Monday, May 17, 2010

Mellon Arena--Keep it or Kill it?

     I have had great memories of Mellon Arena during my lifetime.  I've seen numerous Penguin hockey games, indoor soccer games with the Pittsburgh Spirit and Stingers, I had season tickets for the Pittsburgh Gladiators Arena football team and saw the league's first Arena Bowl. I will also admit to being one of the few people who can say they watched indoor lacrosse with both the Pittsburgh Bulls and Crossefire.  Although I cross the line at indoor roller hockey with the Phantoms.   My high school graduation was held there, I witnessed the Allderdice boys and girls hoops teams win City Championships in that building.  I saw my favorite band Chicago play at the Arena and they opened the roof that night. Along with the Three Rivers, the US Steel Building and the Fountain at Point State Park,  Mellon Arena is one of the enduring icons of the city of Pittsburgh.
     But the days of the Igloo, as it is fondly referred to by generations of Pittsburghers are numbered.  With the Penguins' unceremonious exit from this season's Stanley Cup playoffs,  the arena will no longer be resonating with the chant "Let's Go Pens" from 18,000 screaming fans.  There are only two more events on the arena's schedule and then the lights go out.
     But there is a stirring debate as to whether the officials of the City of Pittsburgh, which owns the arena, should tear it down as the leadership of the Penguins desires or should it be reused for a different function.  The Penguins would like to tear the structure down and use the land to create a mixed use residential and retail area with shops, homes, hotels and so on as well as more parking for the Consol Energy Center which will replace Mellon Arena in September of this year as the home of the Penguins as well as the major concert venue for the Pittsburgh region.  There are also many people who think that the arena represents a link to a past that is no longer relevant to Pittsburgh and should be done away with as the city and region look forward to the future.  Also, the history of the arena is marked with the controversial leveling of a major part of the Hill District in order to build the facility, which 50 years on, still raises the hackles of many long time Hill residents. 
    My personal opinion is that the Arena should be saved and repurposed for a new function.  I believe that the unique and iconic design of the arena is too important to lose and to re-use it shows that in this age of disposability, there is a place for the older classic structures given a new lease on life.  It's easy to tear something down.  But wouldn't it be nice to see the leadership of the city of Pittsburgh show some "out of the box" thinking for once, and find a use for this structure instead of just tearing it down and replacing it with yet another look-alike grid complex of chain stores and entertainment outlets and acres of boring nondescript parking lots.  I'm not against those uses, but can't we find a way to integrate the two ideas together?  With the brainpower produced by the universities in this town, we can't find enough smart people who can make this happen instead of taking the easy way out and swinging the wrecking ball?
    I would like to see the seating bowls removed and replaced with a complex of retail outlets and hotel space which is always at a premium in Downtown Pittsburgh. The area of the complex where the ice rink is now can be made into a green space with trees and benches and places where outdoor vendors can sell their wares. The roof can restored to working status and opened and closed to provide sun for the central green space during the summer months.  There have been many ideas floated, but this one seems to be the most practical.  I haven't run the numbers, but I'm sure that the cost of retaining and repurposing the arena can't be much more than the cost of tearing it down.
   I just want to see some different thinking towards this situation.  And no disrespect to the Consol Energy Center.  I know that the new building will have everything the Penguins want in a facility.  More seating, new and improved lighting and HVAC, the ability to host bigger and more complex concerts and events than the Igloo, and most importantly, those big-time luxury boxes that the Pens can use to better compete in the NHL.     
   But personally,  the Consol Energy Center has all the spice and excitement of a Velveeta sandwich on white bread with a glass of warm skim milk.  It looks like any of the dozens of sports arenas that have popped up in other cities over the last 20 years. It's a big box with a lot of glass, but other than that, it's totally forgettable.  You could plug the Consol Center in any other city and the residents probably wouldn't know the difference between that building and the arena currently in that town. .  With all it's limitations, at least the Mellon Arena has character.  It was built when sports arenas were allowed to have quirks and unique features that set them apart from each other.  Boston Garden,  Montreal Forum, Chicago Stadium, the Aud in Buffalo.  They were cramped, not very comfortable, the upper seating bowls were pitched at impossible angles that made climbing up them borderline dangerous. Support columns that sometimes got in the way of watching the play on the floor.  But they were classic old barns with tons of memories for the fans who used to watch their favorite teams play there.   I doubt that those same fans can say that they have those same memories about their new sterile, look-alike digs.
     I would hope that the decision makers on this issue would do the right thing and find a way retain Mellon Arena and give it a new purpose.  The Pittsburgh landscape would not be the same without it. 

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