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Funding finalized for plan to build park across I-579 Downtown

| Tuesday, July 26, 2016, 1:03 p.m.
A proposed 'cap' linking the Lower Hill District and downtown Pittsburgh would include a city park and pedestrian bridge over Interstate 579 with trees and sidewalks.
URBAN DESIGN ASSOCIATES
A proposed 'cap' linking the Lower Hill District and downtown Pittsburgh would include a city park and pedestrian bridge over Interstate 579 with trees and sidewalks.

A $19 million federal grant will allow Pittsburgh to build a connection between the Lower Hill District and Downtown that is essential to redeveloping one of the city's most economically distressed neighborhoods, officials said Tuesday.

The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, announced Tuesday, is the final portion of the $26.4 million officials estimate is needed to build a “cap” over Interstate 579, the highway that splits Downtown from the Hill District.

Mayor Bill Peduto said the money “will help heal one of Pittsburgh's worst efforts at urban renewal, when decades ago city planners separated the Hill District from Downtown and cut the lifeblood from one of our most historic communities.”

The proposed project, which includes plans to build a park and improve pedestrian access between the two neighborhoods, coincides with the Pittsburgh Penguins' $450 million residential, retail and office space redevelopment plan at the 28-acre former Civic Arena site, which is between I-579 to the west and the Hill District to the east.

City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District, called the grant a “wonderful step,” but said meaningful improvement in the Hill District won't occur unless the cap is part of wider redevelopment, especially in the Lower Hill.

That area, formerly the economic heart of the community, was largely replaced by the Civic Arena in the 1960s.

“All of this is an effort to sort of right that wrong and restore a community that has been suffering economically ever since that took place,” he said.

Marimba Milliones, president and CEO at Hill Community Economic Development Corp., called the grant essential to pursuing goals laid out in a Lower Hill redevelopment plan created in 2014 by her organization, Hill District residents, the Penguins and others.

The goals include empowering businesses owned by minorities and women, honoring the Hill District's cultural legacy and creating work for the district's artists, architects and landscapers.

“At the end of the day, the 28-acre site has to be developed in order for the community to be reconnected,” she said. “In this case it looks like we are starting at the other end.”

The Civic Arena site is owned by Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority, the grant's recipient, but the Penguins own the land's development rights.

Penguins President and CEO David Morehouse said this month that the project is moving forward and the team is committed to meeting an October deadline to start a residential portion of the development.

Travis Williams, the Penguins' chief operating officer, said the proposed cap will be a “catalyst” for talks with potential commercial and office space tenants. A lot of those discussions focus on connectivity to Downtown, he said.

“This cap truly created a marquee feature at this site,” he said.

The grant covers all but about $7.4 million of the total estimated construction cost. The difference will be made up through a combination of state funds, foundation grants, a contribution from the Penguins, and SEA and Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh funds, SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo said.

Nationwide, nearly $4.6 billion in grant funding has ben provided for 381 similar transportation projects since 2009, according to the federal Department of Transportation. The grants are provided for “capital projects that generate economic development and improve access to reliable, safe and affordable transportation for communities, both urban and rural.”

Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at 412-380-5627 or mwalton@tribweb.com.

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