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Bill would restrict who is able to nominate churches as historic

Monday, November 25, 2002

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

City Councilman Bob O’Connor plans to introduce a measure today that he says would free churches and other religious structures from some of the city’s historic preservation regulations.

His amendment to the city’s historic preservation code would allow only the owners of religious structures to nominate them as historic sites. Currently, any city resident can nominate structures for historic designation.

If a site is designated historic, plans to externally renovate or demolish it have to go before the city’s Historic Review Commission before they can be implemented.

According to O’Connor, the designation makes upkeep of historic buildings too expensive for religious groups. Plus, he doesn’t think just anyone should have nomination power over religious structures.

“I would certainly not appreciate it if someone out of the blue nominated my church simply because they felt they should,” he said in a statement. “I believe that places of worship and their symbols such as altars, stained glass windows and statues, are sacred expressions of religious faith and should be respected.”

Historic nominations now can be forwarded by the mayor; members of City Council, the Historic Review Commission and the city planning commission; building owners, and people who have lived in the city for one year or more. O’Connor’s amendment would allow only the owners of a “church, cathedral, mosque, temple, rectory, convent or similar structure used as a place of religious worship” to nominate it.

His bill will be sent to the historic review and planning commissions for comment before a public hearing is held and, finally, a City Council vote is taken. He already has four co-sponsors — council members Twanda Carlisle, Alan Hertzberg, Jim Motznik and Gene Ricciardi — meaning if a vote were taken today, it would pass.

O’Connor has been working with religious leaders for more than a year on the proposal, but today’s timing is significant: It will not come up for a vote until early next year, when City Council’s most experienced and vocal preservationist, Jim Ferlo, will be serving in the state Senate. Ferlo won election to the 38th District seat on Nov. 5.

Ferlo wandered into O’Connor’s office yesterday to complain about the measure, saying it is a “bad bill” that could stand in the way of adaptive re-uses of vacant church buildings, such as for restaurants and apartment buildings.

Referring to a battle O’Connor led years ago to keep St. Paul Cathedral outside the Oakland Historic District, Ferlo asked O’Connor if he was pushing through another “immaculate exception” for the Catholic Church. He also joked that O’Connor has a conflict of interest on church matters since his son, Terry, is a Catholic priest.

An ecumenical church group called Christian Leaders Fellowship is set to endorse O’Connor’s bill today, but the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has long led fights over historic preservation.

The diocesan spokesman, the Rev. Ron Lengwin, has said the church believes in preserving its prominent old buildings but without being forced into it by government. Designation is also a government-mandated drag on finances, he said.

“We believe to force historic designation on a houses of worship carries a real threat of requiring them to divert limited financial resources from schools and social service agencies toward much more costly maintenance of buildings,” Lengwin said.

“It is an unwarranted intrusion in their function and mission.”

Mark DeSantis, chairman of the Historic Review Commission, argued that designations actually help church coffers, not hurt them. Private organizations, such as Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, can help with renovation costs, which city government cannot, and the designations themselves are a helping hand in fund raising, he said.

“Not only has designation not been a burden, but many of [the churches] use that designation as a way of directing funding and renovation efforts toward buildings that would otherwise have trouble attracting those funds,” DeSantis said.

He said he would make the case to City Council that the measure would inappropriately treat classes of building owners differently.

“I can’t imagine there is a worse thing for a community to do than identify two classes of citizens in any community. You either make laws that apply to everyone or make laws that apply to no one. It seems to me patently unfair to other types of property owners,” he said.

DeSantis said he was unaware of O’Connor’s legislation until late last week. He said he was “very disappointed” to hear the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese had been working on the bill, saying he and other preservationists have been working with the diocese at the same time to identify churches that could benefit from historic designation.

Tim McNulty can be reached at or 412-263-1542.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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