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Federal grant to 'connect' Hill District, Downtown falls short of hopes

| Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, 3:36 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.

Development of the former Civic Arena site would provide job and business opportunities to residents, offer subsidies to homeowners and include aspects of the neighborhood's history in new construction, according to an agreement between the Penguins and Hill District representatives.

Fresh details of the deal emerged on Wednesday, a day after Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and other public officials announced it with plans for revitalizing the Hill and neighboring Uptown through a tax-increment financing package.

The agreement permits the Penguins, which hold development rights to the arena site, to begin construction in nine to 12 months. It also paves the way for implementation of the TIF, which commits more than $400 million generated over 20 years in new taxes for such things as infrastructure, improvements to existing homes and storefronts, mortgage subsidies and cut-rate housing in the Hill and Uptown.

City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill, said the plans would reinvigorate one of Pittsburgh's most economically depressed neighborhoods.

“My biggest concerns were always the job and the business opportunities on (the arena) site being afforded to the Hill District because that is what's going to lift this community out of poverty,” said Lavelle, who lives in the Upper Hill.

It also benefits the Penguins. The hockey franchise won development rights to a 28-acre site under a 2007 agreement brokered by former Gov. Ed Rendell to build the Consol Energy Center to replace the Civic Arena and prevent the Pens from leaving Pittsburgh.

The state kicked in at least $47.6 million to build the hockey arena and is subsidizing construction on the Civic Arena site. It gave the Penguins a $15 million line of credit that can be used to purchase parcels on former Civic Arena property from the Sports & Exhibition Authority and Urban Redevelopment Authority.

“You divide that entire 28 acres up into individual plots, and they can lease it or sell it or do whatever they want with it,” said Sala Udin, a former city councilman and member of the Lower Hill Working Group, which negotiated the agreement with the Penguins. “In addition to all that, they got a brand new arena. That, I would say, is a very generous deal.”

Travis Williams, Penguins chief operating officer, said the development benefits the region.

“By really taking this 28 acres and improving it and creating jobs and tax revenue and improving the livelihoods of people down there around the Consol Energy Center we think benefits everybody, including us,” he said.

The SEA, which owns the property along with the URA, will tap state grant money that's been awarded to begin the work in the fall, SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo said. She said the SEA would reapply for federal grants.

“We always expected to be doing this over (multiple) years,” she said.

The SEA won a $1.55 million grant to design a proposed “cap” over Crosstown Boulevard that would feature a park and improve the connection between Downtown and the Hill District for pedestrians, officials said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation this week did not award $19.9 million in funding the city sought to rebuild streets, utilities and other infrastructure on the site.

“We didn't get all the money we asked for, but this was a very positive signal,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. “It would make no sense for (the Department of Transportation) to put money into this project if they didn't want to partner in the rest of it.”

Bob Bauder and Tom Fontaine are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Bauder can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com. Fontaine can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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