Bethel AME and the Pittsburgh Penguins made an announcement Friday that was heavy on faith and light on details of affordable housing and education components.
A historically Black church is returning to the Lower Hill District after being displaced by city government more than half a century ago.
Bethel AME and the Pittsburgh Penguins made an announcement Friday that was heavy on faith and light on the details. What’s known is that the Penguins have agreed to give 1.5 acres of Lower Hill District land along Crawford and Colwell streets to the church. The neighborhood was home to the Bethel AME Church until the 1950s when it was demolished under eminent domain to make room for the Civic Arena.
But several details remain unclear, including what an announced $170 million housing development will entail, how affordability will be defined and how the 1.5 acres will be organized. The announcement also came with claims that an educational component will be included but didn’t elaborate on the specific nature of such a program.
The announcement was attended by, among others, members of the church, religious leaders, developers, Pittsburgh Penguins leaders, Mayor Ed Gainey and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Gainey, Fitzgerald and others portrayed the move as righting the wrongs of the past.
“We devote this land to end white supremacy, capitalism, racism, and all other isms that bring division,” said Reverend Carmen Holt, associate pastor with Bethel AME. Officials with for-profit developer Buccini/Pollin Group, chosen by the Penguins to redevelop the site, attended the announcement and Gainey thanked one of their members for their work.
Bethel AME Pastor Dale Snyder said that the new site would have an educational component and what he called an “incubator system” as well as affordable housing.
“I want to solve some Black problems for Black children,” Snyder said. “I’m Black and I’m proud.”
After the announcement, Associate Minister Reverend Henry Livingston said that the church estimates it will take two years before they can break ground on the new structure.
“This is a new beginning,” Livingston said. He recalled that his parents moved from Georgia to Pittsburgh in the 1940s. They became congregants of Bethel AME, or “Mother Bethel” as Livingston calls it.
“Mother Bethel was a rock to our family,” Livingston said.
For Samuel Wolfolk, 70, the church also served as a strong foundation for his family’s growth. He recalled that after his mother died giving birth to him the church congregants adopted him.
“The church taught me everything,” Wolfolk said. “I learned how to read and write at the church. It was an amazing place.”
Wolfolk remembers the church was demolished when he was around age five, and he said that he was one of the children that helped break ground on the church’s current location on Webster Avenue.
“All my family members were married and buried in the (Webster) church,” he said.
Friday’s tone of jubilation and conciliation was in marked contrast to the adversarial tone Snyder had taken in previous months.
Church leaders and the Pittsburgh Penguins originally reached a tentative deal in September to return part of the Lower Hill District to Bethel AME Church, according to an email written by Snyder.
Snyder announced then that the church and the hockey club’s development team had agreed to, among other things, move the church back to the Lower Hill from its current location in the Middle Hill, though not necessarily to its precise former location.
At that time Kevin Acklin, president of business operations for the Penguins, confirmed the agreement was reached.
Movement toward a deal between the Penguins and Bethel AME came amid the backdrop of incremental redevelopment of the Lower Hill.
And in an October email to PublicSource, Acklin said that the looming deal was the result of two years of negotiations and that he expected “a definitive plan solidified in the next few weeks.”
But after Snyder’s celebratory email, relations between the two sides cooled and the deal appeared to be nixed.
During a community meeting in October, Snyder criticized development plans for the Lower Hill District.
“Our neighborhood don’t need these shiny buildings, we need affordable housing,” Snyder said then. “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.”
It’s not clear how the development team and the church came together. Buccini/Pollin Group is seeking Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] and Sports & Exhibition Authority approvals that would allow them to build a concert venue and parking garage on part of the Lower Hill.
The URA demolished the church in 1957 after taking it using eminent domain. Since then, Bethel AME’s congregation has sought justice.
Bethel AME Church was founded in 1808 and until the 1950s it served as a congregation and center for learning and social activism.
Bethel originally met in small church buildings it purchased from other congregations for about the first 30 years. A fire destroyed their meeting place in 1845 and the congregation purchased property in the heart of the Hill District and raised the funds to construct a Romanesque-style church that could accommodate 1,900 members at a time.
It was the site of Pittsburgh’s first Black elementary school and a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Its congregation grew to 3,000 people before being demolished.
“That place was a megachurch by today’s standards,” Wolfolk said.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
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