A Civic Renewal

Pittsburgh-area architect Robert S. Pfaffmann lays down his plan for renewing the Mellon Arena.

The REUSE of the Civic (Mellon) Arena is my proposal for an alternate plan for the arena. Let’s imagine an extreme makeover that captures its original 1950s hipness and gives it a new meaning and new purpose.

First a little history: Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Pittsburgh was known for its industrial innovation. This often came at a cost in terms of destruction of our environment. In 1958, as part of the 200th anniversary of Pittsburgh, ground was broken for this icon of modern design and engineering. It was a symbol of our recovery with its innovative, movable domed roof showing off the clean air and skyline.

The Arena was designed as part of a visionary but misguided “Cultural Acropolis” akin to New York’s Lincoln Center, edged by then-trendy modern high-rise residential towers offering clean new housing with the promise of light, space and views. Of course, there is another side to the story: the failure of urban renewal that still haunts residents of the Hill District today.

The Vision: Keys to our future competitiveness will be about conservation, recycling and rebuilding green. So let’s imagine that the stainless-steel-clad Igloo could become a unique destination for visitors to learn of our innovative ways. It could become our answer to Chicago’s Millennium Park.

In order to visualize this transformation, imagine that we would remove most of the interior seating “bowl” and all of the nonstructural stuff of the old arena. Now, stripped to its structural elegance, we would have the ability to build new uses within it (imagine a hermit crab!) and still have room for the coolest park around with a roof that opens in good weather and closes in bad!

Imagine this circular park with lush landscape in summer and the recycled Pittsburgh Penguins’ rink in winter. It could have a small amphitheater next to the rink for jazz, Cirque du Soleil, Squonk Opera—all complementing the business for the new Arena across the street. Imagine a hip, job-creating “destination hotel,” retail, restaurants and a surrounding residential neighborhood with views every bit as dramatic as those from Mount Washington. A key feature would be a reconnected Wiley Avenue connecting downtown to the Hill once again.

This would not be an isolated place as it is today, but a truly “civic” space fully integrated with surrounding new development as a symbol befitting Pittsburgh’s rebirth as a place of innovation and a monument to remember Pittsburgh 250th-birthday observance.

To learn more about this proposal, look up “Reuse the Igloo” on Facebook groups, and to participate in the upcoming master planning process for the Lower Hill, go to hillhouse.org/communityevents.php.

Robert S. Pfaffmann, AIA, is an architect and planner who is principal of Pfaffmann + Associates. He is known for a wide range of award-winning architecture and urban-design projects in Pittsburgh. His firm’s work in Pittsburgh follows, by 100 years, the work of his great-great-grandfather Daniel Burnham, who was architect of many iconic structures, including the Frick Building and Pennsylvania Station.
Prominent award-winning projects include Meadowcroft Rockshelter, Homewood and Hill District branches of Carnegie Library and Alcoa’s Business Service Center. Green design projects include the Carnegie Mellon Café, Powdermill Nature Reserve and the recently completed East Liberty “Prototype Houses.” Rob is currently working on reuse plans for the Garden Theater on the North Side.