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Historic building revision debated – Church leaders favor proposed exception

By Tom Barnes,
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 18, 2003

After battling historic preservationists for four months, city Councilman Bob O’Connor and a wide spectrum of local religious leaders are on the verge of enacting a major change in Pittsburgh’s preservation law.

O’Connor, with strong support from Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders, wants to ease the “burden” they say the historic preservation law creates for churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, rectories, convents and other religious buildings.

O’Connor’s bill — which could get both a preliminary and final vote tomorrow — says that only the “owner of record” of a religious building can nominate it for city historic status. That status, church leaders claim, can take away their control over their own property and escalate the cost of repairs or structural improvements.

Currently, a variety of city officials, as well as any Pittsburgh resident who has lived in Pittsburgh for at least a year, can nominate a religious building for historic status. Church leaders say such “outsiders” shouldn’t be able to affect the future of a religious building.

If a building’s historic nomination is approved by City Council, the structure cannot have exterior changes made and cannot be demolished without approval from the city’s Historic Review Commission.

Both the HRC and the city planning commissioners are on record opposing O’Connor’s amendment.

The two panels dispute church leaders’ claims that historic status makes it more expensive for a congregation to repair or remodel its buildings.

Church leaders and preservationists have been fighting over O’Connor’s bill since he first proposed it in November.

After clashing before the historic review panel and city planners in the past few weeks, the two sides were still at odds during a council hearing yesterday.

After the hearing, O’Connor said he is sure he still has the necessary five votes to approve the change in the preservation law.

O’Connor and colleagues Jim Motznik, Gene Ricciardi, Alan Hertzberg and Twanda Carlisle are co-sponsors of the amendment to the 24-year-old preservation law and O’Connor expects them to vote for it tomorrow.

If the bill passes, O’Connor said he expects to resign soon from council to become Gov. Ed Rendell’s chief representative for Western Pennsylvania.

“I am waiting to see this bill go through” before leaving council, O’Connor said.

If O’Connor can count votes correctly — and Motznik and Hertzberg said he can — the only remaining question about the change in the historic preservation law would be whether Mayor Tom Murphy will sign it.

Murphy has said in the past he is “sympathetic” to religious leaders’ concerns about the current historic law and the fiscal pressure it puts on them, but he hasn’t said if he will sign or veto O’Connor’s change. If he vetoes it, O’Connor would need a sixth vote to override the veto.

Religious leaders — such as the Rev. David Gleason, pastor of the First Lutheran Church on Grant Street, Downtown; the Rev. Ronald Lengwin of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh; pastors of several Catholic churches in the city; and Rabbi Alvin Berkun of Tree of Life Synagogue of Squirrel Hill — were united yesterday in favor of O’Connor’s bill.

Legal provisions for building ownership differ from faith to faith, they said, but all agreed that a nonmember of a congregation shouldn’t be able to nominate a religious structure as historic and increase a congregation’s cost for renovations. They said limited church funds should go for missions such as worshiping God and helping the poor.

Opponents of O’Connor’s bill, such as Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation President Arthur Ziegler, Preservation Pittsburgh President Sandra Brown, South Side community leader Carey Harris and Mary McDonough of Oakland, denied claims that the current law imposes unfair burdens on churches or synagogues.

They said O’Connor’s bill is creating a “special class” for religious institutions under the law. As a result, they said, the city could be sued for violating the fairness and equality provisions of state and federal constitutions.

“Why not create special exceptions for schools and banks?” Brown said. “Why not exceptions to zoning or pollution laws?”

Some critics called O’Connor’s measure “undemocratic,” saying it would take the power to nominate a building out of the hands of ordinary church members and vest it in only one, or just a handful, of church leaders, such as a bishop or board of trustees.

Critics also said that a religious building is often an important part of the architecture, history and culture of a community, and more people than just a handful of church leaders should have a voice in whether the building is preserved or demolished.

Tom Barnes can be reached at or 412-263-1548

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

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