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Forum: The Civic Arena is a treasure

Keep it and grow: Every attempt should be made to transform the Downtown icon from a symbol of failure to a symbol of rebirth

Sunday, June 02, 2002

By Rob Pfaffmann

As a young architect arriving in Pittsburgh for the first time in the early 1980s, I had a mental list of landmark buildings I wanted to see. Of course, there were the great turn-of-the-century works: Allegheny County Courthouse and Pennsylvania Station to name the finest. But also on my list were landmarks of the 20th century: the United Steelworkers building (Gateway 5, the former IBM Building), the original Alcoa building on Sixth Street and the Mellon Arena (born as the Civic Arena). The arena speaks volumes about how we looked at our neighborhoods and the design of the future.

  Rob Pfaffmann is an architect, planner and board member of Preservation Pittsburgh. 

Modern design has often been rightly criticized for its lack of scale and relevance to life in the city. Many have been quick to point at the failed redevelopments of East Liberty and the North Side when referring to new development proposals. We all want to learn from our mistakes as a community. The Civic Arena and the redevelopment of the Lower Hill are no different.

When we look at our failures in the urban environment, I want to raise a concern about taking a "throw the baby out with the bath water" approach -- especially in the case of the Civic Arena. Yes, I know it is the Mellon Arena now, but the word "civic" is important to my point, as well as to remind us of the good-intentioned but flawed process that created it.

Before one judges the arena obsolete and archaic, one needs to understand its history and circumstances. If you talk to those who grew up on the Lower Hill, you realize quickly what a great injustice was imposed by the process of urban renewal. The concept of community involvement in determining the future was a foreign concept for the most part in the 1950s and early '60s. The Civic Arena is a tough building to love because of what it symbolizes to most who grew up on the Hill: the destruction of a vibrant multicultural community.

The proposed demolition of the arena is a classic example of getting ahead of ourselves and following the same non-participatory process that got us into trouble in the first place. So how do we take on a process for rethinking the Lower Hill in today's context?

First, the vision and talent of the designers of the arena cannot be ignored. The Civic Arena is an internationally known landmark and is eligible for the National Register historic status as determined by our state and federal governments.

You may or may not agree that it is a great work of modern design. But we would never trash a challenging modernist painting at the Carnegie Museum of Art just because some don't like the style.

There is well-tested preservation law at the local, state and federal levels that establishes a careful review process for just this circumstance. The local nomination as a historic structure is not a threat to the Penguins' drive for a new arena; rather, it is part of a more important issue of establishing a public dialogue over what a new vision for the Lower Hill should be and how the arena might fit into it. We have nominated the arena not to threaten but to encourage an open and wide-ranging dialogue.

Everyone needs a seat at the table: neighborhood organizations, preservation organizations and business leaders. If we learned anything from the Marketplace at Fifth and Forbes episode, it was that lack of inclusiveness builds distrust, delays consensus and prevents faster responsive results.

The nomination gives the preservation community -- and others who believe the arena can be transformed into something new and exciting --a place to make our case in the absence of an open planning process. As preservationists, we almost always take the strategy of holding our nomination until there is no other available option, to encourage collaboration and avoid conflict. The nomination of a building is a responsibility we take very seriously. Ideally, it is done with the owner's blessing.

The timing of this nomination has two origins: One, there are others with agendas not related to preservation and community consensus who were about to hijack the nomination process to use as a political soapbox. Two, the conversations and media presentations to date indicated no interest in the reuse of the arena.

Every attempt should be made to transform the Civic Arena from a symbol of failure to a symbol of rebirth. The great dome of the arena is part of our skyline and can provide a focus to new development around the arena. The Seattle Space Needle was once a considered an archaic vision of the future by its citizens. Now it is a hip symbol of Seattle's rise to high-tech prominence. Imagine our Civic Arena reborn as a cultural center, ethnic market place, nightclubs, housing, hotel or any combination of new complementary uses. The idea for a 21st-century Grand Central Station for Maglev and the Spine Line to Oakland would be worth the effort, too.

Let's not rule anything out. Let's brainstorm productively together. Most important, the proper development of the arena and the surrounding site is an opportunity for the region to give something tangible back to the Hill and become a key link to rediscovering the diverse ethnic and cultural history of that neighborhood.

A proposed new Penguins arena that anchors Fifth Avenue redevelopment is a great opportunity if it is planned and designed properly. The reuse of the arena is not an either/or proposition; we can do both. The redevelopment of the arena can be win/win for the community, the region and the Penguins.

It would be irresponsible to merely nominate the arena and walk away. We must see it as a way to build support for groups like "Citizens for the Mellon Arena Site" (recently formed by Hill residents) and begin a proactive consensus-building process.

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