Arts » Architecture

In redevelopment of the Civic Arena site, public subsidies, community-benefits agreements remain unresolved

The Lower Hill is not an asset for the Penguins to sell, it is a debt for them to repay

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Grounds for discussion: The former Civic Arena site, now a parking lot. - PHOTO BY THEO SCHWARZ
  • Photo by Theo Schwarz
  • Grounds for discussion: The former Civic Arena site, now a parking lot.

Barack Obama was recently in Alaska talking about dangerous climate change even as he announced plans to allow Shell to begin major Arctic drilling. This seemingly stark hypocrisy is likely more complex than it looks. Doubtless, the president dislikes but cannot stop oil drilling, while he admires but cannot fully implement environmental sustainability. The world’s most powerful man is stuck in the historical moment, where momentum and inertia are sadly reversed. 

This is how I understand the recent announcement by developers McCormack Baron Salazar, accompanied by Mayor Peduto, that Bjarke Ingels Group will be the lead architectural designer for the redevelopment of the Lower Hill around the old Civic Arena site. (I avoid saying “BIG,” a name that emits cliché headlines like radioactivity). 

Bjarke Ingels, the Danish architect, is barely 40 and already a superstar, author of a thick architectural treatise in comic-book format and the subject of a New Yorker profile, even as his international projects proliferate. He has sustainable projects in his portfolio, such as the proposed Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy power plant in Copenhagen, which emits stylish steam instead of smoke. It will also serve, notoriously, as a ski slope. Still, Ingels is, more broadly, the thing that we think will make the future better. 

The unstoppable undesirable momentum, however, is the Penguins’ ownership of the development site and, more broadly, publicly supported development of privately owned real estate. If Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and his partners are considering selling the site or taking on investors at a profit, as has been widely reported, they should surely pay back all of the public subsidies that made the whole enterprise possible. Even Peduto has publicly hinted at such a thing. 

The Lower Hill is not an asset for the Penguins to sell, it is a debt for them to repay.

Meanwhile, for all the great achievements in the city, we’ve also just been named one of the most racist cities in America. Accusing website insidermonkey.com is obscure, but similar published indictments of this city proliferate. The usual chirpy cheerleading websites are notably silent on the matter. 

So it’s particularly bad timing to announce that your white developers have chosen a really white architect (albeit a really good one) to work in an overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood, especially when the published response from McCormack Baron Salazar about minority-developer participation is, effectively, “We’re totally going to get to that soon.”

It’s notable that a Community Benefits Agreement, guaranteeing financial payments and employment participation for communities in the Hill, has been worked out. Based on my own experience hearing many hours of public testimony, demands for the agreement ranged from absolutely just and necessary to simply angry and unrealistic — not easily resolved.

So the announcement of an architect, even if CBA parameters are still in place, indeed seems like an ill-timed slap. While Mario Lemieux is already contemplating his taxpayer-funded profits, and Ingels is coming on board, fulfillment of the promises for local employment have yet to begin.

Likewise, a project of this size and importance should really have a more publicly visible selection process — more firms presenting their work with opportunities for public input, regardless of who makes the final decision. Such a process could also give an opportunity to present more clearly how an Ingels-led design team can still honor the letter and the spirit of the CBA by hiring by other entities as collaborators.

Speaking of other entities, what happened to Walter Hood? The African-American landscape architect is a brilliant designer and dynamic public speaker with a national reputation. He was hired to work on designs around the Consol Energy Center, in a project that has quietly stalled with insufficient funding. Hood doesn’t quite have Ingels’ magnesium-flare visibility, but he should join the new design team. He is practically already on it. How did his work fall off the radar when so many are worried about Ingels getting hired and Lemieux getting paid?

Shameful.

It’s great to praise Ingels, but not when the city and developer lose focus on issues of ownership, justice and participation. Such failures only update the decades-long legacy of structural racism rather than solving it.

One talented African-American designer is hardly going to eliminate such problems. But he could certainly help change the impression about what is unstoppable and what never quite gets started in redevelopment of the Lower Hill, something that Bjarke Ingels will not completely achieve, no matter how remarkable his designs might be.


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