Imploding a stadium and a mentality

By Eric Miller
web posted February 19, 2001

Three RiversIt was strange to see the implosion of Three Rivers Stadium via a small one-and-a-half inch laptop video screen. I didn't feel joy or regret knowing the concrete monster was coming down beforehand, but having lived under its shadow for quite a few years of my life, the event caused a sense of sadness to come over me as I watched the replay provided via Yahoo News and a local TV station.

Don't get me wrong. As far as urban-planning and aesthetics go, Three Rivers was a disaster. The acres of parking lots took up most of Pittsburgh's North Shore. Highway ramps made it so suburban commuters could easily come in for a game and get out fast without participating in the rich community or contributing to the struggling economy of the North Side.

As a neighboring resident, noise from fireworks set off at the stadium sometimes lingered for days. Pittsburghers celebrate pre-games and post-games, even cleaning up the parking lot by setting off fireworks. Perhaps fittingly, they also celebrated Three Rivers implosion with fireworks.

But noise wasn't the only irritation the facility brought. I remember being irritated when game-goers parked their cars on the flower beds of the newly constructed North Shore River-walk. Others were perturbed when cars filled their residential streets during games. One neighbor even went as far as to put signs on autos that read "I paid $75 for a ticket, but I'm too cheap to spend $2 for a parking space."

And then there were the tailgaters who were not content to barbecue in the parking lot and decided to set up camp in a Victorian Park a few blocks away. My friend told me she was stunned to see a bonfire burning on the shores of a man-made lake in West Park. But being in Pittsburgh, its not always clear what suburban football fans can get away with that residents can't. "So I called the police and innocently asked if they were allowed to have fires in the park," my friend relayed to me. Luckily this was one intrusion on the neighborhood football fans were not permitted.

The promises made decades ago when Three Rivers was constructedŠ an economic resurgence for Pittsburgh and new life for the North Side, went up in smoke long before the recent explosions rocked the stadium. The same promises are being made for two new stadiums today.

There are however indications the new stadiums will be better.

While access to Three Rivers was limited to the automobile, a new rail line is being built to connect the new stadiums to downtown. New pedestrian walkways will also connect to the river walk. There will be stores, taverns and other amenities available nearby to attempt to keep sports goers hanging around and spending money in the city.

It will be easier to get there without a car. Fans living south of the city can travel the entire trip on light rail. Fans coming in from other suburbs can park in any lot downtown and walk to Three Rivers, passing stores and restaurants on the way‹or take the train from any of downtown's subway stops.

Three Rivers on the morning of February 11
Three Rivers on the morning of February 11

The problem with the new stadium is not with the design. The problem is the investment in the stadiums, financed by the taxpayers in the city of Pittsburgh, will primarily benefit regional and suburban residents. More, economists say the construction of sports facilities does not create economic growth as much as it redirects entertainment dollars that would have been spent elsewhere in the region anyway.

While its better to redirect the entertainment dollars into the city, its not better to direct public money away from the people who need it most and away from initiatives that could spur real long-term economic growth.

While Pittsburgh has many advantages and assets, its biggest problem right now won't be addresses by the construction of the stadiums. Pittsburgh's population is dwindling. The young population continues to leave and immigrants are not coming in to replace them.

More, while the stadiums may do a good job of getting tourists and suburbanites downtown, it is unlikely to have any positive impact, or any economic impact of the city's North Side, where many of its poorest residents live.

The light rail won't go beyond the North Shore and won't be of any use to North Side residents. More, without a transit connection into North Side neighborhoods, highways and a railroad overpass will continue to divide the prosperity of the North Shore from the reality of the North Side. The new facilities could even increase demand for parking in North Side neighborhoods and further encourage destruction of historic neighborhood homes for parking lots.

To experience real economic growth, a city must do just that-- grow. Ad growth isn't something that happens from the top down with a big plan for a major money machine. Cities with sustainable growth grow from the bottom up, by helping residents to start business, investing in creating the knowledge that will attract companies, ignite entrepreneurial spirit and add real value to the chain of production.

A city can grow by attracting immigrants from all economic classes and walks of life, creating a diverse cultural fabric. A city can grow by establishing industrial and technology incubators and investing in micro-enterprise. A city can grow by creating an environment conducive to business. A city can grow by repealing laws that prevent street-corner entrepreneurs and sidewalk sales and simply by welcoming new ideas.

Many groups in Pittsburgh are undoubtedly working to accomplish some of these things, but unfortunately they don't get the attention from the media, or the political force from officials to really make them work.

What really needs to implode is not Three Rivers, but the idea that there's a big economic stadium pill that can instantly cure all a city's woes.

Eric Miller lived in Pittsburgh from 1991 to 1998, now lives in San Francisco and is editor of

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