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Bill would limit historic status designation

By Andrew Conte
Monday, November 25, 2002

The public would no longer be able to nominate houses of worship for historic designation status in Pittsburgh under legislation Councilman Bob O’Connor plans to introduce today.

Only the owner could seek such status, removing a significant hurdle the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and others face when they seek to close or raze a church.

Parishioners and community groups have been able to delay or thwart such closings by nominating churches for city historic status.

Once a building has been nominated, the owner cannot make significant changes to its exterior until the city’s Historic Review Commission reviews the application. If a building is designated as an historic landmark, the commission has jurisdiction over all proposed new construction, demolition and exterior work to the structure.

O’Connor’s legislation has the support of four co-sponsors: President Gene Ricciardi, James Motznik, Twanda Carlisle and Alan Hertzberg.

“I don’t think anyone has the right to put an undue burden on” the owners of houses of worship, said O’Connor, whose son is a Catholic priest and whose office has a picture of his son with the pope.

“I have always been on the side of churches,” O’Connor said. “I believe it really is a hardship on them.”

When St. Nicholas Church on the city’s North Side was designated an historic structure by City Council last year, it affected the diocese’s plans to sell the church to PennDOT ? and the transportation department’s Route 28 expansion project.

The Christian Leaders Fellowship, an organization representing 10 local bishops and denominational executives, supports the legislation, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, the Catholic Diocese spokesman who also works with the leaders fellowship.

“The position of the church is to preserve our churches,” Lengwin said. “We are absolutely for preservation, but the crux of the matter is if it comes down to maintaining the exterior of the church or providing funds to educate children in the faith or assist people with needs, we’re going to follow our ministry.”

While the proposed changes would afford religious groups a greater say over how their property is used, it also takes away public initiative to preserve historic structures for the greater good, said Cathy McCollom, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

“In preservation, the designation of a building is the only safeguard there is,” McCollom said. “Any cathedral could come down.”

O’Connor’s bill seeks to make two changes to the city code. It would define religious structures as a “church, cathedral, mosque, temple, rectory, convent or similar structure used as a place of worship.” He also would add language saying the “nomination of a religious structure (for historic status) shall only be made by the owner(s) of record of the religious structure.”

The city’s Historic Review Commission and Planning Commission will have 30 days to review the legislation and report back to City Council. O’Connor then plans to hold a public hearing on the proposal before council votes on it.

Andrew Conte can be reached at or (412) 765-2312.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. © The Tribune-Review Publishing Co

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