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Hill Slight

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Hill District residents have long sought to help shape their neighborhood's future. But as Pittsburgh Penguins officials made clear during a March 11 community meeting, they might not get their wish -- at least when it comes to developing the Lower Hill.

"I cannot sit here today and tell you that you will be at the table negotiating with developers," Travis Williams, the hockey team's senior vice president, announced during the meeting. "I'm being honest."

"And I'm being honest," one woman shot back. "We should be at the table."

And by the end of a two-hour debate, it was clear that residents wanted team officials to draw up another game plan for their neighborhood -- one that includes more community involvement.

Nearly 100 Hill District residents turned out to hear the Penguins present their development plans for the Lower Hill, a 28-acre plot of land surrounding the team's new Consol Energy Center. The Penguins, who own the rights to develop the land, have been drafting plans for the area since 2001. 

Back then, Williams told residents, the team envisioned demolishing the Mellon Arena and reconnecting the neighborhood's street grid to Downtown -- the way it was before the arena was built in the early 1960s. And in the Penguins' latest plans, "There is no remnant of the Mellon Arena," he said, pointing to a screen depicting architectural renderings created by Urban Design Associates. 

That announcement didn't raise any objections: Community representatives had emphasized in December that they wanted the arena gone. Nor did some of the Penguins' other tentative plans draw the ire of residents. 

Noting that the plans are subject to change, Williams announced that the team envisions building, among other things: nearly 1,200 housing units; more than 97,000 square feet of retail space; and a 150-room hotel. Altogether, he said, the development will create more than 4,200 jobs.

But when the meeting entered the question-and-answer session, community members sought to go beyond the numbers. Hill resident Kimberly Ellis began by noting that the Hill Planning Forum, a group of community stakeholders, had already developed a list of development principles -- including the desire to create more green space and build more mixed-income housing. How, she asked, will the Penguins include those community wishes in the team's final plan?

"The physical design principles are pretty much aligned," Williams answered, noting the Penguins' plans to demolish the arena. 

Added Don Carter, a consultant for Urban Design, "I don't think there is any disconnect" between the team and the community's wishes.

As the meeting progressed, however, it was clear that there was. Residents asserted that they wanted to be intimately involved in the development, and pressed Williams to promise residents that they would play a role in drafting the request for proposals (RFP) when the team is ready to find a developer.

"I don't think we will look for community input on the RFP," said Williams, adding that the Penguins don't want to "impose requirements" on developers during a recession. 

"[Developers] would want the community's involvement," countered Jason Matthews, a real-estate investor representing the Hill House Association.

In recent months, community members have grown increasingly concerned that their vision for the Hill may be ignored. The Hill District is currently developing a "master plan" that lays out design principles for the entire neighborhood, including the Lower Hill. Under the terms of a 2008 Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) between the team and the community, the plan is supposed to help guide the Penguins' plans for their 28 acres. But the team isn't required to heed its recommendations.

"The Penguins have agreed to consider the master plan as part of their plan for the Lower Hill," says Charnelle Hicks, president of CHPlanning, the Philadelphia-based firm chosen to develop the community's master plan. She says she hopes the team will use the plan to "inform" its RFP process.

Legally, the team can submit its final plan right now -- even before the master plan is complete. That's because the CBA required the community to finish its plan by February. But numerous delays in choosing a consultant made the deadline impossible to hit: Hicks doesn't anticipate having the master plan completed until the fall. 

Penguins officials have pledged that they will not submit a final plan for the Lower Hill until after the community's master plan is finished. (Team officials did not return calls for comment.) But residents who attended the March 11 meeting say they're skeptical. 

"I didn't have a feeling that the Penguins really wanted to embrace the Hill's master plan," says Mary Young, 67, a lifelong Hill resident. "I walked out of [the meeting] with anger boiling in me. 

"How can you do an RFP without the input of everyone involved?" she continues. "If they wanted to do it right, they would have a real collaboration with the Hill."

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