Green Potential for Pittsburgh's Hill District Development Plans

  • A map of the proposed developments to the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Image: Courtesy Urban Design Associates

July 6, 2013

Plans for the possible redevelopment of the land razed to make way for Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena not only have the potential to restore connections between Pittsburgh's Hill District and surrounding neighborhoods, but also bring environmentally-friendly construction and infrastructure into the community.

The Civic Arena was built in the 1950s, and its construction required the demolition of dozens of blocks of homes and businesses in the Hill District that were predominantly populated and owned by African Americans.  The arena went on to house the Civic Light Opera, and was later the setting for years of National Hockey League matches.  But after 50 years of operation, the Civic Arena was demolished, leaving the future of the ground under it in question.

Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team owns the rights to the 28 acres of land where the arena used to sit.  The team’s plans for the area include building up to 1,200 housing units, roughly 2,500 square feet in retail space and 600,000 square feet of office space, along with a focus on working with minority and women-owned businesses.  The Pens hope to see their proposed developments come to fruition because they feel that the community, which suffers from blighted conditions, will benefit greatly.

“While we didn’t necessarily create [the current conditions], we feel an obligation as the organization who has the development rights here to find a way to make sure the community benefits and we help resolve that issue,” says Travis Williams, the Penguins’ chief operating officer.

If the Pens are given the green light to proceed with their development plans, they will try to bring the first so-called “Neighborhood Development” project to the state of Pennsylvania.

The planning, building and maintenance of green buildings, homes and communities in this project are rated by a series of systems designed by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  The “Neighborhood Development” project, designed by LEED in collaboration with the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Natural Resources Defense Council, seeks to lessen the impacts of infrastructure and transit by implementing environmentally-friendly construction.

These LEED stipulations would be a step closer toward greener city planning than what the city currently requires.  For example, Pittsburgh already requires rainwater capture on buildings.  But the LEED goals seek to incorporate additional means of lessening the potentially negative urban impacts on water resources and air quality, and also take into consideration natural resource consumption.

The site of Pittsburgh’s former sports arena would, under these LEED specifications, become a green mixed-use neighborhood under plans laid out by the Penguins Hockey Team. 

However, the Pens' plan to make the area greener aren’t the first: Prior the the arena’s demolition, preservationists, such as the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation's President Arthur P. Ziegler, lobbied against tearing down the arena, arguing instead that the structure could be remade into an environmentally-friendly facility.  Ziegler suggested that the Civic Arena be transformed into an open-air green space or an indoor shopping mall.

“Here we are as preservationists conserving the built environment and that has to be better for the physical environment than tearing them down, hauling them to the landfill via diesel-powered vehicles,” Ziegler said to The Allegheny Front in 2007.  “A preservationist seems to me automatically a green person.”

But even after the arena’s demolition, plans for the area’s redevelopment are still under scrutiny.

Although there has been praise for the possibility of economic opportunities that the development may bring, some consider the development’s potential to be precarious.  Laura Nettleton, an architect who works in an area neighboring the Hill District as a consultant for Uptown Partners, a community development group, is one of those people.  She's less optimistic about the future of the 28-acre plot of land than Williams and other advocates of the community development efforts.

“I think it has a lot of ambitious goals in it.  I feel uncertain that they’ll all be met,” says Nettleton.  “There needs to be more emphasis placed on the sustainable issues in the plan.”