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A Black Vision for Development, in the Birthplace of Urban Renewal

Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District was razed by the federal government 65 years ago. Now developers are testing the question of how to correct for a racist past.

Some 65 years ago in Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District, 1,300 buildings were razed, displacing thousands of Black, Jewish, Italian and Eastern European families under a “slum clearance” mandate. It was the first federal program in the U.S. to engage in urban renewal, the now-notorious term for demolishing neighborhoods that officials considered blighted.

Now, a new $230 million project approved this month by local government authorities to redevelop the neighborhood puts Black people in the driver’s seat of the Hill District’s remaking. It’s a test of the nagging question: Can racist urban redevelopment practices of the past ever be corrected with more urban redevelopment?

For years in Pittsburgh that answer was an emphatic “no”: Black families who were pushed into the adjacent Middle and Upper Hill District neighborhoods resisted subsequent attempts to redevelop the neighborhood, fearing more displacement. After the Civic Arena entertainment and sports stadium was built in 1961, Black Hill residents erected a billboard that read: “NO Redevelopment Beyond This Point.”

But the project passed this month by local authorities has mostly been welcomed. It is led by a team of Black developers and investors and has the support of virtually every Black elected official connected to the land in question. 

In fact, the current plans are being touted as a catalyst for economic revitalization of the greater Hill District, an area that prosperity ignored after the early urban renewal debacle. The project calls for a 26-story, 437,000 square-foot commercial office tower, anchored by a new headquarters for First National Bank, with an additional 35,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. It will be surrounded by a $4 million green space for leisure, community activities and kiosks situated throughout for small business interactions.

The 1.5-acre site is just the kickoff to a broader $1 billion redevelopment plan for the rest of the 28-acre Lower Hill District tract, which has sat barren for the last 10 years, save for overgrown weeds and unused parking spaces — a remnant of the former Civic Arena. Having outlived its purpose, and serving too long as a painful reminder to Hill residents of what was deleted, the Arena was abandoned by the NHL’s Penguins team in 2010 and the building was demolished a year later.The first parcel of the new construction will, in many ways, set the tone for how development commences across the rest of the Lower Hill, and for how benefits will flow to the families and business owners in the neighboring Middle and Upper Hill districts. The overall tenor is that the office tower, called the FNB Corp. Financial Center, could do the trick — or at least start the trick.