The future of the Lower Hill District continued to be discussed in a briefing on Tuesday, held against the backdrop of lengthy discussions between a Pittsburgh Penguins-led development team and government agencies that control much of the land and process.

The Penguins-picked developer Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG], seeking approval for the construction on part of the former Civic Arena site, showed the City Planning Commission their plans to build a music venue and a small business incubator. That part of the Hill District has become controversial as several groups assert historic interest in the 28-acre site, for which the Penguins were granted development rights. 

Last month, the developers presented similar plans to the Urban Redevelopment Authority board and before that at a community meeting at which one Hill District community member described the developers as exploitative outsiders

“We remain optimistic about the opportunities we can bring to the Hill District,” Chris Buccini, president of BPG, told the commission. “There’s a lot of momentum here.” 

Tuesday’s meeting focused on two separate items: the planned urban park space, and the Live Nation music venue and accompanying structures proposed for the part of the site known as Block E. The commission did not vote to approve the projects as that will be done at a future meeting including public comment. 

Representatives of BPG described their project as innovative in two areas: urban park space and inclusion of women- and minority-owned businesses. 

“This a new paradigm for parks — more connected and seamless for mobility and accessibility to neighborhoods,” said Frederick Bonci, a founding partner of LaQuatra Bonci Associates, a Pittsburgh-based landscape architecture, urban design and planning firm.

“So instead of isolated parks, they’re fully connected and will serve neighborhoods in a much better fashion,” he continued.

Buccini said that the project, if approved, “will sustain reinvestment in Lower HIll District currently going on. This is a model of equitable development. This will build on the [Minority/Women-owned Business Enterprise] ambitious goals.”

The commissioners’ questions focused mainly on the aesthetics of the Live Nation building and design choices, with one commissioner saying that they looked forward to seeing creative changes to some of the design choices at future presentations. 

The commission’s review of the Block E plan comes in advance of votes by two other panels that would transfer or “takedown” that part of the site, most of which is owned by the Sports & Exhibition Authority [SEA], with part owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA].

The first takedown occurred in June 2021, involved around 2.5 acres and allowed the development team to start building a new 26-story headquarters tower for First National Bank [FNB]. Buccini on Tuesday  said that the FNB project would bring $350 million into the Lower Hill.

In the 16 months since, the Penguins and Delaware-based BPG have engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with the SEA and URA. 

Emails obtained by PublicSource under the Right-to-Know Law document differences over issues including the involvement of minority- and women-owned business enterprises [MWBEs] on the site and agency demands for information from the development team. Both the SEA and URA boards vote prior to any land sales.

During Tuesday’s meeting Buccini and other members of the development team reiterated their stated commitment to “equitable development.”

“We aren’t just beating our targets,” Buccini said. “We’re raising our bar and we’re taking that to heart for all of Pennsylvania and the United States.”

Buccini on Tuesday told the planning commission that they committed $35 million to minority- owned businesses including $25 million to Black-owned businesses.

This year the company’s counts of its MWBE commitments have drawn critiques from Clarence Curry, the SEA’s senior diversity coordinator. 

In January, BPG reported to the SEA and URA that contractor PJ Dick had committed $25 million in contracts to minority-owned businesses and $5 million to women-owned businesses, out of a total of $87.8 million in contract commitments. That put the development team slightly behind its stated objective of awarding 30% of contracts to minority firms, and 15% to firms owned by women.

Later in January, Curry told the development team that its method of counting MWBE contracts differed from his own, warning about “potential issues about misinformation and ‘fake news’” if the tallies weren’t consistent.

In May, Curry detailed his concerns, focusing on the way the development team counted purchases of materials and supplies from MWBEs. He said the SEA, like federal and state agencies, does not count 100% of such purchases toward totals of MWBE spending, instead counting 60% of such contracts. The discount, he wrote, is applied to discourage “pass through” arrangements in which the MWBE is just a middleman.

Curry wrote that by the SEA’s standards, the development team had awarded 16.7% of contracts to minority-owned businesses and 6% to women-owned businesses — below the team’s claims, at the time, of 28.3% and 7.8%, respectively.

Curry also wrote that the development team was requesting SEA approval to delete elevator-related contracting from the MWBE tally, because so few diverse firms perform that kind of work. 

“Let me be clear,” Curry added, “I am pleased and impressed with your efforts to include MBE and WBE firms on the FNB Tower.” But he sought “consistency” in counting the degree of success.

In October, Curry questioned the inclusion of a $7 million contract with Ohio-based Tungsten Enterprises, which he said did not have sufficient certification as a minority-owned business. BPG Senior Vice President for Development Management Boris Kaplan wrote that Tungsten was the only MWBE to bid on the interior work it was awarded, and was certified as minority-owned in Ohio.

Tungsten Enterprises could not be reached this week. The firm was not listed in the Pennsylvania Unified Certification Program online database for MWBEs, nor on the Ohio Department of Development’s MBE portal.

Curry did not respond this week to requests for an interview. Representatives of the Penguins, the URA and the Hill Community Development Corp. were also unavailable.

Even as Curry and BPG were wrangling about MWBE counts on the FNB tower, the development team was pushing, starting in May, to buy Block E. The SEA and URA responded that they wanted details on the site plan, parking needs, construction budget and timeline, MWBE inclusion, anticipated workforce, community relations and economic impact. The agencies continued to demand more information at least into August, according to the documents.

On Nov. 10, the development team briefed the URA board ahead of an eventual vote to transfer Block E. That board’s December meeting, though, did not include any action on that takedown.

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

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...