Pittsburgh’s latest central planning failure

Pittsburgh’s latest central planning failure

The Pittsburgh Civic Arena was demolished in 2011. Twelve years later, there’s been woefully little redevelopment on the vast tract. It’s what you get when government gives “Favored Development Status” to one party and then allows others to hold redevelopment hostage to their whims.

You’ll recall how the Pittsburgh Penguins were guaranteed a giant bolus of taxpayer money – gambling money – to build a new hockey arena. Additionally, the very wealthy franchise was handed development rights to the 28-acre former Civic Arena site.

Gee, what could go wrong?

The government’s hand-picked developer then went about figuring out what to do with the site. With plenty of government oversight. And plenty of machinations from “stakeholders” looking to make right the urban redevelopment mess that was made of the Hill District in the 1950s and 1960s.

About the only tangible sign of new development is the beginning of construction of FNB Bank giant’s new 26-story skyscraper. Lest we forget, there’s about $10 million of even more public money in the project.

The rest of the site has been tangled up in regulatory and “stakeholder” nonsense for years. We won’t recount all the issues but they do raise nit-picking (by planning oversight types) and wealth-transference bordering on extortion (by community groups) to new heights.

One of the latest hurdles involves the city Planning Commission criticizing the fact that a proposed parking garage at a proposed entertainment venue resembled – GASP! – a parking garage.

And just this week, this transpired, the lay of the land, so to speak, set up in a Post-Gazette story:

“More than six decades after it was forced off the land, Bethel AME Church could return to the former Civic Arena site as part of a proposed deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“The Rev. Dale B. Snyder, pastor of the Hill District church, said Wednesday that he hopes to finalize a memorandum of understanding with the team that would give Bethel AME the opportunity to develop up to 1.5 acres on the site.

“’I think we’re close to an agreement. It’s just that we have to work out all of the details,’ he said.

“For more than a year, Rev. Snyder has been pushing the Penguins to return to the church the land it stood on from 1906 to 1957 before it was demolished to make way for the Civic Arena.

“The Penguins balked, saying the property involved was partly beneath rebuilt Logan Street and partly beneath land that is designated for open space.

“Under the deal being discussed, the Penguins have offered Bethel AME an alternative site of 1.5 acres at Wylie Avenue and Crawford Street – much larger than the original 13,100-square-foot church property.

“While it’s a different site than that occupied by the original church, it does give the church a bigger footprint – about five times larger than the old Bethel AME property, Rev. Snyder said.”

Of course, there are a few questions here.

The church’s original site was acquired through eminent domain in the late 1950s and demolished to make way for the Civic Arena. We’re assuming the church was compensated, given that’s how government invoking eminent domain works.

Will the church pay for the new site? Or will, by proxy, tax dollars be laundered into the process to cover those costs through some direct government subsidy or a pass-through subsidy by government through the Penguins?

All the details still must be worked out. Translation: Hold on to your wallets.

The simple fact of the macro matter remains this:

The Penguins (as with the Pirates and Steelers before them) should not have been given public land from which to pad their already handsome private profits.

The old Civic Arena site should have been parceled and those parcels gone out to public bid to the highest bidders. The marketplace should have been allowed to work its magic.

Had it, this land would have been developed long ago and fully back on the tax rolls in the most productive and most market-efficient manner possible.

Instead, we have yet another textbook case of central planning failure. And the continuing failure of public officials to even pick up the textbook.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).