A long-delayed next step is approaching in ongoing redevelopment of the Lower Hill District, and developers argue that a decision must be made before international events destabilize economic calculations.
Votes next month would do more than determine if a music venue should be built in the Lower Hill District. If approved, developers believe plans could set the tone in the region for community investment through private-led development.
The boards of the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] and the Sports & Exhibition Authority [SEA] have the final say on plans to build a Live Nation music venue on a section of the Hill District called Block E.
Developers briefed the URA board in March and expected a vote in April, but the item never materialized on the board’s agenda. The agenda for May’s meeting has not been set yet, according to the URA.
The development, if approved, would involve tax breaks for the developers and millions of dollars in investments to a community that experienced redlining and disinvestment over the decades. But the Pittsburgh Penguins’ selected developer, Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG], warns that if the project isn’t approved soon, negative trending global markets may make a second attempt impossible.
“The success of this has regional and national implications,” said Bomani Howze, vice president of development for BPG and a longtime Hill District figure.
Howze said that their investment partners are willing to invest in the project during a precarious moment. “[M]acroeconomics of the world following the Russia-Ukraine war, the shifting to the economics around Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — that has direct implications here. [The Federal Reserve] increasing interest rates. We have to take advantage of the window we have to increase investment in this region and not run the risk of scaring it away to other cities.”
But the Hill Community Development Corporation argues that the developers haven’t kept community investment promises the Penguins made as part of a 2014 Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan.
“We have concerns about all those things related to community commitments,” said Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill CDC, a registered community organization.
Missing the goal or moving the posts?
Milliones said one of her top concerns was that the Penguins and developers wouldn’t deliver on their commitment to invest $1 million in the Ammon Recreation Center for Hill District youth.
“They have not made good on their commitments. So the city has to do something to protect the interest of the public good,” Milliones said.
Kimberly Ellis, BPG’s director of community, arts and culture for its Pittsburgh office, observed that the Ammon center is already open after being renovated and that “further plans are underway for Ammon, and the renovation was always going to be a multifaceted set of renovations.”
Ellis said BPG is sticking to its commitments and that Milliones “keeps moving the goalposts” with new demands.
“We’re still under a system of capitalism here. We didn’t have to do all this that’s being done. We’re working with a collaborative plan,” Ellis said.
Ellis said she has devoted much of her life to community activism and, after years of frustration, she decided to join BPG to try and help communities through more capitalist-oriented methods.
“We don’t have unlimited resources,” Ellis said. “You have all these different people crying out for investment.”
She said the Hill CDC’s demands to invest millions of dollars in the New Granada Square theater is an unrealistic demand.
“It’s selfish, especially in this climate, to ask a company to guarantee a loan for $3 [million] to $5 million,” she said. “And then turn around and say we’re unreasonable.”
In response, Milliones said she never asked BPG for a loan.
She cited an agreement made between the SEA and URA and the Penguins’ development arm, Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Development. In 2019 the URA’s board adopted the agreement, requiring any development in parts of the Lower Hill, including Block E, to be preceded by a number of conditions.
“Kevin Acklin of the (Penguins) requested that Hill CDC provide a comprehensive ‘proposal’ to them to assist in meeting their commitments,” Milliones said. One of those commitments is to support the New Granada, she said.
“BPG, in particular, has consistently failed to meet their stated obligations to the Hill District, and they have hired a couple of Hill District residents to conceal their inability to deliver,” Milliones continued. “[BPG] is by far the most divisive development firm that the Hill District has encountered in recent memory.”
Ellis noted that a crew from Live Nation recently met with Milliones and toured the theater. She said that fulfillment of the promises made in relation to the theater were “in progress.”
Craig Dunham, senior vice president for the Penguins, added that at the request of the city the development team is waiting for a “comprehensive Hill District parks planning process led by the Planning Department to be completed” along with a capital planning project, before it funds more Ammon improvements.
Dunham said the Lower Hill development will help the surrounding community through investment and wealth building.
“We can do that through market transactions and identify and capture funds and wealth specifically into a community,” Dunham said. “And the hope is that if there’s gentrification, the residents become owners and [community] businesses become owners and they’re in a position to benefit and not be impacted or displaced.”
A very extended negotiation
Since at least 2007, conversations between the Penguins’ development team and community organizations have spanned three mayorships in an effort to determine the direction of the Lower Hill District.
At the heart of the discussion is the continued redevelopment of 28 acres that once held the Civic Arena. Around 3 acres is under development as the new headquarters of First National Bank [FNB]. The rest is held by the URA and the SEA. Both agency boards must approve any transfers of parcels to the Penguins and BPG. In addition to the music venue, the developer’s plan for Block E includes an urban park space and parking.
The City Planning Commission approved those plans in January. URA and SEA approvals are among the last steps before building on Block E.
The board votes would come after years spent determining the technical details of the proposed buildings and negotiating what the development will contribute to the surrounding community.
Developers initially balked at Milliones’ proposal to add a $2 surcharge on paid tickets at the proposed music venue for 10 years. But in January they agreed to adding the surcharge. The funds from the surcharge would go to the Greater Hill District Neighborhood Reinvestment Fund, which also received $7.18 million when construction began on the FNB Financial Center, on another part of the former Civic Arena site, in September 2021.
As they’ve done in various community meetings, the Penguins and BPG conveyed their work in terms of “equitable development” and said they believed the planned development would help the surrounding community grow.
“The discrimination that occurred here was specifically to Blacks,” Howze said. “We want to right the wrongs of redlining,” he said, referring to the past practice of withholding investment from mostly Black neighborhoods.
Howze said that Downtown and Oakland are among the highest revenue-producing areas in the state. Sitting between those areas is the Hill District, which he said was excluded from the wealth of those two areas by redlining. Howze said he believes the new development will help bring wealth and opportunities to Black-owned businesses.
Measuring MWBE contracts
In a December meeting, the developers said they committed $35 million to minority- and women-owned business enterprises [MWBEs].
Howze addressed earlier reporting based on emails obtained by PublicSource under the Right-to-Know Law that showed the developer’s method of counting MWBE contracts differed from the SEA’s standards.
Howze said the problem stemmed from a Cleveland-based company called Tungsten Enterprises not having the correct certification as a minority-owned business.
“It wasn’t a question of our metrics and accuracy,” Howze said. “This was strictly about certification.” Dunham said the development team is supporting Tungsten’s efforts to get certified.
SEA officials did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.
Howze said the bigger picture is the contracts on FNB’s tower that went to MWBEs. Black-owned firms received $24.7 million in contracts, he said.
“This is a very historic moment,” Howze said. “This transformation is an example of how to go into urban neighborhoods and partner in a way that rights the wrong of redlining.”
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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