The historic Black Church can return to Lower Hill

The Pittsburgh Penguins have tentatively agreed to return part of the Lower Hill District to Bethel AME Church, whose original home was demolished in the 1950s to make way for the Civic Arena.

There is movement toward a deal between the Penguins and Bethel AME as Lower Hill’s slow-moving redevelopment nears a milestone: the potential sale by public entities of a parcel of land that would house a Live Nation concert venue. This prospective sale will spur public processes beginning with a meeting tonight where the development team is expected to present their vision to a community that has mixed feelings about progress to date.

Bethel AME Pastor Dale Snyder wrote in a Sept. 30 email to scores of people that the church and the hockey club development team had agreed:

  • The Church will have the ability to return to Lower Hill from its current location in Middle Hill, although not necessarily to its exact previous location
  • The former location is at least remembered with historical markings
  • The Church will own its new property and will have development rights
  • Details should be worked out at the end of October.

Founded in 1808, Bethel AME Church served as a community and center for learning and community engagement until the 1950s.

The church was demolished in 1957 by the City Redevelopment Board [URA]who took it with eminent domain. Since then, the Bethel AME community has sought justice, possibly in the form of land or development rights.

The current building of Bethel AME Church on Webster Avenue in Pittsburgh. Bethel began worship in this building in 1959. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

According to Penguins president of operations Kevin Acklin, during a recent meeting, the hockey club and the church reached an agreement to return an unspecified piece of property to the church. According to the city’s spokeswoman, Maria Montaño, the meeting was convened by the mayor’s office.

According to Rev. Snyder’s email, if the historic site of what he called “Old Big Bethel” is not available, the church will move to a site within Lower Hill that is the same size as the original floor plan the church has.

“We troubled heaven, worked our faith, and God heard our prayers,” he wrote.

“We have an historic opportunity to join forces with the Bethel AME Church to do something great in Lower Hill development,” Acklin wrote in an email to PublicSource. “And we appreciate the leadership of Mayor Ed Gainey and Chief of Staff Jake Wheatley. We are still working on details together, but expect a final plan to be finalized in the coming weeks.”

Acklin noted that the Penguins “have been working in good faith with members of the Bethel AME Church for nearly two years, and we believe we now have a way forward. While the demolition of Bethel AME Church occurred approximately a decade before the Penguins were formed, we look forward to working with church members and city leaders to collectively pursue a restorative development project on Lower Hill.”

Carl Redwood, chair of the Hill District Consensus Group, welcomed the news but said he was suspicious of the penguins’ motivation.

“The penguins want something,” he speculated.

“It’s good when it happens, but the Penguins and their team have made promises before and not kept them,” Redwood continued. “They tend to make promises to groups that they need, and once they get what they need, they don’t deliver on the promise.”

Moves towards advancement

The Penguins are collaborating with Delaware-based developer Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] to develop the 28-acre hilltop land that once housed the Civic Arena. Discussions between the team and neighborhood leadership, seeking to spread development benefits throughout the hill, have been contentious since at least 2007.

Approximately 3 acres is being developed as the new headquarters of First National Bank. The rest is controlled by the URA and the Sports & Exhibition Authority [SEA]. The boards of both agencies must approve all transfers of packages to the Penguins and BPG.

Penguins-chosen developers, Buccini/Pollin Group, have built about a third of First National Bank’s new headquarters on Lower Hill, seen here October 14, 2022. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

On Thursday, URA officials told the SEA board to prepare for a November briefing and December vote on the next steps in the redevelopment of Lower Hill, flanking those of Wylie Avenue, Logan Street, Bedford Avenue and Fullerton Street block will affect.

Tonight at 6 p.m., the city will host a development activities meeting via Zoom on the Penguins’ plans to develop a Live Nation venue there. Such meetings typically occur as developers prepare to submit proposals to public bodies such as the URA and SEA boards and the City Planning Commission.

Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of Hill Community Development Corp., said she hopes these public entities will make any transfer of land conditional on development team approval:

  • Devote a stream of private sector revenue—rather than just diverting taxpayer dollars—to community development, perhaps via a $2 surcharge for parking and tickets at the Live Nation venue and attached 908-space parking garage
  • Bring a proposed Black Business Incubator back to the Wylie side of the block and give it prominent window space instead of putting it on Logan and giving it a small street presence
  • Officially include a 2014 pact called Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan [CCIP] to the site’s formal development plan, which could condition future development permits on progress toward CCIP goals.

“There’s not a lot of community reinvestment” in the current development funding plan, Milliones said, aside from diverting funds that would otherwise go to tax authorities but are instead split between the development and neighborhood projects. She said she raised the surcharge concept – which is being considered in the CCIP – with Live Nation and the development team.

Questions that PublicSource asked the development team on Friday were not answered.

The CCIP, signed by neighborhood leadership, government and the team, outlines seven areas of collaboration:

  • Involving minority and women-owned businesses
  • Creation of jobs for local residents
  • home ownership efforts
  • Wealth creation initiatives
  • Preservation of the cultural heritage of the community
  • Coordinated development of the community
  • tracking progress.

Implementation of the plan will be led by an Executive Management Committee, which held its first public meeting in December.

The CCIP makes no mention of Bethel AME.

Millions said there was no reason the development team couldn’t comply with the CCIP while restoring Bethel AME. “It’s not an either/or situation.”

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

Rich Lord is the managing editor of PublicSource. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @richelord.

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