Historic photo of Bethel AME Church, a large, Romanesque-style cathedral, amid demolition. A crane hovers over the building, and a few construction workers stand in front.
"Demolition of Bethel AME Church, Wylie Avenue and Elm Street, Lower Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 24, 1957." (Photo by Charles 'Teenie' Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images)

Update (10/18/22): The Penguins’ developers characterized demands for a parking surcharge to benefit Hill District residents as out of touch with economic realities during a community meeting Monday. 

The meeting was held between the Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] and registered community organizations in the Hill District. About 110 online attendees heard discussion of the proposed development of a Live Nation concert venue on the 28-acre former Civic Arena site.

The developers shared plans for the venue but much of the conversation turned to funding for the community. Discussions between the team and neighborhood leadership eager to spread development benefits throughout the Hill have been contentious since at least 2007.

Kimberly Ellis, BPG’s director of community, arts and culture for its Pittsburgh office, said several times that “there’s a misinformation campaign” against the group’s plan for the site.

Ikhana Hal-Makina, who said she’s a lifetime resident of the Hill District, said during the public comment portion of the meeting that there should be a $5 surcharge on ticket sales or parking garage tickets, with the funds used to benefit Hill District residents. That concept followed last week’s Hill Community Development Corp. proposal of a smaller surcharge.

Craig Dunham, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ senior vice president, told attendees that the club’s development team “became aware of this in the last 72 hours and they’re putting it up for consideration.”

He continued: “We hear it and we’re trying to understand how it would work. We don’t want to create a competitive disadvantage on parking. It’s already a tight market.” 

Chris Buccini, president of BPG, said the idea comes amid a global pandemic. “Guess how many people are parking there today? Everything we do has to be economically feasible. What bank will lend $50 million to make this happen?”

Bethel AME Pastor Dale Snyder said that a surcharge should be added as a form of reparations. 

“Our neighborhood don’t need these shiny buildings, we need affordable housing,” Snyder said. “If you want to take your millions of dollars and go somewhere else, do that. But if you’re staying, talk to the people.”

 He added that if the development team can’t satisfy the community, “we need to get another developer and take away your development rights. We need someone who will respect poor people that work hard. What are we really doing? Gentrifying a community. the oldest black community in Pittsburgh.” 

Monday’s meeting will be one of several community meetings co-hosted by the Department of City  Planning to discuss development plans in the area.

Reported 10/17/22: The Pittsburgh Penguins have tentatively agreed to return part of the Lower Hill District to Bethel AME Church, whose original home was demolished in the 1950s to make way for the Civic Arena.

Movement toward a deal between the Penguins and Bethel AME comes as the slow-moving redevelopment of the Lower Hill approaches a milestone: the potential sale by public entities of a parcel that would host a Live Nation concert venue. That prospective sale will spur public processes starting with a meeting tonight at which the development team is expected to pitch their vision to a community that has mixed feelings about progress to date.

Bethel AME Pastor Dale Snyder, in a Sept. 30 email to scores of people, wrote that the church and the hockey club’s development team have agreed that:

  • The church will have the opportunity to move back to the Lower Hill from its current location in the Middle Hill, though not necessarily to its precise former location
  • The former location will be, at the very least, commemorated with historical markers
  • The church will own its new parcel and hold development rights
  • Details were to be worked out around the end of October.

Bethel AME Church was founded in 1808 and until the 1950s it served as a congregation and center for learning and social activism. 

The church was demolished in 1957 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA], which took it using eminent domain. Since then, Bethel AME’s congregation has sought justice, potentially in the form of land or development rights. 

Bethel AME Church on Webster Ave in Pittsburgh.
Bethel AME Church’s current building on Webster Avenue in Pittsburgh. Bethel began worshipping in this building in 1959. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

According to Kevin Acklin, president of business operations for the Penguins, the hockey club and church reached an agreement to return an unspecified parcel of land to the church during a recent meeting. The meeting was convened by the mayor’s office, according to city Press Secretary Maria Montaño.

According to Rev. Snyder’s email, if the historic location of what he called “Old Big Bethel” isn’t available then the church will move to a location within the Lower Hill that is of the same size as the church’s original footprint. 

“We troubled heaven, worked our faith, and God answered our prayers,” he wrote.

“We have a historic opportunity to do something great together on the Lower Hill development with Bethel AME church,” Acklin wrote in an email to PublicSource. “And we appreciate the leadership of Mayor Ed Gainey and Chief of Staff Jake Wheatley. We are still working out details together, but expect to have a definitive plan solidified in the next few weeks.”

Acklin noted that the Penguins “have been engaging in good faith with members of the Bethel AME Church for almost two years, and we believe we now have a path forward. While the demolition of Bethel AME Church occurred about a decade before the Penguins came into existence, we are excited to work with church members and city leaders to pursue a restorative development project together on the Lower Hill.”

Carl Redwood, who chairs the Hill District Consensus Group, welcomed the news but said he was wary of the Penguins’ motivation.

“The Penguins want something,” he speculated.

“​​It’s a good thing if it happens but the Penguins and their team have made promises before and didn’t deliver on them,” Redwood continued. “They have a tendency to make promises to groups for something they need and once they get what they need, they don’t follow through on the promise.”

Moves toward further development

The Penguins are working with Delaware-based developer Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] to develop the 28 acres of Hill land that once held the Civic Arena. Discussions between the team and neighborhood leadership eager to spread development benefits throughout the Hill have been contentious since at least 2007.

Around 3 acres is under development as the new headquarters of First National Bank. The rest is controlled by the URA and the Sports & Exhibition Authority [SEA]. The boards of both agencies must approve any transfers of parcels to the Penguins and BPG.

The Penguins’ chosen developers, Buccini/Pollin Group, have built around one-third of the new First National Bank headquarters on the Lower Hill, see here on Oct. 14, 2022. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

On Thursday, URA staff told the SEA board to be prepared for a November briefing and December vote on the next steps in the Lower Hill’s redevelopment, which will involve the block flanked by Wylie Avenue, Logan Street, Bedford Avenue and Fullerton Street.

Tonight at 6, the city will hold a development activities meeting, via Zoom, on the Penguins’ plans to develop a Live Nation venue there. Such meetings typically occur as developers prepare to bring proposals to public bodies like the URA and SEA boards and the City Planning Commission.

Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corp., said she hopes those public entities make any transfer of land conditional on agreement by the development team to:

  • Dedicate a stream of private sector revenue — rather than just redirected tax dollars — to community development, perhaps via a $2 surcharge on parking and tickets at the Live Nation venue and attached 908-space parking garage
  • Return a planned Black business incubator to the Wylie side of the block and give it prominent storefront space, rather than fronting it on Logan and giving it a small presence on the street
  • Formally attach a 2014 compact called the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan [CCIP] to the site’s formal development outline, which could make future development approvals contingent upon progress toward the CCIP goals.

“There’s not a lot of community reinvestment” in the current development financing plan, Milliones said, other than the diversion of funds that would otherwise go to taxing bodies but will instead be divided between the development and neighborhood projects. She said she’s raised the surcharge concept — which is contemplated in the CCIP — to the development team.

Questions posed by PublicSource to the development team on Friday were not answered.

The CCIP, signed by neighborhood leadership, government and the team, outlines seven areas of collaboration:

  • Inclusion of minority- and women-owned businesses
  • Creation of jobs for local residents
  • Homeownership efforts
  • Wealth-building initiatives
  • Preservation of the community’s cultural legacy
  • Coordinated development of the community
  • Tracking of progress.

The plan’s implementation is guided by an Executive Management Committee, which held its first public meeting in December.

The CCIP does not mention Bethel AME. 

Milliones said there’s no reason the development team can’t adhere to the CCIP while also restoring Bethel AME. “This is not an either-or situation.”

Correction (10/17/22): The Hill CDC has not yet discussed the surcharge concept with Live Nation. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the extent of communications on that subject.

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at ericj@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for PublicSource. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even...

Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...