The More Things Change…Penguins’ 2013 Plan for the Lower Hill Brings Shades of the 1950s

I was working my way through the Sports and Exhibition Authority’s TIGER application(Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) to the Department of Transportation  with the idea of posting responses to it in pieces (it’s a 30 pp application with hundreds of pages of supporting docs) and then making my comment to the Southwestern PA Planning Commission in advance of the September 11th deadline, but, thanks to a brief conversation with Rep. Wheatley, I learn that as of this afternoon the application has not received support from the Department of Transportation. Looking at the criteria for TIGER grants being centered around innovative transportation solutions, I am actually not sure building infrastructure for the Lower Hill would ever have been a good fit.  Still, I do think there are some comments worth making about this application. The application provides insight and supporting documents for the arguments that were and probably will continue to be made to justify further public investment in the private economic success of the Pittsburgh Penguins and their owners, Mr. Ron Burkle and Mr. Mario Lemieux.

The TIGER application includes 14 or so support letters from authors such as Senator Casey, Rep. Doyle, Pittsburgh Water and Sewage Authority, Port Authority Transit, the Hill District Development Corporation, and Councilman Daniel Lavelle and most talk of the injustice and error that was made in the removal of thousands of African American residents and hundreds of businesses in the 1950’s and 60’s. Many of the letters go on to say that a chief reason that this development must happen is to reconnect the Hill District to downtown and right the wrongs of the past. However, in many ways this development reads as a finishing of the job, so to speak, of the project begun in the 1950’s the so-called Renaissance I.  Yes, the Hill  to downtown, but who will the residents be? Who will businesses serve? What will the cultural life look like?

The Lower Hill residents and business that were removed in the 1950s Renaissance I era were predominantly African American and working/middle class, the research titled Mellon Arena Redevelopment Strategy-Economic and Fiscal Impact in February of 2010 by Economic Research Associates, an AECOM company, (ERA) poses that of the 1191 units that will be built in the Lower Hill Development 30%, or 356 units,  will be for sale and of these 356 for sale units, 80% or 285 units will be “market rate”. What’s market rate according to the ERA analysis? $375,000. Cha-ching! And the rental rates do not present a better picture. 835 units will be rental and 80% of these, or 668 units, will be “market rate” costing on average $1500 per month. In a city with some of the worst racial disparities in the country, how does this kind of housing market in the Lower Hill District address what happened on the same land 50 years or so ago? Wasn’t the plan at that time to essentially remove the African American folks living and doing business there and replace them with a cultural district that would serve a predominantly white and middle/upper class population? Okay, so the first step of removing African American working and middle class residents was clearly accomplished, but the city fathers couldn’t pull off step two and just managed the Civic Arena and parking lots. 50 years later in the Lower Hill we have a brand new hockey arena (is there a more stereotypically non-African American sport than hockey?) and a plan to build one of the more expensive housing markets in the city. Combine this with the fact that as of now there is no enforceable agreement or commitment that this development will benefit the Middle and Upper Hill District and it seems fairly obvious that 50 years later the city is just finally getting to step 2. While using public dollars for this objective is problematic enough what really is disturbing is the  way so many of this proposal’s backers invoked the Hill District’s history as a location of African American exploitation as though this development was in any way dreamed up as a way of remediating those injustices.

2 thoughts on “The More Things Change…Penguins’ 2013 Plan for the Lower Hill Brings Shades of the 1950s

  1. Phyllis Ghafoor

    So — having received the same news that the Penguins organization was not even in the running for TIGER funds this round, it makes me wonder what efforts Lobbying, begging, offering up a first born child) were made to truly sell the proposal package, and what efforts will be made to market it to the greater world. Hmmm. Stay tuned.

    Phyllis Ghafoor

  2. Justin Post author

    Thanks, Phyllis, and sorry we couldn’t finish convo last night Hill CDC mtg. As Councilman Lavelle said last evening the proposal was not the Penguins’ but the Sports & Exhibition Authority’s, but why do you say they weren’t really in the running?


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