Our Igloo is Melting

Another day, another loss for backers of Igloo-reuse.

I've written before, somewhat casually, that I come down on the side of the Igloo/Civic Arena coming down, but I don't feel strongly about the point.  I think that the argument that the structure somehow obviously meets historic preservation critieria is overblown; I think that the argument that the political powers that be have the fix in for a no-historic-preservation designation likely has some merit.  That just smells right to me.  The Penguins have been promised the land, and the Penguins are going to get the land.  And no matter what is said today about wise and contextual future development, it is very, very easy to imagine a Cheesecake Factory on that spot.  But most of that is also, in a sense, beside the point. 

The interesting and relevant dialogue here is between people who argue that the Igloo should be saved because of what the building represents to Pittsburgh's history -- and more important -- to their own personal histories -- and people who argue that the Igloo should be saved and reused because of what the building represents to Pittsburgh's future. 

If I read Rob Pfaffmann right, he is mostly in that second camp, and that's the version of the Save the Igloo campaign that is attractive to me.  It isn't really Save the Igloo.  It's Reuse the Igloo.  Talk about developers waiting in the wings on both sides of the case should be discounted; the Planning Commission and Pittsburgh City Council face a choice between two unknowns:  What is the likelihood that Pittsburgh gets something great out of handing the land over to the Penguins, and what is the likelihood that Pittsburgh gets something great out of handing the land over to the preservationists?  Leaving the building alone isn't an option.  What kind of change does Pittsburgh want?  There are precedents and examples all around us.  Some old buildings were reused, and people cheered.  (Station Square, whose commercial success is still modest and has taken quite a long time to achieve).  Some old buildings came down, and nothing happened, and a lot of people are still angry and skeptical (Syria Mosque).  And Some old buildings came down and new uses went up, and people mostly cheered (Three Rivers Stadium came down; Heinz Field went up; train sheds came down, Gateway Center went up).  Which of these is the Igloo likely to be?  This isn't a lottery, and the odds of each outcome are not the same.  But everyone is playing an angle. 

The fact that the fate of the Igloo appears to grab the public's attention in Pittsburgh to a greater extent than a policy judgment that will affect far more people and have a bigger impact on the prosperity of the region -- looming cuts to Port Authority service (the link is to an op-ed by the ACCD's Ken Zapinski) -- tells us something about the community's cultural center of gravity.  A relatively modest number of Pittsburghers today look at the Igloo and see the glories of their youth (Beatles! Beach Boys! Elton John! Mario!); some see the mythical glories of a younger Pittsburgh.  I'm not in either group, but I hear their passions.  But I also hear the passions of other Pittsburghers, whose priorities are more tangible and whose fate has more to do with whether Pittsburgh's arguable revitalization sticks - or not.  That's the real reason that I don't get worked up about the prospect of the Igloo's being torn down.  A lot of ink has been spilled and bits bitten (what do you do with bits to parallel spilling ink?) about what the Igloo has or has not done to the Hill District.  Did the Igloo isolate a thriving middle class African-American community and contribute to its decline?  Was the Igloo a nonfactor?  Did it anchor a Lower Hill community that would have been worse off without it?  I don't know.  But it's hard to argue that Port Authority cuts -- whether necessary to the survival of the system, or not -- won't hurt the Pittsburgh communities that are least able to bear the burden of reduced access to public transit, and whose prospects matter more to the future of Pittsburgh than whether an aging steel collander is turned into an amphitheatre or a water park or something else.

(The post title is borrowed, with a wink and a nod, from John Kotter's "Our Iceberg is Melting," a little pop management book that is worth reading and thinking about.)


2 Responses to "Our Igloo is Melting"

Anonymous said... 3/23/2011 12:32 PM

why do you even ask a question like: "Did the Igloo isolate a thriving middle class African-American community and contribute to its decline?"
Of course it did and I would not doubt that the powers in charge at the time found no difficulty in erecting the arena and completely severing the lifeline, the artery, that kept the Hill thriving and prosperous.
The Igloo has served its purpose, it's time to move on and forward and stop living in the 1950's or Pittsburgh's gonna fade into mediocrity...if we don't make some serious changes and move into the 21st century we're as good as a ghost town, the Mayor needs to get off his childish ass and stop working for all of Pittsburgh, the 1950's version is dead as is the Igloo.

JRoth said... 4/07/2011 5:43 PM

For primarily community-driven* reasons, I'm fine with the demolition; saddened, but not upset. But, speaking as an architect and preservationist - one with no significant personal memories tied to the place - there is, in fact, no question that it qualifies under the letter of the City's preservation ordinance. Its structural design alone would suffice, but its part in the Renaissance and the history of local urban planning/renewal is also significant.

Indeed, the abdication by the Historic Review Commission has been the most upsetting (albeit unsurprising, alas) part of this whole saga. The way this is supposed to go is this:

1. The HRC reviews for significance; as I said, this is a no-brainer by the letter and spirit of the law, and you'd be hard-pressed to find an experienced preservationist to say otherwise (unless he were getting paid, of course).
2. The Planning Commission reviews for overall impact on the city's urban fabric; this could go either way, and is fundamentally the question you're wrestling with.
3. City Council votes based on what's best for the city as a whole. And here's where the veto should be happening, because Council is under no obligation to designate every significant building, nor to focus narrowly on issues of land use. If the Hill's psyche, the Penguins' balance sheet, and the ultimate health of that section of town require demolition, then so be it.

But the system doesn't work if each part doesn't do its job and focus on its mandate, because then each becomes a rubber stamp, simply voting with the powers that be and denying the public the process that they deserve, and that's written into law.

* ie, the Hill neighbors seem pretty intent on seeing it go down, and I can't fault them for that

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