City of Pittsburgh Council District 6
Trip Down Memory Lane: Why I Supported the Demolition of the Civic Arena
Letter Submitted to the Historic Review Commission in Support of Civic Arena Demolition

2013 is shaping up to be a momentous year for the development of the 28 acres of the former Civic Arena site. I am currently working with community stakeholders and the master developer of the site, the Pittsbugh Penguins, on preliminary planning efforts to ensure that the community will benefit from the housing, job and businesses opportunities on the site. As we prepare to break ground later this year, I would like to take this opportunity to remind Pittsburghers of why I supported the demolition of the Civic Arena to make way for redevelopment of the Lower Hill. Following is a letter I submitted to the Historic Review Commission in February of 2011 advocating on behalf of the Arena's demolition.

Members of the Board: 

During the approximately one year that I have served on Pittsburgh City Council, the fate of the Civic Arena has been of primary concern. The decision to preserve or demolish the Arena brought to the surface the 50-year long history of one of the largest, urban renewal (or simply removal) programs in the country.  Lest we forget, the Arena was built after the City of Pittsburgh relocated over 8,000 families, businesses, churches and organizations and, in turn, delivered a crushing blow to a people who sought to be part of America’s dream of a thriving, self-sustaining community. 

Since I have been involved with the Arena related deliberations, I have continually stated my principal decision making factor is to do what has the optimal economic and social benefit for the residents of Pittsburgh, particularly those of the Hill District.  My position was made clear in a letter to the Sports and Exhibition Authority that was also signed by Representative Jake Wheatley, Jr. Therein, it was indicated that preserving structures without understanding the historical impacts such structures have had and continue to have on a community is comparable to those who defend the right to fly the confederate flag on state buildings in the south when there are clear negative connotations to many who would enter such buildings.  For these reasons and more, I supported the September 16, 2010 vote from the Board of the SEA to demolish the arena. This was followed by a vote from the City Planning Commission on November 23, 2010 that approved demolition. I now stand before you, asking you to cast a similar vote. 

When the decision came before the previous bodies, it was my hope that the primary factor to be considered would be the long-term economic viability of the Hill District and the City. Here was an opportunity to ensure that thousands of family sustaining jobs and millions in future tax revenue would be created through the redevelopment of the site, whereas the alternative could cost the City $50,000 a month in tax payer dollars for maintenance of an empty structure with no viable use. I had hope that there would be an effort to rebuild the amputated half of our community, reconnect it to its upper half, and resuscitate the entire Hill District. In sum, I sought comfort in the belief that the people’s lives I spoke and care so much about would be given proper consideration prior to voting. 

Unfortunately I don’t have that same level of confidence today, given your mission statement to protect and maintain historically and architecturally significant buildings. Today I ask you to view the issue in a greater context, concerning yourselves not only with bricks and mortar but giving due consideration to the second part of your mission statement that speaks to the preservation of neighborhoods. I have reviewed all 10 criteria for historic designation and wish to take a few more minutes to explain why I believe none of these should be used as an excuse to preserve the arena. In the interest of time, I will not enumerate all of them and focus instead on the relevant points.

I can understand why some people believe that the Arena is historically significant given some of the criteria for historic designation. It does exemplify important planning techniques to learn from, it is associated with important cultural and social aspects and events in our history, and it certainly sits in a unique location. The problem, however, is at the root of the issue, the Arena’s historical significance stems from the tremendous failure of the planned cultural district that was to exist in and benefit the communities of both the Lower Hill District and Central Business District; neither occurred.  In fact, the demolition of the community and development of the Arena is indeed a quintessential case study of when urban renewal goes wrong. The Lower Hill declined following this ambitious project that shifted traffic patterns, isolated and divided neighborhoods with highways, and removed large numbers of ethnic and minority residents.

In the 1960’s, novelist James Baldwin famously dubbed this and similar efforts of urban renewal across the county as "Negro Removal". This Arena project also resulted in a serious degradation of the tax base within the city and devastated existing commercial districts within the community.  Segregation increased as communities were displaced and many African Americans were forced or left with no other option than moving into public housing while their white counterparts were moved to privately owned homes or government subsidized homes in the suburbs. No, this is not the sort of History we wish to preserve, and it is not a history that can simply be glossed over or asked to be forgotten.

Based on my reading of the criteria it is only the third benchmark that the preservationists can attempt to use as possible justification to avert demolition. This would be its exemplification of an architectural type, style or design distinguished by innovation, rarity, uniqueness, or overall quality of design, detail, materials, or craftsmanship. 

There is no denying that when the Civic Arena was initially built it was indeed innovative in its design, style, rarity and uniqueness with the centerpiece being the retractable dome. This uniqueness was mostly due to the fact that it was built to serve as an amphitheater for the Civic Light Opera.  On September 17, 1961 the Civic Arena made its grand opening.  The roof did open - two leafs opened -, but fears that 205x85 feet of ice would melt under the 74-degree fall day forced the dome closed after 22 minutes. Other problems were soon after quickly discovered.

Patricia Lowry, an architecture critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, noted that comedian Carol Burnett stood on the stage of Pittsburgh’s new Civic Auditorium on the night of July 4, 1962. As the dome peeled open for the first time in front of an audience, Burnett announced “Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to present… THE SKY!” Soon enough, the wind poured in through the open roof and rumbled the microphones, and Burnett was in desperate need of a coat. Unfortunately for Wolk and the Pittsburgh Light Orchestra, the retractable roof that was intended to make it a great theater actually made it a terrible theater.

The Mellon Arena’s operators knew the roof could not be opened when it rained, and they learned it also could not be opened when the wind blew over seven miles per hour. It was not just weather that haunted the Arena’s ability to host the light opera. The open roof caused a nightmare for acoustics and the wind generated a continuous headache by blowing over scenery. The dome provided no place to hang lighting, sets, or amplifiers, and trying to keep an open arena air conditioned proved to be more expensive than predicted. The Pittsburgh Light Opera moved in 1969 from the Mellon Arena to the Heinz Hall across town.

Despite the wonderful architectural intentions, the unfortunate reality is that the Arena did not work then for its intended purpose and it does not work now. That is indeed the reason why a similar structure has not been built elsewhere.  To date, despite numerous efforts, there has been no architect or developer who has come up with any redevelopment proposal of the Arena itself that not just looks good, but can generate real revenue. And given that our market is at is saturation point for amphitheaters, which was the original intent of the building, the only thing that allows for it to be considered historic will ultimately never occur. 

The hard truth is that the Civic Arena remains a symbol of failed public policy and a continual deterrence to economic viability for the Hill District community. No, historic designation and preservation for many reasons is not the correct decision.  On the contrary, what might be more appropriate at this time is an apology for the historic injustices that were heaped upon the Hill District when it was torn asunder nearly a half century ago.

Respectfully,

Daniel Lavelle

Published:
Friday, April 12, 2013
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Office of Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle
414 Grant Street, 5th Floor | City County Building
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
telephone: 412-255-2134 | facsimile 412-255-0737


 

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