Igloo on Thin Ice

Pittsburgh Debates the End of its 1961 Arena

The fate of Pittsburgh's Civic Arena—nicknamed "the Igloo" because of its curved shape and because it was once the home of the National Hockey League's Penguins—has been in doubt for years.

A 2007 deal with the state, city, and Allegheny County, allowed the Penguins to remain in Pittsburgh while granting the team development rights to the site of the 50-year-old Civic Arena. Three local groups—the Sports & Exhibition Authority, the Pittsburgh Planning Commission, and the city's Historic Review Commission—have since voted to raze the structure. And with the Penguins moving to the nearby $321 million Consol Energy Center last fall, demolition has seemed increasingly likely. A final vote on the project is expected by Pittsburgh's City Council in several weeks.

Preservation Pittsburgh and the ad hoc group Reuse the Igloo argue that the arena, capped by a vast steel retractable dome—one of the largest in the world, it can be retracted in three minutes, offering picturesque views of downtown—could be repurposed as public space. As sports teams around the country leave for glitzier new homes, city officials must figure out what to do with the mid-century municipal venues left behind, for example Houston's Astrodome and Portland's Rose Garden.

"We're not giving up," says Scott Leib, president of Preservation Pittsburgh. Though the debate, he acknowledges, "has been an exasperating process."

A 2010 design competition sponsored by Preservation Pittsburgh produced a number of ideas for creative reuse, including a community natatorium and an urban eco-greenhouse—that is, places accessible to the public. Pittsburgh Penguins ownership envisions a more conventional mixed-use district of residences, stores, and offices, along with a hotel, parking structures, and green space.

Architect Rob Pfaffmann, leader of Reuse the Igloo, suggests that creating large amounts of commercial and office space may be counterproductive. Citing projects such as New York City's High Line Park and Chicago's Millennium Park, he argues that "public amenities are now drivers of economic development." Land-use consultant Todd Poole, who worked on the High Line project and analyzed the Penguins' proposal for Reuse the Igloo, says the club's economic projections for its plan "are predicated on an economy that is past. Now everyone is retrenching drastically. [Their] numbers must certainly be revisited."

Opponents of the arena's demolition fear that the Penguins could tear down the building and use the space as parking for downtown commuters. The chief executive of the Penguins, David Morehouse, has dismissed those claims, noting that the team is legally obligated to develop 2.8 acres each year for 10 years, per the agreement signed in 2007.

The Civic Arena is located in an African American neighborhood known as the Hill District, a neighborhood that was devastated by the urban renewal effort leading to the arena's construction, with some 8,000 residents displaced. The neighborhood's current residents are demanding a role in their home's future development. When the Penguins gained the redevelopment rights, the One Hill Community Benefit Agreement Coalition (now the Hill District Consensus Group) hammered out a community benefits agreement to give qualified local residents a first shot at jobs at the Consol Center and its adjacent hotel. The group also established a nearby jobs center, and the Penguins contributed $1 million for a new neighborhood supermarket to open this fall.

"We want to make sure that what we put there is not infringing on what the neighborhood wants," Morehouse said. "What the community was asking for was jobs, a grocery store, and restoring the street grid," reconnecting the neighborhood to downtown.

Preservationists agree that reconnecting the street grid to the Lower Hill should be an important component of any final plan. But before that happens, they are preparing for what may be a final battle before Pittsburgh's City Council. 

"We feel there's the most opportunity to have impact [with] City Council," says Preservation Pittsburgh's Leib. "There's a lot of interest at that level, with an opportunity for a new perspective."

In 2001, the state's Bureau for Historic Preservation declared the arena eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and Preservation Pennsylvania still backs the designation. 

"Our opinion is that the building is highly significant, and every effort should be made to explore every possible alternative to allow the building to remain in place and put to a viable use," says the group's executive director, Mindy Crawford.

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