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Owners’ fear: Razing houses will bring down theirs too

Monday, March 10, 2008
By Diana Nelson Jones,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The estate of her dead neighbor owns the condemned vacant row house beside Cynthia Powell’s home on Chateau Street. Its facade is strenuously bowing and trying to persuade hers to come with it.

No contractor has been willing to touch the offending building, and Ms. Powell says she can’t afford the loan she needs to stabilize her house against it. So her house has been condemned, too.

This has been a three-year spiral for Ms. Powell, whose Manchester neighborhood has many pending dates with the wrecking ball. Of the 25 demolitions the city has asked the Historic Review Commission to approve since October 2006, 21 have been in that neighborhood. It’s the only entire neighborhood to have city historic designation, but that status is in danger; less and less density would eventually alter the boundary.

“Once you lose too many, then you have to question: What’s the value of an historic district?” said Tom Hardy, executive director of the Manchester Citizens Corp. The nonprofit development group counted 103 vacant properties — about 20 percent of the neighborhood — in a 2005 inventory and recommended 100 be renovated, he said. Some have been razed, either for safety reasons or because the properties were not feasible fixes, and more are slated for demolition.

“The challenge is,” said Mr. Hardy, “which ones will you be successful at turning around considering realistic market forces?”

Manchester’s story today is a tale of two neighborhoods: the one that tour buses drive through slowly so people can admire the Victorian architecture, and the other of dumb, hollow hulks, their balconies and porches sagging, the definition of their brickwork vague, as if they are literally fading away.

The dual identity coexists side by side in places, and that’s an untenable situation for Ms. Powell, whose house is a party-wall domino trying to remain standing. For Duane Hill, the decrepitude adjacent to his home on Sheffield Street is outrunning his efforts to renovate.

The Historic Review Commission provides oversight for changes to properties in the city’s 12 historic districts and advocates for the life of those properties. It almost never hears opposition to demolition applications, but last week, Ms. Powell and Mr. Hill showed up to fight.

Dan Cipriani, acting chief of the Bureau of Building Inspections, said that, of the 200 buildings the city razes each year, almost all go down without a champion. The owners either want them down or they belong to people who can’t be found or are dead.

Mr. Hill lives beside a property he had been trying to shore up when the city condemned it.

“I was working on it when one wall started to bow,” he told the commission. “I have a contractor who is going to take on the job. If I could get you some information to show you we are going to fix it, could you please not tear it down? We’re going to start working on it soon, as soon as the weather breaks.”

“We’re glad to hear that,” said the commission’s chairman, Michael Stern, referring to any plan to redeem a building. “Usually, we’re up here just voting on demolitions.”

Commissioners denied the city its demolition of Mr. Hill’s property but with a stipulation — that a building permit be in place within two months.

For Ms. Powell, the outlook isn’t as rosy.

“We were trying to tear down 1904 to help her out, so she could fix her wall,” Russ Blaich, the Bureau of Building Inspection’s demolitions inspector, told the commission. “But the contractor who got the bid was afraid the bricks would blow.”

Mr. Cipriani said the building beside Ms. Powell’s was approved for demolition last year, but the demolition contractor “found that anything he would do would have an adverse effect on Ms. Powell’s house.”

“I moved out,” Ms. Powell told the commission. “I pay my taxes like anyone else, and I am not behind on my water bill. I want to keep my house.”

“Russ thinks there’s a public safety hazard,” said Mr. Stern.

“Rock and a hard place,” Mr. Blaich said sympathetically.

“I’m not going to tear my house down,” Ms. Powell said.

“I know they have a limited budget,” said Mr. Stern, “but maybe we could try to talk to Manchester Citizens Corp. and maybe [Pittsburgh] History & Landmarks [Foundation] to see if they could help. What about if we’d ask them to consider funding or working with you on this?”

“Whatever it takes,” said Ms. Powell.

Katherine Molnar, the city’s preservation planner, said she will talk to Manchester Citizens and the foundation but is “unaware of the various options and possibilities that might assist Ms. Powell.”

“Ms. Powell did indicate a willingness to repair her own building if the neighboring structure was shored up first. I feel hopeful that these two structures will persevere,” Ms. Molnar said.

Mr. Cipriani said the lamentable fact is that a delay of demolition usually just means further debilitation. In most cases, he said, “any of this should have been done 10 years ago.”

Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at or 412-263-1626.
First published on March 10, 2008 at 12:00 am

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