Casino developer Barden gets an earful about traffic
Steelers call North Shore casino 'potential disaster'

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

By Ed Blazina, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If anyone knows traffic and the problems it can create, it's the Steelers.

That's why there may have been some irony yesterday when officials of the football team complained to the Pittsburgh Planning Commission about the potential for traffic problems generated on the North Shore by PITG Gaming's proposed slots casino.

The Steelers, Pirates and Carnegie Science Center were among the casino's neighbors who raised concerns about traffic at a public hearing on developer Don Barden's master plan for the $430 million Majestic Star casino. It will be built on 13 acres along the North Shore between the science center and West End Bridge.

The master plan is a general concept for the project and once it is approved the developer will move ahead with more specific details. The commission urged Mr. Barden to work with neighbors on traffic concerns and try to reach consensus before the project returns to the commission May 1.

Mark Hart, director of business for the Steelers, said the team is concerned that Mr. Barden doesn't "recognize the urgency and potential disaster" that could occur on the North Shore if the casino doesn't handle traffic correctly. He acknowledged that on Steelers game days, traffic is "very difficult to manage, even at its best" and noted the team closes off some streets and reverses traffic on others to accommodate it.

"I would say the North Shore works for events, but it barely works," Mr. Hart said. "[Traffic] is a concern for everyone who is on the site and everyone who uses the site."

He noted that the casino's estimate of 10 million visitors a year is about three times the number who attend sporting events. The casino could cause "a total mess" if it doesn't properly deal with traffic, he said.

Barry Ford of Continental Development, which has led the construction of two office buildings and has several other projects pending on land between Heinz Field and PNC Park, concurred.

"If we don't get this traffic and parking right, this project I'm working on will fall apart," he said. "It's critical for all of us."

Director Joanna Haas said the science center has been generally supportive of the casino project but officials haven't seen updated traffic plans for more than a year. The center uses roads for school buses and other groups that the casino also plans to use for primary access.

"We don't want to see casino traffic put us out of business," she said.

John DeSantis, former president of the Allegheny West Civic Council, has long been a critic of the Steelers because of problems that rowdy fans cause in his neighborhood on game days. He expressed confidence that development of the casino will help address those concerns.

"I throw the challenge to [the Steelers] to be as committed to this" attempt to fix traffic problems as they were to building a new stadium, Mr. DeSantis said. "They will finally address their concerns. Our biggest problem, Heinz Field, finally will be addressed."

Before the neighbors criticized traffic plans, Mr. Barden and his development team said its location near the West End Bridge mitigated many potential traffic concerns. In fact, he said he would make the casino's 3,800-space parking garage available for Steelers fans on game days.

He said primary access to the site will be from the bridge by way of Reedsdale Street.

After hearing the concerns, Mr. Barden said he was willing to work with neighbors and a new design task force set up by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

He said he already has meetings scheduled with the Steelers and science center.

"We can't solve problems that were here before we got here," Mr. Barden said. "We want to do our share and we want to cooperate, but we can't resolve all of the problems.

"We are building enough parking to serve our business. Some of the stakeholders have to do the same for themselves."

After the meeting, Mr. Barden was reluctant to answer questions about traffic concerns. He said he doesn't expect those concerns to hold up his ambitious schedule to open the casino next summer.

"Overall, at the end of the day, we'll work it out," he said. "It's a typical planning process."

Well I'm sure the tailgaters will be up in arms. My concern is the development between the stadiums, I hope the casino doesn't screw it up.