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Paying for dreams: Any viable save-the-arena plan needs an investor

Written by Susan Mannella on .

The Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority has set aside most of its Aug. 23 meeting to take public comments about the future of the former Civic Arena, but those who choose to testify should keep one simple fact in mind: Any preservation plan is going to cost a lot of money.

There has been no shortage of ideas for how to transform the arena for future use, some bordering on plausible but many far from it. Pittsburghers have suggested it become a home to Carnegie Mellon University's robotics research center, a year-round water park, an indoor amusement park, a produce market, an urban greenhouse, a regional transit center, an enclosed mall with shopping and housing, a museum.

A more thought-out plan has been offered by Downtown architect Rob Pfaffmann, who is leading the Reuse the Igloo movement and would like to see the steel dome opened to shield a community ice skating rink surrounded by restaurants, retail, a hotel and a small amphitheater.

The common problem shared by proponents of preserving the arena is that they have not attracted a developer interested in putting forward money to make the dreams a reality. And leaving the abandoned arena in place while wishing and hoping that will occur would be expensive.

Since the Pittsburgh Penguins, the major tenant, moved across the street to the new Consol Energy Center, the SEA now is on the hook for monthly maintenance costs, which are estimated to be at least $76,362 and possibly as much as $122,244. In an era when state, county and city governments can't adequately fund road maintenance and bridge repairs, is it wise to throw that kind of money away every month?

The Penguins plan to raze the arena and redevelop the 28-acre site, including the upper and lower parking lots, into a mix of office, residential and retail uses. The idea has significant political backing that such a project needs, with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Executive Dan Onorato both on board.

The state Bureau for Historic Preservation has urged the SEA to delay any demolition to give those favoring preservation more time to develop alternatives. With the deal to build Consol Energy Center sealed in March 2007, we think they have had plenty of time.

The SEA should proceed with caution, but it shouldn't throw good money after bad by delaying its decision for too long.

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