Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: May 2021

The Lower Hill is a notorious site in Pittsburgh, a scar on the city from the height of Urban Renewal. A vibrant (but poor and predominately Black) neighborhood was demolished in the 1950s so the City could build a cultural mecca centered on a Civic Arena, most of which ended up not being built and was left as parking lots.

Now that the arena has been demolished and replaced adjacent to the former location, the Penguins hockey team has the development rights to rebuild the Lower Hill, stitching back together the fabric of the city and reconnecting the remainder of the Hill District neighborhoods with downtown.

However, grand language describing the wonderful benefits to a city are part and parcel of any major development project, including the 1950’s Urban Renewal of the Lower Hill. Fifty years later, the Urban Renewal of the Lower Hill is rarely, if ever described as a good thing. In fact the current redevelopment is sometimes described as undoing the mistakes of that project. However, can the negative financial, social, and emotional repercussions of the original demolition and decades of disconnect be undone simply by reinstating (most of) the former street grid?

This blog post is part of an on-going photographic series to watch the redevelopment of the Lower Hill. Periodically, approximately once every six months, I return to the site to take new photographs. In addition, I include links to articles about the project that I’ve encountered since the previous post in the series. At the end of the post, there are links to all the previous posts in the series.

Lower Hill in the News:

A deep look at the Penguins development in anticipation of ground breaking later this year (January 13, 2021, The Undefeated)

Is the project moving too fast to make sure it is done right for the community? (March 15, 2021, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Community questions if the first building is being rushed at the community’s expense (March 16, 2021, WESA)

Pittsburgh’s Equal Opportunity Commission approved the Penguins’ MWBE participation plan (March 18, 2021, Pittsburgh Business Times)

Penguins updated the community on progress of MWBE inclusion as ground breaking approaches (April 1, 2021, Pittsburgh Business Times)

The census line is moved to undo the Urban Renewal inclusion of the Lower Hill in the downtown census tract, but will this divert needed funds from the rest of the Hill District? (April 7, 2021, Public Source)

A major Black church was demolished as part of Urban Renewal while a nearby White church was saved from the wrecking ball, are reparations now possible? (April 14, 2021, Public Source)

Penguins propose a $5 million Opportunity Zone fund (April 16, 2021, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The final plan presented to Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission for the new FNB Tower proposes not finishing the last block to reconnect Wylie Ave to downtown. This is a change from the guiding redevelopment plan and technically requires an amendment that the developer says will take too long. (April 20, 2021, Pittsburgh Business Times)

Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Dec. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jun. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jan. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

The Igloo

For this year’s Architectural Dessert Masterpiece, I chose Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena for the subject mostly because of the pandemic. The travel restrictions of 2020 prevented me from finding an inspiring building while exploring a new place. The social distancing requirements meant that whatever I made I would have to eat myself. Earlier in the year, I found a granola bar recipe that actually sticks together, which inspired me to take another foray into domes. As December drew near and I put together the conditions of a single-serve dessert with a dome that had some relationship to the themes of the year, the Civic Arena was the obvious choice.

The result was a single-serve cake topped with a granola bar dome and frosted with cream cheese to keep the sugar content down. Once frosted it looked to me more like an igloo than the Civic Arena, but fortunately, the building’s nickname was the Igloo. So, it all worked out in the end.

Whether it will all work out in the end and for who are still open questions for the site of the Civic Arena. The Arena opened in 1961 as the central feature of the redevelopment of the Lower Hill neighborhood that had been deemed “blighted” and in need of “revitalization.” Intended as a cultural mecca housing the Pittsburgh opera company, hockey, and other uses under a retractable roof, it rarely lived up to its promises. In the end, it was surrounded by a sea of parking lots instead of a cultural park, the roof rarely opened, and the opera quickly found a different home more conducive to using sets that need support from the ceiling. For a time, the building did find success as a hockey arena and concert venue until it was deemed obsolete and a new arena was built. The Civic Arena was demolished 50 years after opening, paving the way for a new redevelopment of the Lower Hill to “revitalize” the area.

Architectural historian Franklin Toker describes the first redevelopment of the Lower Hill in his 1986 book Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait:

The reconstruction of the Lower Hill began in 1955 with $17 million in federal grants. In an area of 100 acres, 1,300 buildings housing 413 businesses and 8,000 residents (a majority of them black) were displaced in an attempt to extend the revitalization of the adjacent Golden Triangle. Even were one to overlook the devastating social impact of the Lower Hill redevelopment, its success could only be judged as minor. The new complex failed to graft on to the Golden Triangle because of the intrusion of the Crosstown Expressway and the misalignment of the street grids of the Golden Triangle and The Hill. Some bad luck also dogged the Lower Hill redevelopment, particularly the bankruptcy of William Zeckendorf, one of its major supporters, and the decision by the Heinz foundations to locate their new concert hall in the Triangle rather than on The Hill. But the major cause of its failure was the animosity between the developers and the black community. When that animosity boiled over as part of the nationwide racial riots of 1968, Pittsburgh’s dream of a cultural Acropolis on the Lower Hill ended. (234)

The second redevelopment started with restoring the street grid and building a CAP over the Crosstown Expressway. While it is easy to rebuild the roads, it will take a lot more to rebuild what was once “The Crossroads of the World” as the intersection of Wylie Ave and Fullerton Street was known prior to the first redevelopment, according to Mark Whittaker in Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance.

My series of posts Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill is following the progress of this second redevelopment.

Want to see how my Architectural Dessert Masterpiece compares with the submissions in Pittsburgh’s 18th Annual Gingerbread Competition? Click here.

Previous Architectural Dessert Masterpieces:
Flying Cashews (Built December 2019)
Building the Bridge (Built December 2014)
Reaching for the Heights (Built December 2013)
Conquering the Dome (Built December 2012)
Gingerbread Blue Mosque (Built December 2011)
Parthenon Cake (Built December 2010)

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Dec. 2020

Lower Hill in the News:

URA board votes in favor of FNB Tower (Pittsburgh Business Times, May 21, 2020)

FNB tower will be among first post-pandemic buildings (Pittsburgh Business Times, May 22, 2020)

The Penguins and FNB Corp provide funds for tech center in the Hill District (Pittsburgh Business Times, August 27, 2020)

FNB and Penguins establish partnership (Pittsburgh Business Times, September 10, 2020)

Funding secured for FNB tower in Lower Hill (Pittsburgh Business Times, October 8, 2020)

Penguins miss deadline; URA considering next moves (Pittsburgh Business Times, November 12, 2020)

Lower Hill commercial redeveloper, Mayor Peduto, and Councilman Lavelle announce partnership (Mayor’s Press Release, November 19, 2020)

New Lower Hill partnership could move project forward (Public Source, November 19, 2020)

Lower Hill redeveloper establishes downtown office and announces local firms and personnel added to team (Pittsburgh Business Times, November 19, 2020)

Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jun. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jan. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jun. 2020

Lower Hill in the News:

Mayor’s Press Release (May 5, 2020)

Penguins Stop Development (Public Source, May 14, 2020)

Penguins Pull Out (Trib, May 14, 2020)

Penguins Back Out (WPXI, May 15, 2020)

Penguins Cease Redevelopment (Patch, May 15, 2020)

Penguins Halt Lower Hill Development (WESA, May 18, 2020)

Mayor’s Press Release (May 20, 2020)

Mayor Urges URA to Approve Development (Trib, May 20, 2020)

URA Explanation of Community Benefits

URA Board Votes to Move Lower Hill Development Forward (May 21, 2020)

URA Board Approves Development Project (WPXI, May 21, 2020)

Never Mind, Penguins Back In (WTAE, May 21, 2020)

President Trump Tweets about BRT Grant Award (May 29, 2020)

Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jan. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jan. 2020

Lower Hill Redevelopment in the news:

October 8, 2019, Post-Gazette: Lacing the skates: Former Civic Arena redevelopment may be ready to roll

October 9, 2019, Post-Gazette: First wave of ex-Civic Arena site redevelopment would add garage, music and maybe money for Hill projects

October 10, 2019, KDKA: Urban Redevelopment Authority To Vote On Civic Arena Site Plans

October 10, 2019, Tribune-Review: Pittsburgh redevelopment authority postpones vote on construction at Civic Arena site

October 18, 2019, Tribune-Review: Pittsburgh authority gives preliminary OK for development of former Civic Arena site

October 18, 2019, WESA: URA Vote Sets the Stage for Lower Hill Development in Spring 2020

October 18, 2019, WPXI: City board green lights former Civic Arena site redevelopment

October 21, 2019, Arena Digest: Civic Arena Redevelopment Plan Moves Forward

Lower Hill Redevelopment project sites:

Lower Hill Redevelopment

Sports and Exhibition Authority

Urban Redevelopment Authority