Dr. Kimberly Ellis, AKA Dr. Goddess, AKA the Executive Director of the Historic Hill Institute, facilitated a catered gathering on Tuesday evening at Ebenezer Baptist Church, for the purpose of properly introducing those interested in preserving the Civic Arena to those in whose community it is located.
“Do you know Kimberly Ellis?” the two young white architects seated next to me asked. “She pretty much speaks for the Hill District.”
What a difference two years and an election make!
Ellis led off with a slide show update on the progress of historic preservation initiatives already underway in the Hill, including:
- Greenlee Field (named for Sam Greenlee, a numbers runner, and provider of loans, initial investor in the Crawford Grille for the purpose of “laundering his money”)
- The Kauffman Auditorium at the Irene Kauffman Settlement House
- The Crawford Grille, which has new investors (including Franco Harris, a retired Pittsburgh Steelers running back)
- The August Wilson childhood home
- The New Granada Theater
Summarily, “historic preservation is alive and well in the Hill District”.
This history is poised to be leveraged as part of a community development campaign which will promote “Pittsburgh’s most famous neighborhood.” Ellis explained that although the Hill District does not qualify to be on the National Register of Historic Places, it is exploring forming its own Conservation District.
Nevertheless, “reconnecting the street grid is not of ultimate importance to us,” said Ellis on the topic of the 28 acres of the Lower Hill on which the Arena stands. The paramount goals seem to be jobs, community empowerment, and economic and other development which will encourage vitality and livability further up the Hill.
The slide show continued telling the story of urban redevelopment in the Hill, including: neighborhood demolition, arena construction, official plans to extend the Golden Triangle much further east, promises made and the reality which unfolded, and the community response.
It was pointed out several times that the Hill District leaders of that era were initially excited and supportive of coming redevelopment efforts, although little-to-nothing in the way of community jobs, relocation for the displaced, and new low-income housing ever unfolded. After nearly a decade of this disruption and disappointment and the riots following Dr. King’s assassination, the Hill fell into disrepute as far as redevelopment energies.
According to Ellis, at a recent meeting with the Penguins, UDA architects stressed that “We’ll reconnect your historic street grid!”, representing that their plan is “the only way to make the Hill District whole again.” Ellis acknowledged that the Penguins’ new plans do not actually reconnect anything historic to anything else, but also suggested that the magical palliative of streetwise connections is somewhat beside the point.
This brought discussions to the present. When the Penguins were accorded development rights to the land it became mandatory for them t go through a “Section 106 process” to identify historic assets, gather public input, and assess the effects of a variety of options. Failure to compete the 106 process results in the loss of any federal money going into the project, including for infrastructure. The Sports & Exhibition Authority asserts that they have “about two more meetings” to complete the 106 process, though that claim is controversial.
“We’re here!” was one message Ellis was interested in getting across. “We’re engaged!” in the processes of determining what is to become of the Lower Hill and the arena itself.
Next on the agenda was testimony from select Hill District witnesses as to their lived Civic Arena experiences, and what specific memories that structure preserves for them.
During the years-long process of hammering forth a “community benefits agreement” with the City, the URA and the Penguins, Kimberly Ellis and some of her compatriots were frequently shouted down and disparaged at meetings of the One Hill coalition for insisting on dredging up “all this history” — even when that “history” dated back 2007 and a meeting of the Sports & Exhibition Authority. Now the coalition was doing everything it could to make sure its history was related in what it considered the proper measure and context to what they refer to as the “preservation community”.
Brenda Tate, whose personal history includes sparking more assertive negotiations for that benefits agreement, led things off by saying, “I’m really not here to bash the arena.”
Tate did recall that as construction in the Lower Hill got underway in the 60’s, kids began mysteriously transferring out her her grade school classes. She remembers soot and plaster everywhere during those times also, on her clothes and in her lungs. She remembers regarding the eventually completed arena as a bizarre “spaceship”, although she did say that as an early concert-goer she was wowed by the spectacle of the arena opening up as it did.
“We don’t have a current consensus on what ought to happen to the Lower Hill,” he eventually summarized, “but we all have in common a desire to see the rebirth of the Hill District itself.”
And later: “We need to make our decision based on our best interests, and what will maximize development throughout the Hill. We have to ensure a development that nourishes the entire Hill.
“And if that building stands in the way of that kind of development, it must come down.”
And summarily: “It’s not because I hate hockey — which I do,” (a laugh line), “but I would love to see the preservationists fight as hard for the preservation of a people as they do for the preservation of a building. Talk. About. The people.”
I took less notes during his presentation because I was somewhat spellbound, and if something like it does appear in the Sunday P-G you’re all in for a real treat.
Among his quick-reference recommendations to the neighborhood were 1) Be careful what you wish for, 2) Don’t take anything at face value and 5) Once something gets demolished, you lose all your leverage.
Carl Redwood pointed out that one of the 19 development principles spelled out in the CBA was to “leave no remnant” of the Civic Arena — but volunteered that that is a plank that “could change” if a credible preservation plan that suits the community’s wishes were to come forward. (Another of the 19 development principles was a requirement to reconnect the street grid “with Downtown”, and that seems to be morphing.)
Jason Matthews, an official involved with the development group that seemed for a while to entice Kuhn’s supermarket to the neighborhood, and is continuing to seek replacement grocers for that development (“We’re working hard, and we’re moving forward. We’re working hard, we’re moving forward, and that’s all we’re allowed to say at this point.”) said that “fond memories” of concerts cannot be what the question is about — it must be about economic benefit.
“You’re not going to get a deal done, if you don’t have a relationship with the political leadership” Matthews warned.
More speakers followed. There was concern that if the arena is to be preserved, it cannot be permitted to become “a mothballed building”. There was pointed skepticism that “that architecture” is going to benefit anybody moving forward. There were pointed admonitions that anyone seeking to deal in that neighborhood must “respect us as human beings.”
Yet somehow everybody came up conspicuously short of saying, “I’m against the arena” or “We must tear it down.”
And then, two hours into the history lesson and the relaying of impressions, and after establishing by a literal show of hands that everybody in the room learned something during all segments — Preservation Pittsburgh was invited to present its case.
Scott Leib, volunteer president of Preservation Pittsburgh, held his own shorter slide show which seemed to roughly echo a fair bit of the history covered in the first sessions. A case was made in very general terms that historic preservation can be beneficial for economic development, and can be used as tool to ensure that something enriching to the neighborhood manifests itself on that land.
As for the process being undertaken currently by the SEA, Leib opined, “I think we’re all getting snookered” (borrowing the term from Dr. Glasco’s historical segment). He predicted it would result immediately in no more than 28 acres of surface parking — the most valuable surface parking in the city — and complained that the Penguins have “very little incentive to commence development” any further. In response to some immediate consternation, he agreed that there are deadlines in the lease agreement with the SEA, but insisted, “I don’t think it’s clear,” and reminded the assembled that the Steelers had been permitted to miss deadlines on the North Shore.
After the brief presentation, Marimba Milliones drilled down tightly on one question, as is her practice. “If we decide ultimately that preservation is something we don’t want, will you proceed with historic designation efforts?” Her concern was that this would further delay development.
Leib and the preservationists didn’t answer the question directly. Instead they suggested that two groups needed one another — one had an undeniable history in need of a solution, the other had a building with some public processes attached.
At this point at least a couple in the audience began letting less diplomatic impressions be known.
Laing explained that in her opinion, “The preservation community has been privileged” in the discussion, and, “there’s a real history of superiority that I see going on. We’re being portrayed as sentimental, emotional.” Preservationists were even accused of suggesting that the issue be mediated “by therapists” because they believe the community suffers from some sort of mental trauma.
This was met with quite a bit of shock and horror. It was shortly discovered that preservationists had floated the idea of utilizing professional mediators care of the Pittsburgh Mediation Center — which only recently has been absorbed by the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime. The idea of some neutral mediation was defended again for an instant, but was waved off by a great many attendance.
Although attempting to rally, the preservationists were now accused by Bonnie Laing of approaching the discussions from a “white supremacy” point of view. As Leib and company protested this characterization, Bonnie’s husband Justin Laing chimed in to counter, “It doesn’t surprise me that would surprise you. You would not be aware of it. That white racial framework is something that you bring with you.”
Finally Sala Udin stepped in again to interject, “The preservationists are not the primary enemy here.” He brought the focus back to the Penguins and the city, and the deal they had struck.
Someone in the Hill community actually said, “The division may not be as wide as I originally thought.”
“We don’t like the word, ‘Snookered’,” Dr. Goddess decided, to pretty much everyone’s delight — and the conversation continued more along the lines of what both sides were trying to do and what they had in common.
Sala Udin had to cut out during the first wave of people cutting out of the gathering, so I caught up with him in the parking lot.
Udin had asserted that if the Civic Arena stands in the way of a development plan that will nurture the Hill District, that arena has to come down. What happens if a plan…
Before I could get the question out of my mouth: “I will fight for it to stay,” Udin said.
I asked him, have those who have come out in support of arena demolition — the Mayor, the URA, other politicians — have they come forward to offer anything in return for the community’s support for demolition? Does the fact that the “power structure” supports demolition make it easier to go along that route?
“No, I wish they would,” on the question of whether they had been offered deals. And to the later, “No, because the power structure won’t…” and then I couldn’t keep up taking notes.
“We’re at square one,” Udin summarized. “We’re at the beginning.”
Given how much Udin talked about hockey, I asked him whether he thought the drive for arena preservation was about the Penguins, the stars, the championships.
“A good portion of it, but no I don’t confuse them with the Preservation movement,” he said. “Those guys are coming at it from a whole ‘nother aspect.”
Back inside, things seemed to be winding down. Someone suggested that if any memories from the arena deserved to be preserved, it would be the history of urban renewal itself, so everyone could learn. That evoked a room full of sympathy.
Kimberly Ellis picked a few people who would get to speak last and that would be it, except for sidebars in private. David Bear was one of the last speakers.
He thanked Ellis for the history presentations and acknowledged that they were useful, but asked plaintively, “At the same time, I was hoping we’d have some time to get into the nitty gritty of the land, the plans…”
There were some noises to the effect that this would not be the last meeting. [These concerns are fairly well addressed by Ellis in the blog post comments underleaf.]
I had asked my new “two young white architect” friends whether any Hill District residents were there in support of Civic Arena preservation. They pointed me in the direction of Beatrice Binion.
“Yeah, but I was among the first to get moved to the new [arena],” she said.
I asked Binion why she was in favor of historic preservation for the Civic Arena. She answered that with its demolition, “they’re not going to give them anything anyway.”
“It’s not a white-black thing,” Binion said, in her opinion. “I’m getting tired of hearing that.” She also offered more generally that she was tired of “all this”, gesturing toward the remainder of the meeting that was breaking up.
I asked what it is then that she thinks ought to happen to the Civic Arena.
After only a second’s pause, she said it’d be nice if they had a skating rink there.
Would people in the Hill be interested in ice skating? I asked a little dubiously.
“Oh yes. Absolutely.”