How the Penguins and many allies – but not the Hill District’s lead advocates – moved a key border, in 6 not-so-easy steps

View from February 2021 of Downtown Pittsburgh, the emerging Cap Park and part of the site of the former Civic Arena, where the Penguins are leading a redevelopment effort. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

by Rich Lord

A change to an obscure boundary that may benefit the Penguins’ Hill District development hopes crossed procedural lines with important assists from the United Steelworkers union and others, but not from a neighborhood group that fears a resulting loss in federal funds.

The Census Bureau, in February, placed the former Civic Arena site in the same tract as part of the Hill District, rather than its prior affiliation with Downtown. That could open up the 28-acre site to private funds lured by the federal Opportunity Zone program, which allows capital gains tax breaks on investments in 8,760 designated tracts  — including the Hill’s — nationwide.

The shift occurred without input from the Hill Community Development Corp., which is concerned that it could ultimately jeopardize neighborhood access to other resources — like federal Community Development Block Grant dollars — that are awarded based on the economic conditions in tracts. If higher-income residents move into the arena site, Hill CDC leaders worry, the area may no longer qualify for important aid streams.

PublicSource filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Census Bureau in an effort to trace the circumstances of the tract change.

Tract boundaries are meant to help to recognize changes in local circumstances, and also affect the flow of federal funds. Documents provided by the Census Bureau, and subsequent interviews, show a twisted path to the line change, including missed deadlines, a meeting in the White House and guidance from the top of the bureau’s hierarchy, culminating in a bureaucratic change that could affect the Hill for years to come.

“It will attract investment to the Hill District,” said Penguins Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kevin Acklin. “You can put that Opportunity Zone money to work to invest in affordable housing and small businesses,” and any risk of gentrification can be controlled by the community and local government because much of the land is publicly owned, he said.

Hill CDC President and CEO Marimba Milliones did not respond to requests for comment.

Here’s how the bid to make the arena site an Opportunity Zone was won.

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How the Penguins and many allies – but not the Hill District’s lead advocates – moved a key border, in 6 not-so-easy steps

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