or verbal -- with the Apostolopoulos family," said Doug Straley, the authority's development manager.

The fate of the arena should be decided within months, and the last major phase of the process starts this afternoon when Pittsburgh City Council sponsors a community meeting to consider whether to grant the arena historic status. Council must take a final vote before Aug. 21.

Architect Rob Pfaffmann, head of the preservationist group Reuse the Igloo, said the Apostolopoulos family encouraged him to continue his efforts to save the arena. Pfaffmann said a developer -- whom he identified to the Tribune-Review as Triple Properties -- is willing to pay $5 million for the facility.

Pfaffmann said he told the developer to lobby the Penguins instead of the SEA. The team says it wants a mix of retail, residential and commercial development, and that no developer has stepped forward with a realistic plan to keep the Igloo.

"I just don't know what the value of another multipurpose venue there is," said Travis Williams, senior vice president of business affairs and general counsel for the Penguins. The hockey team moved across Centre Avenue to the new Consol Energy Center last year.

Developers say leaving the Civic Arena intact "would be a serious impediment for development," Williams said.

Steve Apostolopoulos of Toronto, president of the developer's sports division, said the company is interested only in the arena, not the land around it.

"If the area needs major economic development, that's what should go there," Apostolopoulos said.

The Apostolopoulos family purchased the Silverdome, the former 80,000-seat home of the Detroit Lions, for just $583,000, a far cry from what it cost to build nearly 40 years ago. The family's first event was a monster truck rally in April 2010. Since then, it's hosted soccer matches, a motorcycle festival and other events.

"It's been a slow process, but we're coming along," Apostolopoulos said.

The future of the Igloo is less promising. The city's historic review and planning commissions refused to grant the arena historic status, a designation that would prevent its demolition. City Council has the final say and usually defers to the member who represents the district in which the property is located.

R. Daniel Lavelle, who represents the city's Uptown and Hill District, has said repeatedly that he wants the arena torn down to reconnect Downtown and the Hill District.

Yarone Zober, chief of staff for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said the city would be better off without the Igloo. Zober said he did not want to see a repeat of Tiger Stadium in Detroit, which sat essentially unused from 1999 until it was demolished in 2008 and 2009 after several redevelopment plans stalled.

"We don't want a blighted property in the middle of Downtown Pittsburgh," Zober said.

Oakland County, Mich., Executive L. Brooks Patterson said last week that the Silverdome's encore performance got off to a rough start, with ticket foul-ups and other problems. The true test, he said, will come during Labor Day weekend, when the Silverdome is the site of the four-day Great Lakes Agricultural Fair, which replaced the Michigan State Fair.

"If they can bring in tens of thousands of people, then they may have turned the corner," Patterson said. "They're a nice family, and they're trying hard. But they're swimming upstream, that's for sure."

Apostolopoulos said his family spent "tens of millions" to renovate the Silverdome's luxury boxes, make it compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and clean it up. The family also spends nearly $2.5 million annually to run the facility.

Additional Information:

If you go

What : Community meeting sponsored by Pittsburgh City Council on whether to grant the Civic Arena historic status, preventing its demolition

When : 5:30 p.m. today

Where : Epiphany Catholic Church Social Hall, 184 Washington Place, Uptown

Additional Information:

Inside The Igloo Commemorative Book featuring historic Mellon Arena

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